By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Hugh Merrill is learning Spanish.
The Kansas City artist has two hours of driving time to kill each week, and the conversational lessons come in handy for an upcoming trip to Argentina.
"The drive is right on the edge of easy," Merrill said. "I just put my Spanish CDs on. I'm just learning to speak. I'm going down to Buenos Aries for something similar to what I'm doing (in Joplin), so it will help."
Merrill's work is featured in "ArtWorkers: Creativity and Amercia," an exhibit at Spiva Center for the Arts. But instead of sending art to the gallery and retiring to his studio, Merrill has made the trip to Joplin every weekend since the beginning of June to interact with viewers and add their art to his.
Viewers have been invited to bring family photos, red-white-and-blue items and self-portraits. Last week, participants used pictures of presidents to make their own creations. On Saturday participants will make collages.
The exhibit has a high level of activity, such that Spiva hasn't seen in a few years, said Shaun Conroy, gallery and gift shop coordinator.
"We normally don't have the artist in the gallery with the exhibit," Conroy said. "He's explaining things, answering questions and creating things with contributions. He's had shows and exhibits all over the world, so it's a big deal to get to hang out with him and talk about the subject matter that the exhibit is dealing with."
"ArtWorkers" is an exhibit about American introspection, including our feelings on ourselves and our country. With themes of politics, monuments, environments and families, Merrill's exhibit combines his vision with the input of viewers, which are added to the exhibit.
The idea came from a combination of Joplin's blue-collar identity and artistic expression.
"Folks in Joplin come from a working-class culture, whether it was agriculture or mining," Merrill said. "By asking them to bring photos, do collages, finish Abraham Lincoln's face, then they become an art worker. It's a reference to everyday life."
That interactive aspect is a keystone of the exhibit, Merrill said. Each week during his Saturday visits, he takes back four or five of the best creations, converts them to digital media and enlarges them for high-resolution printing.
Those enlarged works get put up as part of the exhibit.
The collaborative nature of the exhibit appeals to Merrill. He has done similar exhibitions, including a recent collaboration with a homeless liaison for Kansas City Public Schools called "Faces of the Homeless." The exhibit featured a series of posters depicting homeless children showing their value, not their need.
"As an artist coming out of my generation, we were educated to commit only to studio work, finding your own voice and discovering something new," Merrill said. "I found that obnoxious after a while. I didn't like looking down my nose at everyday folks. You don't need to go to an elite school to have something to say."
Despite that notion, Merrill has a strong voice in the art community. An artist, writer and educator, Merrill is recognized worldwide as an expert in contemporary printmaking over his 40-year career. His work has been featured in the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Printworks Gallery in Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and around the world, including galleries in Canada and Poland.
But the art world is striving to go in the same direction, Merrill said. Conroy said that gallery officials hope to find more participatory exhibits like "ArtWorkers."
Part of it is an appeal to childhood, Merrill said. He recalled one person who used a picture of Ulysses Grant, an orangutan and a jet airliner to make a bizarre, "Dr. Strangelove"-like image.
"It wasn't a comment, it was just simple playfulness," Merrill said. "As kids we didn't try to have meaning in our work. We just made it."
Want to go?
"ArtWorkers: Creativity and America" is on display at George A. Spiva Center for the Arts, 222 W. Third St. until July 7. The exhibit is sponsored by EaglePicher Technologies, LLC. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday and closed Monday and major holidays. Admission is by voluntary contribution, with a suggested donation of $5 per adult and $1 for students. Details: 623-0183.