Thursday, March 22, 2012

David Scott-Melville, From Africa to Taos: “Searching for Myself” (1983)

There are several David Scott-Melvilles.  One is a sociable Santa Fe interior decorator who attends the swankiest and most exclusive parties.  He paints bright and decorative furniture which is sold by Southwest Spanish Craftsmen in Santa Fe, and murals for his friends and acquaintances amid the City Different’s café society of displaced kings, baronesses and cattle barons.
Another Scott-Melville is a virtual hermit artist who lives in Taos and does paintings and drawings of strange, mythological figures that spring from a deep and perhaps troubled place that seems quite removed from the party tents and drawing rooms of Santa Fe.
There may be a third, the Scott-Melville who restores old Spanish paintings on alter pieces in Northern New Mexico churches.  The alter restorations (he has collaborated with Alan Vedder on the Rosario Chapel in Santa Fe and on the Santa Cruz Church in Española) are accurately and skillfully rendered.  They serve, I suspect, as a public religious expression that Scott-Melville more fully – and paganly – reveals in his own art, which he is reluctant to put on public display.
            Scott-Melville has an aristocratic flair to him, and, indeed, some generations ago, there was a title in his family (his great-grandfather was an advisor to Queen Victoria).  “The whole family was English and semi-aristocratic,” he told me one snowy afternoon recently as we sat before the fire in his rented Taos home which boasts a fabulous view of the Taos Valley.  “They thought themselves as very much better than they were.”  But aristocracy is a matter of “good breeding” as much as anything else, and Scott-Melville has that.  It shows in his easy, graceful manners, his quick nervous laugh, and the somewhat sad, perhaps even tragic edge he shares with so many wanderers.
He was born and raised in Zambia in southcentral Africa, a fact that, upon first hearing, seemed strange.  But as he talked, the pieces of the puzzle that is David Scott-Melville began to fall into place.  The social-hermit-decorator-artist began to coalesce, and it became apparent why, after traveling the world in search of life and love, he finally settled in Taos.

Where should we start?

Well, let’s start at the beginning.  I want to know about Africa.
Africa – such a fabulously beautiful continent.  Ummm .  . . I was raised in Zambia, in southcentral Africa.  And I never really had much to do with people.  I think I was always very much a loner.  There were very few white children for me to play with so my friends were black.  I was sent to boarding school when I was 11, mainly because I wouldn’t speak English with my parents, neither would I wear clothes (laughter).

What was the language?
Chenanja.  (He rattled off a sentence in a language that sounded like dialogue from an old Tarzan movie.)  It was never a written language.  It’s a form of Zulu, a dialect.  Of course I had to wear clothes when I was in the house, but when I wasn’t, I didn’t.  I spent my time with the trees, and plants, and animals, and then was sent to a British military boarding school in Cape Town, South Africa, which was no pleasure at all.  The other extreme from being completely free.  They tried to teach me manners, I guess.  I finished school, but I hated it, and I was the worst student that the school ever produced.  Music was my love at the time.  I played cello and piano, and all my personal energies went into music.

How to you manage to say, to keep from getting kicked out?
Because I never ran away, and I don’t know why, although I did have 3,000 miles to run if I ran – that’s how far away home was.

So you weren’t a rebellious sort, you didn’t actively fight it?
I actively fought it by being the worst student in the school.

What did your family do in Zambia?
Mining and tobacco.  I was raised on a plantation, and my father was involved with mining, a company called the Rhodesian Selection Trust.  He was one of the original founders.

Are your parents still in Africa?
No.  I . . . they . . . well, they died a long time ago.  (Long pause) Zambia became independent in ’65, and there were a lot of problems, political problems, uprisings, so I don’t even think about what happened in Africa.  (Melville’s parents and two sisters were killed during the Zambian war for independence.)  With the uprisings, I was living in Europe, and I had two options.  One was to go back and be a fighter, for no cause, and the other was to forget about it.

Fight on which side?
Exactly.  I would have to fight for my people . . . I’m white.  But why would I be fighting blacks?  They were my friends.  I lost my family.  That’s why I’m just kind of going around it.  So the option was to close the book completely, and to start a new life.  I wanted to explore the world, and so I did.  I have.

When did you leave Africa?
Originally in ’59.

