A retired art teacher finds fabulous
in a shift from reality to abstract.
THERE WAS NO DOUBT FOR A MOMENT THAT ELEANOR MERRITT would become an
artist - going back to the days when she doodled to relive the
boredom in kindergarten as she dreamed of expressing herself with
line and color and texture.
But just as that was a certainty, what was also unequivocally clear
was that she would have a career that would support the pursuit of
her core ambition.
''My mother always taught us to make sure we have a 'real' job in
order to help us to reach our dreams,'' said Merritt sitting with
quiet confidence among her blooming orchids at her University Park
home one recent Sunday morning.
''My real job was teaching and now that I am retired I can reap the
rewards of those years and really reach my dreams as an artist,'' she
Since the Harlem, N.Y. native moved to southwest Florida in 1980 she
has truly blossomed much like her orchids.
Almost every inch of her Manatee County home is a testament to art -
from the dozens of masks that reach high up the walls adorning the
entryway to the body of her own work that charts her transformation
over the years into an abstractionist.
And like the art teacher she is in retirement, the 74-year-old
Merritt takes a certain regal delight in educating her guest about
the museum-like quality of her home.
''We used masks in ancient cultures to hide who we really were,'' she
says, explaining her affinity to the 40-odd masks of wood, metal,
leather and ceramic that embody a collection she has gathered during
trips to Africa, Indonesia, Greece, China and other exotic places.
No wonder mask-like images appear prominently in her work that's now
less realistic than in her early years and much more unreal and
It's almost natural for her to paint in the current style that
eschews the obvious, she says, because she was influenced by the
likes of Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, and Jimmy Ernst, abstract
impressionists of the 1950s who taught at Brooklyn College City of
New York, where the daughter of Jamaican immigrants received
her bachelor's in fine arts.
Her work has a dreamy sensibility but no matter how abstract it may
seem at first glance somewhere within lies the human form
wonderfully obscured and masterfully altered for the discerning eye
to pick up.
''I have always used figures as a point of reference in my work,''
Merritt said. Her pieces are layered these days with different
of materials that create a collage effect on the surface so it
becomes textured, but she said, ''no matter how abstract the
composition may seem at first glance, looking further will reveal
the figure and sometimes the message.''
She loves nature but doesn't try to spend one precious moment trying
to replicate it in her paintings.
''Some people get my message, others are still looking for sunsets
and palm trees. Their 'eye' has not matured enough to look beyond
the obvious,'' Merritt pointed out.
''I have been fortunate that through the years my work has been
collected by many serious art lovers.''
Those collectors are lucky because when they purchase a Merritt
painting they're getting an exclusive original for which there will
be no prints or other commercial replications.
But that's not all. The beauty of a Merritt piece goes beyond the
visually compelling and typically monochromatic images. Her work is
highly affordable even for the neophyte art lover. The price ranges
from $500 to $2,000.
''My style has developed through these many 50 years of painting,''
she said. ''I think I have hit my stride now in terms of the ways in
which I see the world. My work has nothing to do with reality - it
has to do with what is in my head and how I can manipulate the paint
to create the image that expresses that special thought.''
And when she approaches the canvas, Merritt has no preconceived idea
about what will spring from her creating imaginings. She's not
working from a sketch or drawing.
''My images emerge from my subconscious/conscious mind and just
explode on the working surface through the combined use of acrylics
and other materials,'' Merritt said.
''The concept emerges out of the paint now. I don't start with it in
front of me. I start with the paint giving it to me. That's more
Merritt has had more than 25 one-woman shows and the next one starts
May 25 for a 30-day scheduled run at Selby Gallery in
UPDATE: This article
originally appeared in the Spring 2007 edition of FlaVour Magazine.
On June 8, 2013 the artist is scheduled to open a one-woman show titled
Revelations of Goddesses at the Houston Museum of African-American
Culture. The exhibition will be up through August 3. From more