Can incendiary thought-provoking art bring an end to poverty, from the dust towns of Afghanistan to the forgotten tenements of Liverpool and London’s East End? If Mel Howse has anything to do with it, the answer is yes.
A Story On Made in Britain, Poverty, Art and Ethical Fashion!
A master glass painter and Queen Elizabeth Scholar from Chichester, Howse looks spookily like a young Elizabeth I, with a halo of spun, bright orange, candy-coloured hair and translucent skin. She certainly fizzes with the kind of restless talent, energy and, at times, steely optimism and determination that turns grown men immersed in the noise and hurly burly of the factory floor into gallant accomplices. Surely nations will soon follow.
That is why curious, whirlwind, lovely Mel, in her burnished biker Timberlands and grandfather’s vintage top hat is my muse for the first Guerilla Interview & Ethical Fashion Shoot for The Ethical-Hedonist. My aim? – To champion charity and Made in Britain, which begins here with a dynamic collaboration between great, innovative, soaring art, and British manufacturing excellence. To that you can add old- and new-style journalism, and sublime, sexy, and sustainable British fashion to make you yearn to invest.
Melanie Howse is certainly on a modern crusade. For the past two months, she has rarely slept, getting up at five to spend her days spraying enamel colour with a gun and fielding wisecracks like some latter day Barbarella alongside the men on the factory floor of AJ Wells in Newport on the Isle of Wight. “Wells”, as Mel affectionately calls the company, is one of Britain’s leading vitreous enamellers, where she is firing her tactile, curvaceous sculpture in the giant kilns used to make the iconic signage for London Underground. Interestingly, they also make the Charnwood wood-burning stoves, fast becoming an eco lust-item, and winners of The Queen’s Award for Export.
Her mission? To push the boundaries with a single sheet of spun steel to create two, burnished, shimmering vessels with the ability to fire the public imagination and ignite Christian Aid’s Poverty Over campaign.
Mel didn’t hesitate for a moment when she was offered the commission, even though it meant putting more lucrative work on hold.
“Christian Aid asked me to create a sculpture that would be thought-provoking, hard-hitting, and hadn’t been done before – the fact that poverty still exists in the world is an abomination, and quite unnecessary. My piece explores those living in poverty and those who are not, and provokes the question – why does poverty still happen?”
“I am very drawn to surrealism. One of my cousins was Paul Nash, the surrealist painter and war artist. He was a quiet chap, and I am not sure he gained the recognition that he deserved. He organized the first surrealist art exhibition in London, The International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936.”
“Quite early on I made some preliminary sketches of two giant all-seeing human eyes, and knew at once that I could create something special, that would appear almost surreal. Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest,” she adds, her blue eyes twinkling intently.
“On a recent QEST (Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust) project at AJ Wells, I developed some experimental ways of working with their bespoke, enamel colours and knew they would make great ‘spiritual graffiti’. I like working in industrial environments because it allows me to achieve results I could never attain in a studio.”
“The idea for the sculpture was that one eye would have power over the other. The smaller and more conspicuous eye represents the human eye. It stares challengingly at us. This is society’s conscience. Beneath it sits a hidden, deeper bowl, which has darkness to it. When we come closer, another eye is revealed, looking up from its base. This is the eye of the poor – unseen from a distance, and lost as we walk away. This eye requires more of us to get our attention. The juxtaposition of the bowls implies that one has power over the other, but also that one vessel draws attention to the other. In essence they are the same. Poverty is staring at us and can be uncomfortable to witness.”
“The challenge, once we have witnessed it, is to act.”
The sculpture will be unveiled today by Loretta Minghella, CEO of Christian Aid, [and sister of the late film director Anthony Minghella], amid the soaring splendour and antiquity of one of London’s great landmarks, Southwark Cathedral, on London’s South bank. Accompanied by a photographic exhibition, it will be on show at Southwark Cathedral until 1st February, before a tour of English cathedrals. Details here.
Christian Aid have certainly come up with an exciting way to get the poverty message out to a world that no longer responds to rattling tins and pictures of hollow-eyed children suffering in far distant countries.
At a time of increasing economic hardship, and compassion fatigue, perhaps art is the one frontier that can still make a difference? And what better way than through the work of a visionary artist whose thoroughly modern approach to glass art and enamelling is to conjure up windows and installations that work with light and appear as if they are on fire, with flowing rivers of molten colour that appear like living streams of lava. The effect is mesmerizing, exciting and strangely enticing, in such a cold, rainy place as Britain.