How old were you?
Twenty.  I went to Europe for a three month holiday.  I was going to go to a university after that, to study mining engineering, and the three months went into two and a half years.  I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t stay anywhere, because I knew there was much to see.  From Paris, to Athens, and to the Arctic, Lapland . . . There was a check from Africa every month.  This was before independence.  I was very fortunate not having a financial problem at all.  After two and a half years, I thought I had seen enough of Europe, and I wanted to see Zambia again.  So I repented for my sins and went back to Zambia.  I arrived in Zambia, and I managed to last ten days, which was hard.  I put a kit bag on my back and a sleeping bag, and just walked out, traveling north.  I didn’t want to fly back to Europe.  This was in ’63, and I could feel the tensions building, which the people living there didn’t quite understand . . .

You’d been away long enough . . .
Yes, and so I decided to follow my nose and to go wherever it took me.  It took me two and a half years to cross Africa.  I had an . . . a very revealing time.  Looking back on it, I started life in the Stone Age with tribes, walked up to Ethiopia, the days of Christ, and back to Europe, still with history, and still sort of bound by history.  When I landed in New York City, I knew I’d suddenly found the New World.  I’d entered the 20th century.  The horizons were mine, I could do whatever I wanted to, and I realized we  can all be whoever we want to be.  But we have to face the consequences (small enigmatic laugh).

You walked from Zambia to . . .?
Yeah, I vowed not to take any public transport, and I didn’t in Africa.  I traveled with missionaries, traders, hunters.  Um . . . I didn’t want to travel as we were raised, to buy a ticket from A to B and go like a tourist.

Were you consciously looking for something?
I was consciously looking for myself, and I didn’t know who that was.  I was consciously looking for somewhere where I would be comfortable, somewhere I could stay, a nest.

Were you frightened often?
I was frightened all the time, but I was curious enough that the curiosity overcame the fear.  It was an adventure.  And I had no goal whatsoever, other than to see people and to explore.  It wasn’t until New Mexico that I felt I found a nest, a home, and there was something here that I was very excited about when I arrived.  And then I found art.  I had left music, I had done a lot of things, and I guess I’m curious.

The idea of the trek, the quest, reminds me of the Eastern pilgrimage in the Himalayas, those times when a person goes off for a particular purpose – to give thanks, because your mother is sick, whatever.  You go off on a long, arduous trek to certain shrines.  Tied up in that seems to be a kind of penance.  Was there any aspect of that in your travels?
Possibly.  Possibly I was suffering for a lot of the things I saw in Africa.  Not consciously, but I was horrified when I went back and . . . One of my favorite spots was a blind lake, beautiful trees and water lilies, wonderful birds, and if I sat up in the trees, I could see everything that came down to drink, elephants, giraffes, and I could sit there quietly and they weren’t conscious of me up there.  And then I went back, all the trees had been cut down, and my lake was dead.  The forests were dying.  The rivers were filthy dirty because of all the construction, because of everything that was happening.  I felt death all around me, for the beautiful land, for the people, too.  I was conscious of the fact that when I left Africa, I was never going back again, so I wanted to see it, I wanted to understand it better.  Also, I knew I wanted to move away slowly.  I wanted to follow a thought, like the migrations.  I just didn’t know where I was going to go.  I was trying to get to the East, actually, trying to get to India, but something always turned me back.  I came here from Sicily where I’d been living.  Is the thing on?  (Referring to the tape recorder).

Yes, why?  Do you want it off?
No, I’ve just suddenly run out of words . . . (Pause) Since I moved to New Mexico,  my vocabulary has gone completely to . . . I haven’t been able to read here at all, which is interesting, because I’ve wanted to experience, maybe.  I’ve can’t even go to the movies here.  Maybe I’ve become very possessive of my own train of thought, and I don’t want any interruptions in it.

Did you have a rigid religious upbringing?
No.  My father was an atheist, my mother . . . of course the only thing for the poor woman to do was to try and run a church.  She was a musician and an artist, and a very good artist, married my father who took her back to the jungles of Africa, which her family never forgave the Melvilles for.  So in the Angelican church my mother played the organ, ran the church, and it was her interest.  My father despised it.  I was sent to a non-religious school, which of course made me fairly religious.  My life there was dominated by my mother’s sister, who . . . my mother’s family was wonderfully eccentric, all of them.  I was given subjects, from one Sunday to the next, for luncheon conversation.  I had to study a subject and we always went to wonderful places for Sunday lunches.  I think she was trying to make a gentleman out of me, and I was straight out of the jungles.

How so were they eccentric?
My aunt in Kenya is a botanist who has traveled the world and done all sorts of wonderful things.  She’s discovered the disease in the bananas in Jamaica and had won the Order of the British Empire.  She went to Zanzibar where she discovered some other wonderful disease in cloves for the Sultan of Zanzibar.  She spent a lot of time with the Sultan who gave her the most beautiful jewels.  She’s built a beautiful home in Nairobi.  The doors and an alabaster staircase were from the Sultan’s palace. She’d built a fireplace and the rubies were too complicated to take out of the jade rock, so the whole fireplace was jade studded with rubies.  She loved cats.  She built the house on the property because of a great cave in which she kept her cheetahs.  Another aunt was a complete and utter snob.  The whole family was English and semi-aristocratic and thought of themselves as very much better than what they were.  My mother was a Roberts, and my grandfather was an advisor to Victoria.  He came back to Africa and bought a beautiful farm in the mountains only because of the trout stream, and he stayed there very much by himself and caught his trout.

How about before you went to boarding school?
Life was a great long adventure in the jungle.  There were always wonderful things happening, like meeting a lion one night, walking home.  It was coming down the path, and I was walking up, and we both saw each other at the same time, and both knew enough to keep our cool, because we were both alone and confronted.  Lots of times, confrontations . . . I carried on up the path, the lion carried on down the path, and we both went off the path on opposite sides, and were both humming a little tune (laughter), and we  went by each other and got on the path again.  I started running, and at the same time, as I looked around, the lion started running, and both of us were looking back while running away (hysterical laughter) . . . this cloud of dust (more laughter).  On should never confront, and that’s another thing with people.  You’ve got to meet them quietly, and if you’re accepted, that’s fine.  Then you say, how do you do? But the lion did not want to say how do you do to me.  And ignorance is a wonderful thing in the jungle.  One should never be afraid.  If you’re being followed, you should never admit to being followed, but you’re aware of . . .sort of a demonstration of strength, with a big stick, maybe.  Beat up a tree, or roar, or growl.

How did you happen to get to Santa Fe?
I hate to think . . . It was about ’69.  I came to New York to help people I’d met in Sicily sail a boat from Boston to Fort Lauderdale, did that, and then Howard Hook, who was involved with the Met, was coming out there for the opera, so I came to Santa Fe for the opera., and then I went on to do a ten day river trip through the Grand Canyon, but was just captivated by New Mexico.  There was a whole series of events that just fit every slot.  I became interested in a travel agency in Santa Fe, and I still had some money.  With the agency, I was able to have a home, but I was also able to satisfy my lust for travel.  And so I did, and took people all over the world, places I never would have gone to by myself – Russia, the Orient.  I was able to settle down slowly, my engines were able to cool, and in the meantime, I discovered art.  From this house, I had a lot of commissions.

The house of yours that you did in Santa Fe?
Yeah.  Painting murals and furniture, the commissions became more complex, and suddenly I was known as an artist, and I wasn’t.  I painted furniture.  I did a big commission in Exeter, New Hampshire.  I went to marbleize a staircase, and when I got there, they wanted me to do a mural which was vast, 20 or 30 feet high, up the curve of a staircase.  When I looked at the blank wall, I didn’t know what to do with it.  But they paid my expenses to get there, and I had a suspicion they were part of the Mafia, and so if I ran away (laughing) they would chase me.  So I said yes, I would paint the mural.
            The house was Victorian, they collected Oriental art and early American, and so they wanted a mural that combined those two things.  At this stage, I had not painted a picture.  I had not drawn a picture.  I prayed to every god I could, got every book out of the library, and decided – I guess my quest has been to overcome and understand in life.  I painted the mural, and it was magnificent.  I went straight from there to a ranch in Texas to paint all the wildlife from the ranch on headboards in the guest houses.  Then I came back to New Mexico, moved out of Santa Fe to Embudo where I just had to figure out what art was.  There was so much to understand.  And I’ve learned a lot (self-depreciating laugh), and understand nothing!  There’s a commercial aspect that I can’t cope with.  With Maggie’s first show (Maggie Kress Gallery in Taos in 1978), suddenly seeing my work hanging on the walls, with all of my private thoughts, and it was like a mental abortion.  After that, the things that sold, I tried to concentrate on those particular themes as salable items, and nothing salable came out of them because it wasn’t truthful, it wasn’t honest.  Now my tables are a commercial item.  They sell them as art, which is nice, but my personal work, I don’t know if I should be showing it or not.  I had a show in Fort Worth (October, 1982) – my first out-of-town gallery.  It was with Ron Cooper and Larry (Bell), Ken Price, Harold Joe Waldrum, Kevin Cannon.  It was exciting, going into a gallery in a new town, a very serious gallery, and see your work hanging with theirs . . . Nice.  I was surprised to see that my little drawings held up.  Someone in Santa Fe has a drawing of mine hanging between a Tolouse-Lautrec and a Picasso, and mine looks damn good.

