Hugh Merrill - Artist, Community Activist, Achiever
Recognizing a lifetime of accomplishments.
Hugh Merrill, Capitol
Mrs. Harriett Bigum, a teacher with the Kansas City, Kansas School system, was one of those who came to see Merrill’s show at the Nelson-Atkins. As a result, she called him and asked him to work with her inner-city students. These at-risk students, whose parents were addicts and criminals, were more likely to go to jail than to attend college.
Although his colleagues at the Kansas City Art Institute, where he has been a professor since 1976, did not support him – traditional institutions and galleries looked down on community art work at the time (you could not sell it, it was amateurish) – he worked with Mrs. Bigum for six weeks. He was ready to quit, but she would not allow it, and now he will not quit. It is no longer about art for Merrill; it has become a way to give to his community.
“I consider myself a member of the Black community. I’ve lived in Black neighborhoods for years,” says Merrill. “I feel that I speak as an insider, trying to break the cycle: poverty, crime, violence.”
In 2000, Hugh Merrill took over the Chameleon Arts & Youth Development, which began in 1949 as a children’s community theatre. Chameleon is now committed to inspiring and fostering an interdisciplinary artistic community of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity to serve youth, artists, and community. During the last 10 years, Chameleon has done over $1million of programming for the Kansas City area youth.
“The art world has begun to shift, and non-studio-based art work, like going into communities and working with people, is emerging as a more significant avenue for artists,” says Merrill. “Every museum and arts agency of any significance is now involved in this creative genre. The artists doing non-studio art are the ones who get into all the biennials, these days.”
In 2006, Hugh Merrill wrote a program for the Kansas City Art Institute he called Community Art Service Learning. The school got involved and hired a director for CASL, Julie Metzler. The program runs throughout the institute – any department can propose a CASL class. In Merrill’s next CASL class, he plans to have each student choose a block near the art institute and send an invitation to each address on the block. The students will invite the community members to send their favorite quotes, lyrics or sayings to the class. The class will print the words on signs and have a festival in the community when the signs are displayed in the yards or on the homes.
Hugh Merrill, Warrior
When Merrill was a student at the Maryland Institute College of Arts, John Cage and Allen Ginsburg were very accessible. “Cage was just another artist at the time – not famous – and Ginsburg was always around,” says Merrill. “Once they were looking at some of my art, and I’d been writing some poetry, so I handed it to Ginsburg.” He read through the work and told Merrill: “Paint.”
Painting he has done, and etching, and print making, and working with homeless and inner-city youth using art to help them deal with grief, loss, violence, gangs, and drugs. The time has come for some writing about Hugh Merrill and his 40-year career of studio and community artwork. A book release for DIVERGENT CONSISTENCIES: the Studio and Community Art of Hugh Merrill will take place on March 3, 2011, at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri.