Susan Merrill

Susan LeRoy Merrill (1942 – 2017) artist, writer, and teacher, grew up in a four-story Victorian house on a rural Maryland farm that belonged to her mother’s family. The Merrill clan spent summers at their old house in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Susan’s parents – George Merrill – a tall, handsome, patrician psychiatrist – and Anne – a short, warm, firecracker country girl – made an odd couple. The second of five children, Susan’s childhood was a chaotic blur of kids, dogs, cats, eccentric relatives, road trips, singing and fighting. Drama and humor alternated briskly. This routine was abruptly interrupted when Susan contracted polio at age ten. She bounced back from that episode and went off to board at Garrison Forest School in Baltimore. Even as a little girl, Susan was always drawing and sketching.

A brilliant student, Susan independently decided to attend Bennington College in Vermont, introducing herself into a much more cosmopolitan intellectual milieu than the farm. Susan majored in literature, and a short story she wrote resulted in an invitation to be part of Mademoiselle magazine’s famous junior guest editor program in Rome, the start of a love affair with Italy which lasted all her life. Making the decision to pursue her already remarkable artistic talents, Susan went back to Rome in 1967 to study at l’Accademia di Belle Arti. It was in Rome that she met her first husband – the artist Jarvis Rockwell – Norman’s eldest son. With Jarvis she returned to Stockbridge and had her first daughter, Daisy. In 1973 Susan and Jarvis amicably separated.

As a single divorced woman in the 1970s, Susan needed a job so that she could keep on painting and raise her daughter. This required even more creativity. She taught art to the younger students at Berkshire Country Day for eight years, developing an idiosyncratic hands-off instruction philosophy that puzzled the faculty and delighted the children. For example, she encouraged a group of disaffected fourth grade boys to make a super 8 science fiction movie with model spaceships and special effects. They loved it.

When that job ended, Susan enrolled in UMass to earn a master’s degree in art education in 1987. She then married the younger film and theatre designer Carl Sprague. Together they bought and fixed up the old Stockbridge house and adopted two children – Ruslan, now a classical dancer, and Elena, an independent spirit with a knack for having babies.

Susan worked in her studio every day and sketched compulsively wherever she was. In the course of her more than fifty-year career, she explored a wide range of ideas and subjects – ranging from portraits of fellow art students in Rome, experiments with abstraction – paths, bubbles, clouds, landscapes both real and imaginary, fairy tale images, visions of angels, monsters and floating people, domestic life, houses, gardens, windows and doors, world travel, portraits and commissions, and of course her many pictures of animals. Her last show BUGS featured garden insects.

Her childhood encounter with polio led to many medical adventures, which she expressed in a unique series of abstract arthroscopic images. She said that her polio infection at age ten was the best thing that ever happened to her, because she was able to spend months painting and drawing and studying anatomy while lying on her back in the hospital.

Susan’s painting medium is primarily acrylic on linen or canvas, with many works on paper. She was as experimental in her painting technique as she was in her series of subjects and creative ideas, developing her natural abilities in a variety of increasingly sophisticated directions and techniques over the course of her life. Starting with a gestural, almost impressionistic style, she played with flattened, sometimes almost cartoonish imagery, coming to the painterly luminosity of her later work.  Susan drew masterfully in both pen and ink and pencil. There is a distinctive graphic quality to her line, whether it be a doodle on a grocery list or a room sized mural.  She experimented with various media too – woodblocks, ceramics, and sculpture with found objects and papier-maché. She made a number of eccentric short films.

Despite her own claims to be in no way a theorist, Susan always functioned with an idea in mind. Over the years the work breaks down into series and subsets in each of which she seeks to explore and present a concept.

Susan presented her work in many regional venues, with shows like an exhibit of large egg sculptures containing surprises at the Lenox Church Street Gallery, The View from Home featuring domestic scenes, her Arthroscopic pictures displayed in the orthopedics office, her BUGS at the Botanical Garden, Menagerie: Drawings of Animals from Life in a bagel café, chicken paintings in a Lenox barn, group shows like Place at Pittsfield’s Lichtenstein Gallery, Respect for the Cow at the Hotel on North exhibit space, sheep at the Liliana Gallery in Lenox. She preferred to show in spaces that she could control, away from the commercial art scene that often didn’t understand her.