Tell me about Santa Fe.
What a strange town.  When I arrived there, I felt like it was an elephant’s graveyard.  Not only the old, but the young, too.  Everyone has far too much money.  It was the group of people I was with.  Incredible negative outlook on life.  That was why the travel agency was so great, because I could create these exciting things for everybody.  It was wonderful going to Katmandu, arranging parties on the Cote d’Azur, and that’s what people wanted to do.  We built that ridiculous house and had fantasy parties with a string orchestra by the pool, a band in the house, folk music down at the play house.  It’s since been sold to John Connally, ex-governor of Texas.  But it started my interest in art.  If it hadn’t been for Santa Fe, I don’t know if I ever would have found it.  I still spend a lot of time down there.

Without getting into names, the amount of money people spend, and have undoubtedly paid you, to decorate . . .
Yes, though I often find that people are embarrassed to pay me, and that is very stupid, something they’re going to have to overcome. I used to do jobs in Santa Fe, and they would give me a beautiful present, a watch, or a beautiful ring, or take me to Paris for the weekend, but they would never pay me.  That was at the travel agency, but now that I’m an artist, I still feel that same thing but I need cash, hard cash, and I have to make a point of . . . Also, when I lived in Santa Fe, I wasn’t an artist, and maybe people still remember me as sort of a playboy who gave good parties, and I gave damn good parties.

But in terms of decorating, and what they want you to do, why do they go to the extremes?
I don’t know, but I do know that’s all they have.  They’re going to build a beautiful home, a nest, and what can they do beyond that . . . Is that on?

Oh, then I won’t mention names.  There’s one enormous house, and the detail they’ve put into it is never ending.  The time and energy they put into discussing every item that I paint for them – maybe 25 telephone calls for two wall sconces.  They know what they want, and it has to be the way they want it, and it has to be there, and it has to be just that.  The different ideas are quite incredible in what people think they want – we use the word chic.  What is going to be chic for this house, is certainly not chic for another house.  People will rave about this item, and others will hate it, and I paint them, but really don’t want to sign them, and don’t want others to know that I painted them.  But as long as the client is happy, I’m delighted.

You do seem to move easily through the Santa Fe social set.
I like it.  What I find that the very wealthy people I know are better at is that they don’t have the horrible problem of having to survive, financially.  They build a life beyond those financial stresses.  Which I enjoy.  I can’t stand having to survive.  I think it’s a real bore.

Then what’s the negative aspect of it?
I feel sorry for people who haven’t found something.  Now I’m patting myself on the back and crying at the same time, saying I wish it was something else, but I know on my deathbed I’ll be drawing my thoughts.  In that respect, I feel I’ve finally found a dedication, and hopefully the dedication will allow me to survive financially.

What was the party like with the prince?  (A party, attended by Melville, which was given in Santa Fe last October by Baroness Alexandra Diergart for Prince Charles.)  Did he show up at the Baroness’s party?  I’ve heard conflicting reports.  Women’s Wear Daily had an article about all the people in Santa Fe who were throwing parties for Prince Charles, and how upset they were when he didn’t show up.

Everyone came to her party.  It was quite extraordinary.  A_____  is a very interesting person.  He lives in Española, I don’t know how old he is, maybe 26, and he is very high up the ladder for being King of Spain.  He has access to one of the great fortunes.  He was one of the hosts, and Alexandra was one of the hosts.  I had finished the mural for her home, and I was invited to all the parties which was great.  The one at the Compound the night before, I took J__________.  Living out in the country, it was great to get all dressed up and go to the Compound in black tie and having all the newspapers in the country at the door going flash, flash, flash.  And it was fun walking in with J__________ who is an extraordinarily beautiful woman.  There were place card settings, and the entire world was there, Cary Grant, and Merv Griffin, and Abby.  Literally everybody who was of note was at that party.  The next day, all those people didn’t go to the other parties, but they went to Alexandra’s, which was a fabulous splash.  A great tent in the front lawn in pink and white, pink and white balloons everywhere, no expense spared.  The flowers were extraordinarily beautiful, flowing from fabulous places, and Sufi dancers.  This was the first party.  The last party was all yellow and white.  It was quite beautiful, and everybody went into the bathroom to see my mural, which was wonderful.  Verbally I got a lot of jobs out of it I should follow up on – a penthouse in the Carlisle in New York.  I would like to do that.  And Armand Hammer.  And then we went to the Regency in Albuquerque for the ball, and to meet Prince Charles was quite extraordinary.  Nowhere else in the world could you meet Prince Charles, and there he was shaking hands with everybody.  Extraordinary.  All of Santa Fe was there, all of Texas flew in in their special planes.  The security was very intense, and when I arrived – I arrived with the Duke and Duchess of Bedford, and we had to present our cards for our place settings, and the Duke of Bedford said to the little girl sitting behind the desk, “I am the Duke of Bedford.”  And she said, looking through her list of invited guests, “Would you be under D or B?”  And the Duke said, “I suggest you look under B, madame.”  (Laughter.)

