BORN: 1926, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
DIED: April 20, 2016 West Allis, Wisconsin
Mel Tess was born in Milwaukee to a gas station owner and a homemaker. He received his first painting lessons as a high school graduation gift from his mother.
When World War II began, he enlisted in the Army. When he returned from service, the GI Bill made it possible for Tess to enroll in Milwaukee’s Layton School of Art. There he studied under Edmund Lewandowski, Gerrit V. Sinclair and printmaker, Gerhard Bakker. He graduated Layton in 1949.
Tess was particularly drawn to representation of women - so much that he and some of his artist friends would frequent evenings at a black jazz bar in Bronzeville called The Flame (located in at 9th and Somers). Tess said the quality of life models at the school were "inconsistent and a bit peasanty”. The young artists would pool their money and hire the band followers or dancers as models.
The artists also frequented The Empress, a burlesque house in Milwaukee, another source of models. While Tess’s paintings feature poised women with long legs, slim waists, like the traditional Betty Grable or Gibson Girl pin-ups that inspired them, he is most specific about their faces. The female forms are types, but he took time to paint each face with considerable detail.
“Tess women emerge stylistically from the American Regiona...