Although Tom Merwin was born in Brooklyn, his paintings reflect his deep love of nature, and the woods and waterways surrounding his downtown Castleton studio and gallery. Julie, his wife, also an artist, as well as a writer, works closely with him to plan shows and outreach for the Merwin Gallery and administers MacGregor House Publishing. Combined with the filmmaking expertise of their son Matt, the Merwin trio has created an energy center of art in what used to be an old feed and grain store in the center of the town where the family has lived since 1998.
Merwin’s grandfather was a painter and restorer in Brooklyn whose house was filled with artwork. During the Depression, Merwin’s father would joke that the family ate apple butter while his grandfather just brought home more paintings! It was his grandfather who introduced Merwin to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum.
As a child, Merwin always drew, and says that it was the one thing that “felt proper.” He attended four years of studio classes at the Arts Students League, which was founded by artists in 1875. There, Merwin studied under Vaclav Vytlacil. Vytlacil taught the breadth of painting history by linking artists as far-ranging as Poussin and Miro in order to connect students to the principles and poetry of working on a flat plane. Knox Martin, Joe Stapleton and Tom Fogarty were also influential teachers.
While Merwin’s paintings tend toward abstraction, elements of nature are omnipresent. He is very influenced by Chinese and Japanese painting and will often do quick sketches in ink with a Sumi-e brush on rice paper before moving on to the final painting in oil. Works with titles like “White Rocks Wallingford,” “Descending Stream,” “Drawing at Buttermilk Falls,” reflect his commitment to daily exploration of the landscape and his constant sketching practice.
One of his favorite inspirational places is the Japanese Garden in the Taconic Ramble State Park in Hubbardton, which was developed by his friend, Carson “Kit” Davidson.
Merwin has had numerous exhibits throughout Vermont, including at the Vermont Supreme Court Gallery and the T.W. Wood Gallery in Montpelier, and “Gerotrancendance” at the 77 Art Gallery in Rutland, and the Southern Vermont Art Center in Manchester, among others.
In addition to his imaginative paintings, Merwin also fosters the talents of others. He offers frequent “Wellness through Painting” workshops in local art centers and schools, as well as in a variety of settings such as the Walden Project, Vergennes; Compass Music and Art, Brandon; South End Business and Arts Association, Burlington; Stone Valley Arts, Poultney; and 77Arts, Rutland.
Merwin has mentored a group of painters for the last seven years, collectively known as The Forty-Seven Main Street Artists and Friends. About 140 of their works are included in several rooms in “More than Meets the Eye,” a current exhibit at Southern Vermont Art Center through March 15.
Interspersed with their paintings are the poems of painter-poet, Michael Alter. Alter’s latest volume, “Poet Residing,” includes ink drawings by Merwin, his longtime friend. Merwin is a rare artist who is committed to assisting others in finding the wholeness that can occur through engagement in an artistic process. I’m interested in asking him some questions about this commitment.
B.A.: Can you share what role art has in your personal life?
T.M.: I find communication more fluid on the other side of words. Painting is a good compass while wondering and wandering through this life.
B.A.: Why you are interested in assisting others in discovering their own creativity?
T.M.: I’ve found that it’s a mutual recognition. No one ever loses their creativity, we just have to remember the currents of communication that run through us. A drawn line is the first recorded practice of our shared experience, so we just take up that stroke from where we start. No one ever loses this.
B.A.: Do you have a “method” that you use? How do you help beginners to feel free enough to experiment with painting?
T.M.: Usually, I just say, “Here’s a canvas, see what you can do!” We use acrylic paint because it is fluid and dries quickly, as contrasted with oil paint which can take several days or more to dry. Observing a novice painter start to “push paint” tells a lot. Organic methods and techniques begin to appear as unexpected questions come up. Answers and connections that we have within ourselves and in our history naturally occur and can be further refined.
B.A.: Do you incorporate art history in your teaching, and how?
T.M.: Again, it’s an unbroken line from the cave paintings to today. Through observing how a new painter approaches applying color and line to a flat plane, you can start finding “entry opportunities” to historic artists’ styles. From there, it is easy to make spatial and compositional links that fit each unique individual’s approach.
B.A. How do you see the relationship of poetry to painting, since both are included in the “More than Meets the Eye” exhibit?
T.M.: Mike Alter’s poetry is a great example of this relationship. The layered descriptions of person, place and meaning connect the diverse, expressive styles of all the painters in this exhibition. It is great to see his poems hung on the walls in between the colorful paintings.
B.A.: How do you see art as encouraging a sense of inner wellness?
T.M.: To be open to our many levels, where “mistakes” are only opportunities for unexpected shifts in the direction of the next moment’s brush stroke creates trust and confidence. Painting is a good practice for reconciliation and healing, for us and others, as we participate in the process, thereby recreating the meaning anew.
B.A.: What is the best part about sharing your love of painting with others?
T. M. We are all together in this imperceptible mystery of life. We share through a free exchange of energy, linking moments and spiraling our spirits on separate canvasses. I’ve also found that, when feeling lost, it’s better to be with friends while finding our way.