 (Pause) A lot of work you’ve been doing, the drawings in particular, have a pagan flair, and there’s the sense that they come out of some personal mythology.  The figure of the satyr, in particular . . .
They’re sky spirits, guardians of horses, creators of clouds and rainbows.  I started doing drawings of the figures within a castle, and gradually I came to the conclusion that the castle was the inner soul.  I went outside the walls, the soul, looking for a reason for life, and the New Mexico sky dominated my thoughts.  The clouds, the rainbow . . . Why should they not have guardians, creators?  An artist must have a project and a goal.  If you’re drawing from your fantasies, you must have a theme.

What’s yours?
The main quest, searching, has been to find out about creation and life itself.  Searching for my soul.

And what have you found?
I’ve explored people and lands and New Mexico, and art has given me a chance to explore myself, and I’ve had lots of fun doing it.  I haven’t found any conclusions.  The more one explores, the more one finds ignorance.  But you do find understanding, and it’s a great challenge to create something that’s never been created before.

Does anything come out of the work that frightens you?
To begin with, the demons in one’s soul.  Then there are a lot of dark corners I didn’t know existed.  Oftentimes I get very excited about drawings, and I don’t know what they mean.  Maybe they’re predictions, maybe I’m only here to serve myself.  I find myself alone a lot, which is a frightening thought.  I haven’t been able to find a true partner, and I’ve searched many, many countries.  I’ve loved passionately, and given everything I thought possible to give, and I could never find a dedication in that.  I haven’t found any truth except possibly in one’s self.  Possibly to achieve one’s ultimate goal in a lifetime could be a tragedy, but we must always have the curiosity of looking one step further.

Africa was wild and dark, there was great tragedy in your family.  Could that be reflected in your work?
Not consciously, certainly.  Walking through history, as I did, into 20th century America, I saw our own historical backgrounds as being only one dimension.  I’m keeping myself amused by drawing, but I have to say it’s more than that.  I have to do it.  I am doing something like the ants do in the summers.  Taos is like that.  It’s an amazing place.  It’s a lesson.  Taos is the largest bus terminal in the universe.  A lot of the people here are waiting for their bus, and you must keep yourself amused until your bus comes in.  It’s the most positive and negative place I’ve ever been.  Here, you are on a tightrope, and it’s easy to fall one way or the other, be constructive or deconstructive while one is waiting.  Will one play chess, read, smoke weed, draw?  Wasting time can be the biggest sin, or it can be a privilege. 

(That seemed like a good stopping place.  I thanked Scott-Melville, we talked briefly about how the interview might be illustrated, and I started for the door.  We exchanged goodbyes, and Scott-Melville suddenly said, “Have I told you about my dream?”)

“I had this dream just before I stared drawing, just before I left Santa Fe.  I was in a cave, and a voice told me I should go through a door on the left, and there I would meet a creature that would lead me to my guide.  I went in, and there was a serpent, and so I went back out to the center of the cave.  I was sent back though the door, and there was a squirrel, and I asked it to lead me to my guide.  Then it led me into a gray world, no life, a gray basin, but there was a path though the great gray boulders.  Then, down below, this Don Quixote figure came around from behind a rock.  It had a sword, and the canvas between the sheathing of his armor was rotted.  I skirted him, and went on down the path into a valley.  Then, on a rock below me, I saw the most beautiful person I’d ever seen.  I ran as fast as I could, and we embraced.  I asked him his name, and he said, “David.”  He said he was me.  Then I heard a noise, and it was a monster coming toward us.  I said, “We’ve got to run!”  But he forced me to stand my ground and challenge it, and as soon as I did, it crumbled.
“On down in the valley were green fields, and a church with a red roof and people working.  The trail went through fields, up the valley on the other side.  I heard a bell, and I didn’t want to leave, but I knew I had to.  On the way back, again I was confronted by the knight in armor.  This time he was carrying a shepherd’s crook.  I didn’t have to ask who he was – I knew he was Death and had to be avoided.  I went back to the cave, and when I woke up, I knew my life had changed.  Before, I had always searched for myself in the eyes of others.”

Stephen Parks, April, 1983

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