If your children or grandchildren want to play in the mud, let them. After all, that’s how sculptor and teacher Babs Mellor started.
At the age of six, she was thrilled that her father dug ditches for irrigation pipes. “There was all that wonderful ooey-gooey mud, really like clay, and I spent hours making things,” she said. Her first pieces were cowboys, Indians and covered wagons.
Last month, Mellor received the Arts Educator Recognition Award from the Arts Council, which paid tribute to her 47 years of teaching sculpting.
“I was so surprised, pleased and honored,” Mellor said. “I didn’t know they even knew my name. But really, all you have to do is live long enough and you get awards.”
You could spend a lot of hours in her rambling ranch home and attached studio and not see all the pieces she’s created or collected in travels.
One that holds special meaning is of a World War II veteran from Italy, which Mellor made while in that country. “He was wonderful. He told us how he was starving (during the war) and ate straw to stay alive and how his feet were frozen.” And because he said the children in his village didn’t believe his stories, Babs added two children to the piece who appear to be listening intently to the man. She based them on a photo of her grandchildren.
Mellor started teaching at the Art Association, continuing when it became The Center for the Arts and then Mark Arts. She had to be persuaded by her mother to give it a try.
“I knew I could sculpt, but I didn’t know if I could teach. I said I’d try it for one semester,” she said.
Mark Arts CEO Katy Dorrah describes Babs Mellor as “an institution.” That makes sense when you consider Mellor taught two classes a day — one in the morning and one in the afternoon — with 20 students in each for nearly five decades.
Mellor’s influence went beyond the studio, Dorrah said. “She organized social gatherings for them. They all loved being in her class and really got to know each other.”
When her husband, Phil, was alive, they often hosted cookouts in the family’s backyard, with her students bringing their families as well. “It was so fun. They became wonderful friends,” she said.
She also took students to Loveland, Colo., known for bronze foundries that cast art pieces.
In her studio is a life-size statue of Mellor that her students sculpted for her. “Look, they even have my rings because I wear them every day,” she said.
One bit of wisdom that Mellor shares with students is a saying: “Sio Ancora Imparo.”
“That’s what Michelangelo said when he was 87 years old,” she said. It means ‘I’m still learning.’
“I’ve studied with 10 famous teachers and I have loved sharing what I learned with my students.
“And I feel blessed that I can create. You can’t be in a bad mood if you’re creating,” she said.
Now Mellor is retired from teaching, but certainly not from sculpting. “I miss my students. This is the first time I’ve had so much free time.
“But I’m doing portraits. Three so far, and I’m working on a fourth, and I have my bridge group and I’m having people over for chili on Halloween as I usually do,” she said.
Mellor’s work can be found around Wichita and beyond. One of her best known pieces is a life-size sculpture of famous prohibitionist Carrie Nation that stands out the Eaton Hotel building, where Nation famously vandalized a saloon.
Does Mellor have a favorite piece? She mentions a bust of Charlie Daniels that she presented to the musician, but her favorite pieces are those of her family. She sculpted her granddaughter when she was two, and when the piece was finished, the toddler looked at it and said, “That’s me! And I have on my pretty dress!” Mellor said, “That is such a sweet memory.”