Whether it is the shopper’s catwalk-cum-art facade at Sainsbury’s supermarket in Milton Keynes that Mel has cheekily christened ‘a cathedral of commerce’, or an ancient church, the effect is startling, and akin to a warm glow on a summer’s day. By creating this reaction, Mel is helping to changing our response to the mundane, the everyday, and the ancient, and helping to transform them into exciting focal points for communities – and that is inspiring.
Mel is pretty inspiring company herself. She is constantly excited about our fashion shoot featuring some of the brightest stars of British fashion, to the point where it is hard to contain her, or her boundless energy, or to keep her still in the makeup chair for an instant! At one point she declares she wants to take Carlos – our clever, dapper, makeup maestro – home in her handbag, and then she talks of her reaction to the extraordinary ideas and workmanship of each fashion designer’s work. She is impressed too, that each piece is handmade, and declares that it makes her want to start sewing again, and make her own clothes.
“Of course that’s the artist in me speaking. The pieces feel very special.” With her height, lithe body and fizzing personality she easily carries off Tammam’s ritzy, sharply tailored trench, partnered with Beyond Skin’s fabulously modish red patterned pumps. “So comfortable,” she purrs. Finally, in a moment of feminine abandon, she wonders if she shouldn’t splash out on the sea green, goddess silk sheath by one of Angelina Jolie’s favourite designers, Elena Garcia, which, with her flowing red hair, makes her look like a Botticelli nymph.
“My husband will absolutely kill me – I’ve promised not to spend money on clothes at the moment; but I may not be able to help myself,” she says giggling.
On a more serious note, for Mel, the project with Christian Aid, and this feature, is the culmination of an eight year artistic relationship with AJ Wells, nurtured by Ced Wells, the quiet and modest Creative Director, and grandson of the founder of the company. Ced understands how art and manufacturing can come together in a way where everyone benefits, from the artist to the factory, who can show how what is essentially a rather unsexy industrial process can be used in the most imaginative way to ignite the public imagination, champion art and innovation, and maybe, just maybe, be a catalyst to end poverty.
“Mel brings a new dynamic into the working factory environment. She throws the enamelling rulebook out of the window, as she pushes boundaries and experiments with every stage of the process from the colour mixing, to the spraying, to the firing. The marriage of commercial enamelling with creative, experimental art is an incredibly inspiring mix, and as a British manufacturer it keeps us fresh, motivated and on the edge our seats.”
In the meantime, Mel has more down to earth concerns. “Goodness knows what it will be like when I turn up for work at the factory tomorrow morning to finish firing the bowls. The boys will be talking about the shoot and what we’ve been up for days” she says, laughing with delight.
Feature and Fashion Story Conceived By Journalist Alison Jane Reid © Alison Jane Reid 2011/ Updated April 2016
Download this feature as a high resolution print-quality PDF with additional material here
Fashion Feature Credits
Editor and Stylist : Alison Jane Reid
Photographer : Mike Owen www.mikeowenphotography.com
Hair and Makeup : Carlos Palma www.carlospalma.com
Editor’s Assistant : Kathrine Clayton
The Clothes from hot British designers who have sustainability built into their DNA
Elena Garcia www.elenagarciastudio.com
Lu Flux www.luflux.com Lu Flux dungarees will be available in February from Labour of Love, 193 Upper Street, Islington, London N1 1RQ www.labour-of-love.co.uk
Beyond Skin http://www.beyondskin.co.uk/
Dragonfly : 80-81, Upper St James’ Street, Newport, Isle of Wight PO30 1LG 01983 523278 http://www.spiritualsupermarket.com/
Island Antiques : 11 High Street, Ryde, Isle of Wight PO33 2RJ 01983 615025
Help The Aged : Crane Street, Chichester, West Sussex PO19 1LL 01243 536174 www.helptheaged.org.uk
Thank You to Ced Wells and Mel Howse for believing in my vision for this feature and for their wonderful enthusiasm. Location: The vitreous enamel workshop, and Charnwood studio at AJ Wells & Sons, Newport, Isle of Wight www.ajwells.com Travel to the Isle of Wight arranged by Red Funnel www.redfunnel.co.uk Design and PDF by Kerboing!
And… a behind the scenes glimpse of the fashion shoot by Ced Wells, posted on YouTube