I was already interested in the work of self-taught artists when I met Clyde Eugene Merritt at Rock Hill’s Watkins Grill in 1992. As time went on, I became a friend and followed his work closely. We often visited several times a week. He called by phone anytime night or day. As early at 5 a.m. his unmistakable voice would let me know that “I’ve got paperwork.” After his move into assisted living fifteen miles away in York, South Carolina, the visits were less frequent unless he was ill and required more attention from a small, faithful group of friends. Beyond the few times we drove to the capitol city Columbia, Gene never traveled outside of York County in the years that I knew him. I took him at his word that when younger he did travel to Dollywood and Tweetsie Railroad in the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. For certain he was born November 30, 1936 in Columbia, South Carolina, and lived there until his mother’s untimely death in 1948.
Other university artists have developed relationships with outsider artists ever since art, academia and authenticity first collided. My thoughts about Gene Merritt have been developing for 23 years. Looking at one of his drawing is special. Looking at his drawings over a longer period of time is very special. As I have seen his work, I have come to realize there is much more to learn about artistic expression.
Clyde Eugene Merritt was the only child of working class parents Clyde Harper Merritt and Irma Johnson Merritt. Though there was no diagnostic evidence, relatives suggested that a serious illness as an infant left Merritt with cognitive disabilities. After his mother’s death, Merritt and his father moved to Fort Mill, South Carolina, where Merritt attended, but never finished high school. He worked a variety of odd jobs including being a shoe shine boy in a pool hall, janitor in a movie theater, and bag boy in a small grocery store. With his father’s death in 1981 he became a ward of the state and lived briefly in a nursing home before entering the state adult foster care program that eventually moved him to nearby Rock Hill, South Carolina.
Gene Merritt possessed a memory and personality that animated his free floating conversations. Gifts like these set him apart from those who were often stereotyped as indigent, or challenged, or citizens of the street. His mild sense of humor and playful way with words opened doors to the kindness of others.
Most people first encountered Gene Merritt drawing at Watkins Grill in downtown Rock Hill. The owner and waitresses at the diner embraced Gene as a regular just as they embraced local business leaders, politicians and breakfast clubs. He would walk to Watkins in the early morning from his trailer home on the other side of town. He would find the same table, sit down and draw until the busy lunch crowd arrived and then he would leave. Watkins was a life saver as it gave him a socializing environment in which to communicate, create and establish an identity. Watkins’ waitresses served Gene coffee, breakfast or a hotdog even if his monthly check from DSS was long gone.
At the original Watkins’ location on Main, and later after the diner’s move across from City Hall, Merritt had a designated space to keep his drawing materials. On the wall nearby his reserved table, his drawings hung in inexpensive frames. Daily before he left the grill he attempted to sell his “paperwork” for as little as a quarter. Often he gave the drawings away. For most of the regular customers, Gene Merritt’s public drawing was what established his sense of place within the diner, but by no means was it considered “art” by accepted standards. It was simply Gene Merritt making his drawings. Regardless, this creative activity was what Merritt considered to be his business. He was a self-proclaimed business man and artist.
For a period of about fifteen years beginning in 1992, Clyde Eugene Merritt produced an extensive body of drawings defined by an uncharacteristic visual language. Done in ball point pen, rolling ball ink, or color pencils on paper, his drawings comprised a range of subjects including automobiles, holiday scenes, animals, and most notably portraits. The portraits featured pop culture icons he recalled from years of television, motion pictures, and magazines. He drew anonymous figures symbolic of beauty, strength or ideas generated in his rich imagination. And of course he created self-portraits and drawings of friends.
Merritt’s portraits were represented as either profiles of the head, or frontal views of the face floating in the middle of the picture plane. Occasionally full body images existed within a background drawn to represent, for example, a farm, boxing gym, jungle, or mountain scene. Graphic line quality was consistent in all of his work. A characteristic style featured puzzle-like facial constructions suggesting multiple perspectives or points of view. Merritt would also rely on clean, linear representations that possessed a more fluid line. Some of these resembled contour drawings.
The variations in his drawing styles were indicative of the ways in which Merritt saw his subject matter. Simply put, more complicated compositions with fragmented features relied on Merritt’s imagination and memory, while the simpler contour-like drawings were often created as he looked at photographs in glamour and celebrity magazines. Regardless, Merritt’s use of line reflected careful and conscious decisions. His eye, hand and pen moved in an off-beat, but deliberate rhythm from one part of the drawing to the next. While visual formulas existed in his work, his relationship to the drawn surface was unpredictable. Though he had no artistic training, his drawings possessed an intellectual and aesthetic purpose.
One formula in Merritt’s drawing was what he called his “autograph.” Much more than a singular signature, his autograph was a complex series of descriptive words and phrases including his name or the name of his business; the name or description of the subject; a date or series of dates; and occasionally, extended text or text fragments. These written elements were visually reinforced by grammatical signs and symbols including brackets, underlines, apostrophes, dashes, and quotation marks. They tied one drawing to the next and helped create another level of interest and attention to detail.
