David Merritt’s connection to London is of long standing, both as an artist and a recently retired professor at Western University. But he did spend a few of his student years living in Toronto and went out to Halifax to earn his Master of Fine Arts at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Working in a variety of non-traditional media, Merritt has been able to create a consistently surprising body of work that has been widely exhibited and collected. Though much of his work might seem to be more properly categorized as sculptural, Merritt – focusing more on the lines that emerge from his art than its overall shape – regards such work as a form of “expanded” or “spatial drawing.”
Merritt’s ability, conceptually and artistically, to push the limits of any chosen medium has been nourished by his willingness to constantly take inspiration from the people around him; whether they be his students, his own teachers, or his colleagues in London’s art community. And it seems pretty clear that his understanding of the deeper nuances that can be found in a mentor and mentee relationship can be attributed to his own experiences as an undergraduate student at Western.
At that time, Regionalism was the driving force in London’s art community and despite recognizing its importance, Merritt says that he could only grasp a silhouette-ish understanding of what it was all about. Though Merritt never actively strove to align himself with Regionalism, one of his most direct influences as an undergraduate was his painting teacher, Patterson Ewen, who was not just a leader in that movement but profoundly shaped Western’s new art department as well. As a teacher Merritt credits Patterson Ewen for modeling an open-minded attitude towards materials and drawing that changed and continues to influence his own approach to his practice.
Many years later, building on Ewen’s understanding encouragement, Merritt undertook his first experiments in unravelling skeins of industrial or sisal fibre rope and then reworking and stiffening the individual strands into lines that seem to resemble unknown cursive scripts. The sisal works have become the best known example of Merritt’s ‘expanded drawing’; a concept he describes like this:
“Rather than approaching drawing as a singular set of materials or tools, I approach it as a set of principles that can be brought to any medium. To describe the sisal work as drawing, just provides a convenient historical handle. I think when I was unravelling the sisal rope work, I was working completely blind. I wasn’t thinking ‘I am making a drawing’. At the same time, in releasing the rope fibre in the process, it could clearly be approached as a textile project, but I wasn’t thinking of that either.”
Merritt began his career at Western as a photography teacher but as people began to show interest in his expanded drawings, he secured more assignments in studio drawing. As a visual arts professor, Merritt found that he was also learning a lot from the emerging contemporary artists he was teaching. As Merritt describes it:
“I think that I grew as an artist by constantly being challenged in my assumptions, by what the next generation of a class brought with them. To teach, you’ve got to find a common ground of some kind and I’ve taught for 35 years so what I was as an artist 35 years ago and what the horizon of practice was 35 years ago has changed almost like the leaves on a tree.”
Not the least of the lessons David Merritt absorbed from his students was the need to develop a less judgmental attitude toward certain kinds of drawing:
“It took me a long time to understand how illustration and art connect. I think I understand it a little better now, but that was largely through students coming in really hot on this artist who looked like a [commercial] illustrator to me, you know? But in the end, illustration is just a language, it’s what you do with it. That’s the art. You shouldn’t write off anything because it’s a particular language of some kind. It’s just a language, you learn to speak it and it’s what you say with it that counts.”
David Merritt hopes that over the course of his careers as both an artist and a teacher, he has managed to impart a lesson or two of comparable value to his students and his viewers; perhaps an insight about the value of perseverance and a willingness to continue to explore artistic possibilities beyond any anticipated boundaries. He hopes that somewhere along the line he managed to erect some kind of a bridge between the current generation of artists and his own.
“It’s a bit like a message in a bottle,” he says. “You send it out and people may or may not pick it up. What they make of it, I may never really know.”
Maya Harding is a BealArt student, completing her final year as an Expanded Media and Illustration specialist. She has studied various studio processes over the past four years, with her work focussing primarily on human interactions, both alive and deceased. In 2021, Maya received the North Green Living Award. Maya plans to continue her studies in a post-secondary institution this fall.
For more of DavidMerritt’s work visit his website. http://davidmerritt.ca/index.html
This article is part of the “Young and Emerging Writers Visual Art Project, which is grateful supported by the London Arts Council.