When Susan wasn’t making art or teaching others how, she wrote. Her children’s books and short stories are heartfelt, perfectly structured, and often very funny. She frequently read her writing aloud and reduced listeners to helpless laughter.

She illustrated I Live in Stockbridge, a young people’s history of that town written with Susan Geller, and she wrote and illustrated the children’s book, Washday put out by Sudbury Press. Drafts for other illustrated books remain so far unpublished. Susan also published two wonderful illustrated autobiographical novels set in Maryland and Stockbridge – Warm Morning and Cool Evening.

Growing up on the farm began her abiding fondness for all animals, particularly the farm animals now becoming scarcer on the American landscape. As an educator who always put the interest of young people first, Susan realized that everyday activities from her own childhood – cuddling chicks, feeding lambs, milking goats – were rare for children today. So she persuaded the Hancock Shaker Village to make art part of their Spring Baby Animals programming. Every spring for twelve years, Susan Merrill exhibited her paintings and drawings at Hancock Shaker Village. Starting with her first show, All Creatures Gathered Here (a Shaker quote), she featured the Village babies, as well as sheep, cows, goats, pigs, chickens, ducks, and turkeys. Susan found unending inspiration in observing the barnyard scene.

I was struck by the Gloucestershire Old Spot sow, whose handsome spots upstage her perfect shape. No matter what pose she strikes her spots turn her into an abstraction. How can an artist resist such beauty? I returned several times to sketch and take snapshots of her and the other animals whose acquaintance she made. The sheep make soft, blurry, kaleidoscopic shape as they moved around amongst themselves. The turkeys struck glamorous poses.

 In 2011 Spotted Striped and Belted focused on animals whose black and white coats take color from shadow and atmosphere; in 2012, Families, Flocks, and Herds, depicted animal groupings and the artistic patterns that result. Barnyard Portraits in 2014 presented formal images of cows, chickens, pigs and sheep. Other shows were entitled Eat, Colors & Camouflage, and Farm Year.

Susan saw things in her subjects that the rest of us might not. She painted the playful movements, colors and personalities of all types of creatures. She studied the way they eat, congregate, and change from season to season, and found inspiration from fleeting moments like light shifting over a field as wild turkeys parade across. She sought out the more curious denizens of her beloved Berkshires – llamas, skunks, and peacocks. Even on crutches after an ankle operation she obsessively researched the animals in their landscape. Susan reminded us of our connection to nature and our role within it.

In 2017 Susan died of an unexpected, incurable glioblastoma, leaving her husband Carl, three children, and seven grandchildren, as well as a constellation of friends and fans. Her life and work is still present in that old Stockbridge house. Susan’s interesting family was in many ways another of her artworks. Many of Susan’s cousins have been artists and writers. Her great-uncle Stuart Merrill was a French symbolist poet in the Paris art scene of the Belle Époque – closely connected with Mallarmé, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Oscar Wilde. Susan’s mother Anne was noted for her watercolor portraits. Susan’s daughter Daisy Rockwell creates witty and thoughtful paintings, which have been widely exhibited. As a writer and translator, Daisy recently won the 2022 Booker Prize for her translation of the Hindi novel “Tomb of Sand”.

Susan’s extraordinary legacy of paintings, drawings, stories, sculptures, and film is now starting to be documented.

Here’s another quote:

My memory is a heap of movie-short reels and snapshots. Color, pose, setting, conversation, crisp and precise, are stored in mint condition with thousands of other images, ready to edit or splice together whenever I want. From the beautiful vegetables I cook, to the astonishing Midwestern sky, to my daughter saying goodbye in the driveway. I can use them all.

Sometimes I write about them and other times I paint them. But as I record them, I deal strictly in surfaces, moving things around, eliminating this, exaggerating that. I don’t deal in underlying philosophical meaning or in theoretical techniques; these I leave to other kinds of minds. To me, eyes are more interesting.

Spaces between things – the air, the fine distance between here and there, fascinate me more than what exactly is here and what’s there.

I myself am usually not in these paintings. I am the person behind the camera, the director, the set designer, and the editor.