Hailing from the New Jersey countryside, Chicago-based artist Hartley Mellick creates black-and-white worlds strictly by hand, identifiable by the subtle (and sometimes, not-so) inclusion of the female form. She studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago pursuing printmaking, and has recently worked her way to experimenting with graphic design.
Her keen eye for aesthetically pleasing landscapes and architecture reveals itself in her drawings, the “Houses” series as the most obvious example, exploring the complicated relationship between structure and nature. While simple and charming in delivery, Mellick is carefully detailed with each creation to depict engaging figures and landscapes.
I spoke with Mellick about her courageous foray into the world of color, her father’s suppressed appetite for a cowboy lifestyle, and her admiration of the female body.
MS: When did you start drawing? Or, when did you dive into art and decide that is what you wanted to do?
HM: I honestly grew up with it. My mom is a landscape architect but she kind of fell into that, too. She was a housewife, a mom, for the first half of my life. Then she started planning people’s gardens. She always has been a very creative person. My grandma and great grandmother, they were painters. My older sister is an artist as well. So, it felt natural. I never knew when I wanted to be an artist, but I knew that it was always what I would like to do.
I’ve always been aesthetically-drawn. My mom will tell this story: when I was 12 years old, I went to camp for a summer and we went on a canoe trip. In a letter that I wrote to her– it was this exciting canoe trip, and it was all about canoeing through rapids and camping– but I was talking about the pretty old houses that we had passed along the way. I was more focused on the architecture and the aesthetics more than the adventure.
MS: While viewing your portfolio, I noticed a difference in your prints and your design work. You’re consistently very detailed, though I noticed that your design work is more bright and fun, while your drawings are darker and more dramatic. Any reason for that difference?
HM: I was just having this conversation earlier today. I think that it’s growth. For me, color has always been kind of scary. I like the elements of black-and-white drawings, I think that they do have this darkness to them and I like that it adds this element of strain … it’s a little bit heavier.
You see that in my more recent stuff, playing with color and shapes, and I think that’s been more experimental. And I think it’s important to experiment with color, because it is scary. You can talk to a million artists. There are classes on color theory, how to develop color, when to use it, why to use it. It’s a big deal, and that’s been a big step for me: realizing that I can use color and should use color. I’m still working on it, and who knows where it’s going to go.
MS: I think there’s some freedom in having both and using both.
HM: Yeah! With black-and-white you’re asking the viewers to look at the image because color can be distracting and it can give you a feeling. If you’re using yellows and blues, they’re going to be happier. Black-and-white is very neutral, so you are forced to just look at the image, so I think that’s pretty cool. It’s fun. And line, I’ve used line in a lot of my drawings, it’s simple. And I like the simplicity.
MS: What inspired the “Lonely Cowboy” series?
HM: It comes from a couple things. So my dad, he’s a funny guy. He’s this outdoorsman. He fly-fishes, he likes being out in the country. He kind of, I think, has this secret fantasy of being a cowboy. He has this really nice cowboy hat. For Halloween he wears bearskin chaps and his cowboy boots, and you know, he thinks that it’s this funny thing but deep down I think it’s something he really wants. And so cowboys have been a part of my life.
I started working on it, probably two years ago, and I was really struggling [laughs] with men. Honestly, I was kind of almost – not disgusted, that’s really harsh – I was just uncomfortable with the idea that men think very sexually and I think very emotionally. So that’s where “Lonely Cowboy” in his settings he’s this lonely cowboy on this journey, and what he’s thinking about is women. He’s thinking about– there’s butts and breasts in the trees in the background – and that’s what’s on his mind. He’s on this profound journey, yet that’s what he’s thinking about. And to me that just feels so shallow and strange.
MS: Your work seamlessly incorporates the female body, whether directly or indirectly. I’m interested to know where that comes from.
I grew up with three sisters, they’re my best friends in the world. Just seeing them struggle with themselves, it really haunts me. A lot of women are very conscious of themselves, and I just think the female form is so beautiful.
There’s so much about it that looks really good in a line drawing: it’s curvy, and female bodies bend in ways that male bodies don’t. They feel like they’re malleable. They’re soft and lush. They feel like art to me. They’re just beautiful. I like playing with their form. In a lot of my drawings, they’re bending over backwards and they’re tangled and it feels like they can kind of do anything [laughs].
MS: What do you listen to while you draw?
HM: I’m a huge classic country fan, like Waylon Jennings. I also grew up as a huge Beatles fan. I just watched that HBO documentary on George Harrison and it was awesome, so I was listening to All Things Must Pass for a little bit.
View more of Hartley’s work here.
Correction Nov. 19, 2015
The article originally stated Mellick graduated from School of Art Institute of Chicago, Mellick did not graduate she studied there.