October 2021  Vol. 2, No.9

The Multiple Muses of Jackie Merritt

M.S.G. Acoustic Blues Trio
Color Pastel/Charcoal on Paper
32 x 26 inches

Artistic people often tend to explore a multiplicity of creative expressions. Many musicians are also accomplished visual artists. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney, Miles Davis, David Bowie, John Lennon, Fionna Apple, Ani DiFranco, John Lurie, to mention just a few. When they publicly unveil their artwork, fortified by their already existing fame, they leapfrog right to the top of the art business, magically catapulting their way into the most prestigious and high-paying galleries to achieve instant acclaim – and commensurate sales. Skeptical critics would legitimately question if they could achieve the same commercial success as visual artists had they not been famous celebrities. If an average, unknown Joe or Jane took that identical artwork to these top galleries, without the name game, what reception would they get? Most artists don’t have that benefit. Normally, having split interests and creative pursuits is actually risky business. It’s hard enough to break through in one discipline, much less in two.​

John

John

Color Pastel on Paper

24 x 30 inches

Self Portrait

Self Portrait

Color Pastel on Paper

24 x 30 inches

One artist who managed simultaneous visual and musical careers the hard way is the multi-talented Jackie Merritt, from Hampton, Virginia. She has made it her life’s work to cherish her duality as a visual artist, roots & blues musician and singer/songwriter. Merritt plays harmonica, guitar, bass, banjo and she taps bones (a percussion technique when bones or spoons are clapped). She performs with the MSG Acoustic Blues Trio (Jackie Merritt, Miles Spicer and Resa Lynne Gibbs). Miles Spicer lives in Riverdale, Maryland; Merritt and Gibbs are down in Hampton, Virginia. The trio carries on the Piedmont traditions, although they make clear that they are “Piedmont & beyond” mostly in the Maryland/Virginia/

Washington, DC area. They broke onto the national scene, including performing at the 2015 Chicago Blues Festival, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the Kennedy Center, and the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion Music Festival. Their blues music combines elements of folk, Appalachian and contemporary American string music. They reach way back to the spirituals, to gospel, all with a true folk blues, back porch feeling.

Couch Potato by Jackie Merritt

Couch Potato

Color Pastel on Paper

35 x 28 inches

Stressed by Jackie Merritt

Stressed

Color Pastel on Pastel Board

16 x 20 inches

Jackie Merritt is a superb and witty songwriter. One of her most successful tunes is the sharply sardonic Mean Church People a poignant expose of hypocrisy, which Jackie Merritt reports is her most requested song. She articulated, “All of the songs that I’ve written are basic blues structure. My influences are Elizabeth Cotten – and actually the Appalachian bluegrass singer and banjoist Ola Belle Reed. It’s from the heart, and the way I write it is to tell the truth. To me, that’s what blues is all about, is telling the truth…”

She also tells the truth in her visual art!

Twisted by Jackie Merritt

Twisted

Color Pastel/Charcoal on Paper

30 x 37 inches

Homeless, Hungry, God Bless by Jackie Merritt

Homeless, Hungry, God Bless

Color Pastel on Paper

29 x 37 inches

Street Singer by Jackie Merritt

Street Singer

Color Pastel on Paper

27 x 37 inches

Merritt earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Norfolk State University, where she studied under the famed African American artist A.B. Jackson, who encouraged her to apply to his alma mater, the graduate art program at Yale University. Unfortunately, during the Yale interview she encountered a department professor who dismissed her with primitively condescending sexist comments, most likely rooted in base racism.

Instead, she moved to a more welcoming ground at the university of Wisconsin in Madison. Her adventures included spending the summer of 1971 with Georgia O’Keefe in Abiquiu, New Mexico. “I stayed in a cabin on a mountain above Abiquiu. She never even asked to see my work. We mostly talked about environmental issues.”

Merritt earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Norfolk State University, where she studied under the famed African American artist A.B. Jackson, who encouraged her to apply to his alma mater, the graduate art program at Yale University. Unfortunately, during the Yale interview she encountered a department professor who dismissed her with primitively condescending sexist comments, most likely rooted in base racism. Instead, she moved to a more welcoming ground at the university of Wisconsin in Madison. Her adventures included spending the summer of 1971 with Georgia O’Keefe in Abiquiu, New Mexico. “I stayed in a cabin on a mountain above Abiquiu. She never even asked to see my work. We mostly talked about environmental issues.”

Mama’s Glory by Jackie Merritt

Mama’s Glory

Oil on Gator Board

18 x 24 inches

Voyeur by Jackie Merritt

Voyeur

Color Pastel/Charcoal on Paper

26 x 33 inches

Freedom? by Jackie Merritt

Freedom?

Color Pastel on Paper

27 x 36 inches

Merritt managed a lifetime career as a teacher at various colleges, universities and primary schools, holding positions as instructor, adjunct professor, assistant professor and artist in residency. She held a full-time job for 21 years as a Visual Information Specialist for the US government at the Atlantic Naval Facility Engineering Command, a job from which she retired in 2007.

