University of Delaware
Office of Public Relations
The Messenger
Vol. 5, No. 2/1996
Abstractions on paper

     Sema Ohanian Mellian, Delaware '82, recalls drawing
constantly as a child, but she had to wait many years before she
could make art her career.
     Growing up in an Armenian family of seven in a two-bedroom
house in Manhattan, she lacked support to pursue her art. Her
parents felt there were enough starving artists in the world
already and there was little money for art supplies. "But, I
always had the love of art. I could sit and draw all day and
never be bored," she remembers.
     Now a prolific artist in her 50s, specializing in handmade
paper collages, lithography and pastel, Mellian is gaining
renown. Her work has been shown at the Art Institute of Chicago,
the Delaware Art Museum and countless regional galleries, and
five pieces were bought for the ICI Americas corporate
headquarters.  Mellian's pieces have been accepted in many juried
shows, yet she continues to be surprised and delighted when she
wins an award.
     In high school, Mellian concentrated on costume design and
illustration, and made signs for her father's tailoring business.
After graduation, she worked at a pulp and paper company and
attended Hunter College part-time. She continued to sketch and
paint in her spare time while her two children, Mark and
Elizabeth, were growing up and after the family moved to Delaware
about 25 years ago. Finally, in 1975, she enrolled at Delaware,
taking art classes that would lead to a degree in fine arts with
a minor in art history.
     She threw herself into her schoolwork. "If I was told I
needed to make five prints, I would make seven or 10," she
laughs. "I wanted to get everything I could out of my courses."
     Being around the younger generation at college was an eye-
opening experience for Mellian. She became a "mother image" in
the art department, and, she says, listening to students half her
age helped her understand her own children's frustrations. In
fact, she and her son, who majored in civil engineering,
graduated a day apart.
     It was on a field trip to a print show in New York that
Mellian decided she wanted to be a printmaker, and, over time,
she has developed her own methods and techniques, working in a
large, well-lighted basement studio in her home on the outskirts
of Newark, Del. Some pieces start out as prints of her husband's
photographs, while others begin as monoprints ("one time through
the printer"). She creates a multi-layered effect by adding
scraps of plain or printed handmade paper, then touching up with
pastel crayons. Continually experimenting with new materials, she
recently started a lace series in which lacy images are printed
on both the background and the handmade paper.
     One of Mellian's distinctive techniques is her use of
handmade paper. She starts by tearing up pieces of new cotton
paper or her own discarded works, which she mixes in a blender
with water, pigment and either clay powder or paste. Then, she
pours this "cotton fiber" mixture into a large tub and stirs in
more water. The resulting pulp is strained through a screen and
dried on felt pads. The pulp sticks together in thin sheets and
becomes a rough-textured, speckled paper that she glues onto
canvas to create her collages.
     Although some of Mellian's work is realistic, she prefers
the abstract because it provides many different levels for the
viewer that aren't immediately evident. "Even when I do realism,
I add the handmade paper so you look further into it," she
explains. She signs her works simply "Sema."
     Mellian also teaches classes at the Newark Senior Center,
runs workshops at the Center for Creative Arts in Yorklyn and
substitute-teaches at Sanford School in Hockessin, Del.
     One of the advantages of her career, she says, is that
there's no pressure to retire. "As artists we can work until we
drop. There's no age limit."
                                                 -Valerie Baddorf