Born: 1926 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Died: April 20, 2016 in West Allis, Wisconsin
Melvin 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, and when he returned from the 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 the printmaker, Gerhard Bakker. Tess was particularly drawn to representation of women.
While in school and even after he graduated in 1949, Tess and some of his artist friends would spend free evenings at a black jazz bar in Bronzeville called The Flame, located in at 9th and Somers. Because the quality of the life models at the school were inconsistent and, Tess stated, “a bit peasanty,” the young artists would pool their money and hire the band shakers 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 says that he was never too concerned with selling his work and “there were few outlets in Milwaukee anyway”. He would do his paintings for friends and sometimes trade other artists for their work. When Tess married and started a family, financial pressures increased. He gave up painting in the late 1950s to take a job driving a supply truck for Globe Union. He retired from Globe after 38 years.
“Tess women emerge stylistically from the American Regionalist school of the previous decade and one can easily detect hints of Grant Wood, Edward Hopper and Thomas Hart Benton in his palette and drawing style.” Debra Brehmer, Portrait Society.
When Tess passed away in 2016, the seed money for this scholarship was donated to LMA by the friends and family he left behind