Being a hard-working man was a large part of Merritt’s persona. He expressed the ideas of business and hard-work in a number of drawings. For example, the text in a self-portrait might read, “Gene hard at work at home.” An often repeated subject was a “hard working hand” holding a pen poised to create more paperwork.
His daily walk to Watkins Grill and return walk home was punctuated by regular stops along the way where other hard working people had jobs. The stops included a fast food restaurant, a barber shop, a loan company, a foreign car dealership, a scuba diving business, a pawn shop, the arts council, and an artist studio. He not only befriended the individuals at his regular stops, but he collected their business cards at every opportunity. On the back of the cards, he would write his underlined and bracketed name because he identified each as a business partner. In a similar fashion, the autographs that appeared on his drawings essentially transformed them into business cards and art works all at the same time. [“Gene,’s – Art,’s – Inc,’s”] or [“Gene,’s – Art,’s – Muzieam’,s – Inc,’s”] was typical of this concept.
Identification as a business man was related to a desire to achieve a level of importance. In conversations with Department of Social Services (DSS) social workers, it was acknowledged that Gene had lived a hard life that included few resources, too much alcohol, and occasional physical abuse. Merritt himself described frustrating instances of ridicule or being taken advantage of by others. For sure his life was not comfortable but his drawing provided creative and imagined opportunities. It was certainly true that a number of people were interested in him through his drawing. His admiration for other hard working people, and his desire to depict successful icons of popular culture, suggest that he wanted more than the reality afforded a venerable adult.
In 1992 he lived in a small trailer in the backyard of his foster care providers. It was dark and seldom cleaned, but it did have a television with an old movie channel. It had a telephone that allowed Merritt to communicate with the world outside. It also had a table and chair where he could draw as he did at Watkins Grill. Even though there is no record of where most of his work might now exist, Gene Merritt was unquestionably a prolific and focused artist.
Telephone conversations from his trailer home required urgent and immediate attention. Communicating on electronic equipment was important to Merritt and signified a kind of discussion not possible face to face. He had been influenced by exposure to two-way radios and electronics at this aunt’s home in Columbia where he stayed during adolescent summers. As an adult in Rock Hill, he owned a citizens band radio that allowed him to listen to the voices of people that he never met. He owned a collection of walkie-talkies purchased from the pawn shop that he tried to repair in an attempt to make them send and receive once again. He was fascinated by personal communications equipment and this interest is depicted in a number of the drawings.
Any understanding of Gene Merritt’s work is not complete without realizing that in 1996 his drawings were recognized by a curator from the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland. Appointed by Jean Dubuffet as one of the key administrators at the Collection, Genevieve Roulin (1947-2001) became a strong advocate of Merritt’s work. She was instrumental in sharing it with a small but dedicated audience in Europe and beyond. Gene Merritt’s drawings fit Dubuffet’s definition of a raw art. They lacked direct influence from mainstream art and its related institutions. His work represented a singular vision. Roulin believed that Merritt’s work possessed a unique cerebral quality. His work responded to an idea and timeframe within American culture.
The drawings’ perspective on mass media and popular culture during the second half of the 20th Century deserved attention. They were at once self-promoting and commercial, while at the same time examples of rare authenticity. Merritt’s images drawn from the silver screen, television and magazines, represented a graphic tradition that includes representational drawing, political cartoons and 19th Century prints. If Merritt had been connected to digital technology or social media, it is hard to speculate where his work would have gone.
Another marker in Gene Merritt’s artistic life was his 1998 move from adult foster care to Pilgrim’s Inn Transitional Housing in Rock Hill, a community-based non-profit organization serving the homeless. Merritt was one of the first residents and his move was facilitated by Pilgrim’s Inn founder, Tricia Kuhlkin, who had known Merritt since 1981 when he frequented the soup kitchen where she worked.
For one of the first times in memory, Merritt lived in a comfortable environment. The staff of Pilgrim’s Inn became a group of friends who cared about him, helped maintain his health, and encouraged him to stop drinking and smoking. From Gene Merritt’s perspective, they were hard working people who he admired. Though the mission of the facility was to help women and their children for a transitional period of 24 months, Merritt lived there for nearly nine years.
With his move to Pilgrim’s Inn however, Merritt’s routines began to change as he walked less to familiar stops and eventually walked little at all. For a while he would venture to the Friendly Grill located just behind Pilgrim’s Inn. He also frequented the main office of Pilgrim’s Inn where he visited and talked with the staff. In many respects his time was more focused. It was less stressful and uncertain. He had a new kitchen table where he could draw. There were fewer distractions and he was not in the public eye.
