CMU’s Clayton Merrell on Creativity, Time, & Pittsburgh’s Secret Art Spaces

March 13th, 2017 / Posted in CitySpeaks, For Fun, Home Page Latest News, The Guard

An Interview with Artist Clayton Merrell

By Giulianna Marchese, Literary Intern

As the current literary intern at City Theatre, I had the opportunity to support and observe the production process of Jessica Dickey’s The Guard. We were fortunate enough to have the help of Clayton Merrell, an artist and professor at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Art, who spoke with the cast and creative team about the painting techniques and materials Rembrandt would have used in his studio, as well as the process of being a copyist. I had the chance to sit down with him and ask a few questions about art, Pittsburgh, and the connection between theatre and painting.

Giulianna Marchese: As someone who grew up partly in Pittsburgh, what do you think are the untapped artistic opportunities that people can take advantage of?

Artist Clayton Merrell Headshot

Clayton Merrell: Pittsburgh has some big institutions which are wonderful;  you know the Warhol Museum, the Carnegie Museums. But, it also has a bunch of weird well kept secrets. For instance, the Center for PostNatural History is a wonderful little museum/art project that’s here right on Penn Avenue and not a lot of people know about it. So if you are looking for a fascinating art and science experience you can go there. There’s another really cool place called La Hütte Royal, which is an amazing house installation that you can make an appointment to go see. Just walking down the street, you would have no idea there was anything there other than a house. But, once you’re inside, you’re transported to another world entirely.

GM: Neat! So are there avenues for people who don’t normally engage in the creation of art?

CM: Yeah, absolutely! There are some drawing clubs around town that get together and drink and draw. If you’re just looking for a way to make some art and meet some friends, that’s a good way to do it. But, maybe a little more highbrow would be at the Carnegie Museum. They’ve been doing this wonderful series of drawing events. When I was a kid, there used to be this drawing program where people in the city could come to the museum and draw, called the Tam O’Shanter program.  They’ve re-envisioned it now in this new format, where they bring in really interesting people who come up with a really interesting, intellectually challenging drawing prompt and they get a bunch of non-artists to sit around and make art together.

Sky Beneath Our Feet, 2015; Clayton Merrell

Pittsburgh International Airport is home to Merrell’s “Sky Beneath Our Feet,” a massive public artwork in terrazzo.

GM: One of the characters in this play is a copyist. What is that training like and why would people study it?

CM: It used to be–back in the day, centuries ago–if you wanted to make art, that’s where you would start. You would start by apprenticing yourself to somebody and you’d sit in the background and quietly copy the master’s works for—maybe for years. Maybe for decades, before you were worthy enough to make your own thing. These days, we sort of invert it. You start making your own stuff first and then later if you’re really serious about it, you might sit down and try to study someone else’s work. So people tend to get into copyist work if they are art students and they’ve gotten to a certain point and then realize “hey, wait a minute, I don’t have the skills that I need.” And so they’ll go to the Met and sit down in front of a Rembrandt and they’ll sort of apprentice themselves to Rembrandt.

GM: The character in this play starts out by using art as a tool to cope with a loss. Do you ever see people deciding to take an art class for that reason?

CM: I don’t know. That’s a good question. Maybe not so directly. But, I do think there is something about the making of art, if it’s a physical process, like drawing or painting or sculpting that occupies the mind and provides some escape.

Broken Sky with Light Leaks, 2011; Clayton Merrell

Merrell’s original piece “Broken Sky with Light Leaks,” is a large oil on canvas artwork from 2011.

GM: I like to define art as anything that attempts to represent the human condition. What are some ways that theatre and the visual arts intersect?

CM: There are some obvious ways where we intersect in that they are both highly visual. They’re both presenting an artificial experience for you to have–to have access to another human being’s life and thoughts. And there are plenty of examples of great visual artists who have done set designs for the theatre. And so there are very literal connections between people in both fields. In a little more philosophical way, I would say that in the visual arts–still images in particular because I’m a painter and I’m thinking in terms of painting right now–that paintings represent a compression of lots of time into a single image: the time spent making it, the time of the artist essentially. And as a viewer, you go to that image and you extract that time. You telescope that time back out of the still image and you have access to someone else’s human experience that way. Whereas in the theatre, you go and you have a real-time experience with the actors, with the play. You have a slice of time that is presented to you as such. They’re both intense experiences where you get to be in someone else’s mind and someone else’s experience.

Clayton Merrell grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, and Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela. He studied painting and printmaking at the Yale School of Art, where he earned an MFA in 1995. His work has been exhibited at: Slow Gallery, Chicago; the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC; Concept Gallery, Pittsburgh PA; the A+D Gallery, Chicago; the Westmoreland Museum of Art, and the Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua NY. In 2005, he was named Artist of the Year at The Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, and in 2016 was named Creator-of-the Year by the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

About The Guard by Jessica Dickey: When dedicated museum guard Henry dares to truly connect with the paintings he proudly protects, he sets into motion a time-bending journey where art intersects with life. Inspired by Rembrandt’s “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer,” The Guard embraces the idea of carpe diem in (and at) any age, and takes audiences on a spellbinding theatrical exploration of the power of human connection. Tickets on sale now.