One Degree Of Separation by Jackie Merritt

One Degree Of Separation

Color Pastel/Charcoal on Paper

28 x 18 inches

The Wake

The Wake

Color Pastel on Paper

27 x 33 inches

Assurance

Assurance

Color Pastel on Paper

24 x 32 inches

A wise counsel for writers is “Write what you know.” Merritt’s creative subject matter aptly falls close to home. Her current work reflects her own African American community. She explained, “I am painting what I feel inside. My own community or my own memories. I am foremost a storyteller, in my art and music. I paint and write about situations and people that have a connection to me, now or before. I focus on structure in my paintings. My subject matter comes from my soul. Artistically, I am a realist, but it is my realism. I react emotionally and express that visually. It’s about the feeling.” Her recent work consists predominately of portraits. Interestingly, in earlier parts of her career she focused on painting still lifes, heavily influenced by Giorgio Morandi, the Italian painter and printmaker who specialized in this subject matter, an influence that is clearly notable even today. Her current portraits carry a similar tonal subtlety and feeling. Like Morandi, the brushstrokes are visible and become an important part of the composition. Merritt uses a muted color palette, subdued and with quiet simplicity. While her portraits are self-described realistic depictions, there are elements of expressionism. Merritt depicts reality, not objective reality, but rather of subjective emotions. Her brushstrokes are free, unafraid of distortion and exaggeration, moving away from the literal representation of tight realism in order to express more subjective outlooks or states of mind. She uses the expressive possibilities of color and line to explore dramatic and emotion-laden themes, to convey the human subject with intensity of feeling – much like the blues she plays. “I am trying to portray what is around me and what I am feeling. It’s what I have to get out as an artist, especially in these times. My work is a form of self-healing.”

Let Go Let God

Let Go Let God

Color Pastel on Paper

27 x 35 inches

A wise counsel for writers is “Write what you know.” Merritt’s creative subject matter aptly falls close to home. Her current work reflects her own African American community. She explained, “I am painting what I feel inside. My own community or my own memories. I am foremost a storyteller, in my art and music. I paint and write about situations and people that have a connection to me, now or before. I focus on structure in my paintings. My subject matter comes from my soul. Artistically, I am a realist, but it is my realism. I react emotionally and express that visually. It’s about the feeling.” Her recent work consists predominately of portraits. Interestingly, in earlier parts of her career she focused on painting still lifes, heavily influenced by Giorgio Morandi, the Italian painter and printmaker who specialized in this subject matter, an influence that is clearly notable even today. Her current portraits carry a similar tonal subtlety and feeling. Like Morandi, the brushstrokes are visible and become an important part of the composition. Merritt uses a muted color palette, subdued and with quiet simplicity. While her portraits are self-described realistic depictions, there are elements of expressionism. Merritt depicts reality, not objective reality, but rather of subjective emotions. Her brushstrokes are free, unafraid of distortion and exaggeration, moving away from the literal representation 

of tight realism in order to express more subjective outlooks or states of mind. She uses the expressive possibilities of color and line to explore dramatic and emotion-laden themes, to convey the human subject with intensity of feeling – much like the blues she plays. “I am trying to portray what is around me and what I am feeling. It’s what I have to get out as an artist, especially in these times. My work is a form of self-healing.”

Betty Carter

Betty Carter

Oil on Gator Board

6 x 7¾ inches

Jackie Merritt

Jackie Merritt

Oil on Canvas

11 x 14 inches

Resa Gibbs

Resa Gibbs

Oil on Canvas

20 x 16 inches

Eleanor Ellis

Eleanor Ellis

Oil on Canvas

11½ x 16 inches

Gaye Adebalola

Gaye Adebalola

Oil on Gator Board

11 x 16 inches

Done with the Devil

Done with the Devil

Color Pastel on Paper

17 x 22½ inches

“I decided that I need to get my visual art to the same place as my songwriting – as a storyteller.”

“Somewhere along the way, I began to question what my artwork is saying. What did I really have to say? I decided that I need to get my visual art to the same place as my songwriting – as a storyteller. At the same time, I began to be perturbed that the blues scene was so male-dominated, and I wanted to give women their due. I wanted to draw women, so I created a series titled Color Me Blue/Mean Mamas, which was shown in the Chrysler Museum. My latest painting is called Done with the Devil, which depicts a Paris street musician. Later it became clear to me that the man standing ominously behind her looks eerily like my stepfather, with whom I had a troubled relationship.”

Merritt is an artist at peace with herself. She has achieved success as a musician, songwriter and visual artist and found her stride as an artistic documentarian. No matter what muse she delves into, she is an old-fashioned storyteller.

Self Portrait

Self Portrait

Frank Matheis

Frank Matheis
Writer. Photographer. Producer.


Contributing writer to the Hammond Museum, Frank Matheis, is a music, visual arts and culture writer and photographer. His latest project was the book ‘Sweet Bitter Blues’ co-written with National Heritage Fellow Phil Wiggins (University Press of Mississippi, 2020). His Hammond Museum column ‘In Other Words’ features member artists in all disciplines. He is also a contributing writer to ArtsWestchester, Living Blues magazine (Center for Southern Culture Studies) and thecountryblues.com.