A memory for movie stars, entertainers, and the rich and famous continued to provide source material for his drawings. With his move to Pilgrim’s Inn, Gene Merritt now had his own mailbox outside the door of the new duplex where he received a weekly television-based celebrity magazine addressed to “Occupant.” The weekly publication together with glamour magazines donated to Pilgrim’s Inn provided new models for his work. Though he continued to draw from memory, or as he suggested, “from my head,” he began to look at the photographic reproductions in the magazines in order to create drawings from observation. This was evident in stylistic differences. It was probably not the first time he relied upon observed images, but it was certainly more prevalent in his new work.
His fascination with make-up as medium and subject was revealed in the new drawings as well. Though color pencil had appeared in earlier work, it was not typical and often used to merely fill in an area. After settling in at Pilgrim’s Inn, Merritt began a limited but intentional use of color in the portraits of women drawn from published photographic images. Influenced by advertisements and celebrities pictured in magazines, his drawings of women included accents of color depicting eye shadow and finger nail polish. In a sense Merritt used color pencils or markers to actually “make up” the women depicted in his drawings.
What makes this development all the more relevant was Merritt’s parallel interest in purchasing make-up at nearby drug stores, usually finger nail polish in a variety of colors. The make-up and finger nail polish became gifts of choice to individuals he considered to be his girlfriends. Merritt’s playful demeanor made it easy for people to connect and embrace his personality. He in turn developed imagined relationships with a number of women who had shown him kindness. Often times they were care providers. As innocent as this was, he demonstrated his affection through the gifts that he purchased with his monthly check or money earned from drawings.
Collected drawings from a day’s work, or from the same sketchbook, often exhibited similar themes or approaches to drawing. Yet it was not uncommon for different styles of a variety of subjects to be completed one right after the other. Merritt’s drawing easily shifted gears. The observed and imaginative styles merged in the same drawing. One classic 14x11 sketchbook from 1998 included subjects and styles that demonstrated his expressive range. The titles in this group included a diverse assemblage of portraits, animals, and themes. Below are examples of text, or portions of autographs, from the 14x11 drawings.
[“Easter – Williams“] [“(L) – Zarro – Sordsman“] [“Sanford – And – Sons“]
[“The – Atomic – Bom“] [“John – (F.) – Kennedy“] [“Pepno – the – Wander – Dog“]
[“Progress – Farmer“] [“Fast – Delvery – Man“] [“St. – Louis – Cardinal’s“]
Though Merritt’s time at Pilgrim’s Inn was productive and a welcome change from earlier living environments, health began to be a factor in his quality of life. While living at Pilgrim’s Inn, he underwent open heart surgery and began to experience problems with his feet, legs and digestive system. This was another reason why daily walking became less of a ritual. As time went by he required more medications and care. Years of hard living and bad habits had taken a toll.
In 2007 Gene Merritt was transferred from Pilgrim’s Inn to an assisted living facility in York, South Carolina. Though the facility changed ownership during Merritt’s stay, he would live there until his death May 16, 2015. One exception was a period of illness in the summer of 2013 when he was in an acute care unit back in Rock Hill.
Though he continued to draw for a while after his move to York, eventually he would draw little at all. Perhaps it was a change of environment, or his health, or both. Much of his work became repetitive memories of cartoon figures. He was tired. Drawings lacked his imaginative spark. He said that drawing “hurt his head.” And drawing from his head was where the work had originally emerged.
The problem is I’ve run out of ideas to draw things. So I’ve been going into magazines and drawing pictures of dogs, cats and what I’d like to find in a magazine or two. All my drawings are not the original people, they’re just the substitute. I done one from a photograph of John Wayne and a preacher over at the church. I gave that to a lady up there in the office. And when I’m deceased and gone what I want you to do when I’m not here and I’m destroyed, and my ashes is gone, destroyed, I want you to get this system with my picture in it and when I’m gone and I’m cremated. See when I’m cremated, the devil don’t know it but he’ll be destroyed too. And this world will be destroyed by an asteroid. It’s a hot rock you know in outer space. That’s my premonition over this system that’s it going to happen. I not trying to be over God, but it’s just a thought that pops in my head.
This was not an artistic set-back nor a creative block, but rather nature taking its course. Still, Gene Merritt was more than an artist who produced remarkable drawings. He continued compelling conversations and developing meaningful friendships. The friendships helped sustain him during the latter years of his life. Many of his conversations revolved around earlier times, or his new life in assisted living, or his imagined ideas. Many of the stories had been heard years earlier, and were now memories of memories. Prior to moving to York, his hearing was already failing, so our conversations in his new home began with words written on a simple index card with a sharpie. He read the card and responded as he wandered from idea to idea. He recalled days as an amateur musician in a country band; the time he met Author Smith and the Cracker Jacks; the time when he was a Carolina Clown; his trip to Dollywood; how his sex life was all but gone; days of drinking and smoking and how he had quit all of that; and there was his obsession with the idea of walking that he expressed with mixed feelings. The conversations were like his drawings and the text that accompanied them – all possessing a singular voice, an image like no other. - Tom Stanley, 2016