interview by Harriet Cherry Cheney, TSGNY
“Ripping, staining, and stitching is like keening, singing, or meditating.”
— Merill Comeau
I read a great deal about Merill before I started to formulate these questions. I found her art, her process, and her background stories to be compelling. I tried to target my questions specifically to (what I guessed) were areas of particular resonance. I also tried to make them worthy of Merill’s instincts, intentions, and intellect.
Merill has participated in more than 70 exhibitions at venues that include the Fuller Museum of Craft, the Danforth Museum of Art, and the Fitchburg Museum of Art. She has received grant support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the Covenant Foundation for facilitating over 30 collaborative community art projects. She has been awarded multiple residencies, most recently at Turkey Land Cove and the Weir Farm National Historic Site in Connecticut.
Aside from lecturing on fiber arts, Merill stains, dyes, composts, embroiders, hand stitches, draws, rips, stencils, writes, repurposes, and reorders to produce installations, garments, triptychs, wall cloths, and other forms of fiber art.
TSGNY: It seems that the theme running through your work is deconstructing, reordering, and rebuilding. Can you tell us how your choice of materials helps you achieve this?
MC: I’m driven to express what I cannot put into words. Ripping, staining, and stitching is like keening, singing, or meditating. Fabric absorbs color, frays, and folds. Simple sewing techniques build new forms. My materials stand in for, and portray, life experiences. My engagement in slow process is almost — or maybe more — important than the final product.
TSGNY: As you’ve explored your family of origin, what have you deconstructed, reordered, and rebuilt? Have you uncovered stories you’d forgotten or neglected? Has you work helped you to remember in a different way?
MC: I spent three years working on Family of Origin, with its shirts belonging to my deceased mother, wall tapestry of rags, and floor cloth painted with plans of my childhood bedrooms. At the same time, I created the installation, Black and Blue, inspired by my essay about a favorite childhood home. Those three years were full of memories, not so much uncovered, but memories that needed to be understood and expressed. This is similar to artists creating a series; often, when it’s done, they discover themes not fully recognized during the making. I discovered themes in my family life that I hadn’t fully recognized. There had been numerous messages about how to be a good girl, how to be wifely, and how to be a proper woman. I also realized that, though some of those messages were painful to identify, their absurdity appealed to my black sense of humor.
TSGNY: Are you working from the child, adolescent, or adult place? Or, does it shift?
MC: I’m an adult. Although I can remember how I felt as a child, I don’t have the eyes of a child. And the same is true for my time as an adolescent. I didn’t have the happiest childhood or teen years and I really like being a grownup! Now I have the freedom to explore what I value and find most interesting.
TSGNY: I read a quote from you about the truth being in the stories. Can you explain this?
MC: In general, I am interested in what we, as a culture, remember — and — what legacies we keep alive. Who decides what stories are important, worth recording, and worth repeating? What impact does our community of origin have on what we remember and value? What information does our art contain, both art from the past and from contemporary works?
About five years ago, I told some colleagues that I was going to be more honest and direct in my work. I had been using nature as a metaphor for our life cycle: birth, bloom, desiccation, return to earth, and rebirth. I still love the imagery of nature, but, now, I’m telling stories more directly. There are concerns in truth telling. First of all, everyone remembers things differently. Who is to say my memories are correct? My memories are really only mine. Memory is fluid. In the recounting, both emphasis and details can shift, change, and permanently alter one’s recollection. And, if I share bad memories, I can hurt others by reminding them of painful things. I take this responsibility seriously; therefore I issue trigger warnings, encourage others to take care of themselves, and let people know that I am fine. I may explore difficult subjects in my art… but I am fine. Generally, I find my work spurs wonderful conversations and connections.
“Old cloth is loaded with meaning and stories of lives lived. In creating a new textile, I add my story to the mix.”
TSGNY: I admire you for creating work in healing groups and social justice communities. Do you consider yourself to be an activist? What does the word mean to you?
MC: I work as an artist-in-residence teaching youth serving sentences in the Massachusetts court system and residing in secure treatment facilities. I am privileged to serve in this way and it has changed me. One thing I have learned, which Bryan Stevenson writes about so eloquently in his book, Just Mercy, is that we are all wounded in some way. The act of showing mercy to someone else is the act of showing mercy to yourself. He says it much better: please read the book!
TSGNY: Does your work provide solace and healing? Is self-healing a motivation? Or, are you a closet rabble rouser?
MC: I didn’t set out to “heal thyself.” But making art definitely does heal me. I’m so disturbed about our current civil discourse, I’ve made two large triptychs titled Red, White, and Blue. Stitching them — sometimes through tears as I watch the news — has helped me keep my focus on ways we are connected rather than on the ways we get torn apart.
When I talk about my work, I always share other artists’ work that I am looking at and find interesting. I use Visual Thinking Strategies to collect participants’ observations. This process has never failed to affirm my faith in people’s ability to read art, connect it to their experience, and find solace in our mutual concerns.
TSGNY: Is sewing a metaphor for mending and healing?
MC: Absolutely! Sewing is a hopeful process. Put one thing next to another, sew them together and, presto, you have a new thing! I tell my students: fabric is forgiving and that’s why we are using it. You can make a mistake and you can fix it. It’s a symbolic act for a student who is incarcerated. They are not the sum of the worst things they have done. They can forgive themselves, and they can repair their lives.
TSGNY: Are you a perfectionist or a recovering perfectionist?
MC: This question causes me to laugh out loud. I am absolutely not a perfectionist. First of all, I’m a terribly flawed person; I do not expect myself to make or do anything perfect. It’s true that I’m never happy with my work but I find that motivating. I always want to try again and make another piece. If anything, I think I may be the opposite of a perfectionist; I glory in my messy self.
“I leave trails of thread to represent the messiness of life.”
TSGNY: You seem to have garnered quite a bit of recognition. What was the turning point in achieving this?
MC: Wow, have I? That is really nice to hear. I don’t feel any different than I did in years past. I mourn my losses and celebrate the good times. I keep working, and, hopefully, growing… with more growth to come. Are we ever done growing? I hope not.
TSGNY: Of what accomplishments are you most proud?
MC: As an artist, my answer to this question, at any given time, would probably be the last thing I made. But, in life, I’m most proud of breaking some family patterns and having a nuclear family full of love. It’s not a cliche to say that I have gotten more out of my experiences working with incarcerated youth than they have gotten from me. But, in my heart, I know they’ve gotten something good; of that, I am proud.
TSGNY: And finally, what would you like your fellow TSGNY members to know about you?
MC: First, I find people at the meetings to be so kind and friendly; I greatly appreciate it. Second, TSGNY members, I want to hear from you. I’m collecting stories about how we learn to be who we are, in terms of gender, behavior, class, race, culture, and relationships. Send me a story about a message you received about what you should or shouldn’t do, think, or be. Your story may be represented in an artwork. You may send this anonymously or sign your name. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or mail a postcard, which may be displayed with the artwork, to Merill Comeau,
14 Pleasant Street, Concord, MA, 01742. Thanks!
 Visual Thinking Strategies, VTS, is a facilitation method that was researched, developed and strengthened over the past thirty years. I use it when looking at art in groups. VTS has given me specific skills that encourage participants’ deep observations, responses, and listening.