Death of the Art Brut artist Gene Merritt
16.05.2015 - generalYork County artist Clyde Eugene Merritt died peacefully Saturday morning, May 16, 2015. Born November 30, 1936, his early childhood was spent in Columbia, S.C. Most of his adolescent and adult life Merritt lived in Fort Mill and Rock Hill, eventually on Confederate Avenue and later at Pilgrim’s Inn as one of its first residents. In his declining years he moved to Yorktowne Village, now Agape Senior, an assisted living facility in York, S.C. Though he worked a number of jobs during his life from bag boy to shoe shine man to janitor in a local movie theatre, Merritt is best remembered for sitting at “his” table at Watkins Grill in downtown Rock Hill where for nearly ten years he created thousands of drawings. He was a kind and loving man, embraced by those who knew him for his remarkable memory and keen wit.
Merritt’s drawings were included in collections and exhibitions throughout the world from London to Tokyo to Paris to Lausanne. In the U.S. he was included in the collections of Duke University’s Nasher Museum, the Museum of York County, and the South Carolina State Museum. His drawings represented a rare singular, original vision and spoke to the connection between hand and eye, between mind and pen, between heart and paper. Merritt’s work was recently featured in the UNC Press publication The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 23, Folk Art. There is also a photo essay about him in Mario Del Curto’s publication The Outlanders featuring artists from around the globe. Regardless, since the 2001 death of one of his major advocates, Swiss curator and writer Geneviève Roulin, little has been seen of Merritt’s work.
Since his drawing was there for everyone to see from the first carefully conceived line to the last, his work was very accessible. Sharing with others was part of his creative process. As drawings were completed, he gave them away or sold them for spare change. This was his business and he was a self-acknowledged “hard working man.” Between the years of 1992-2012 his drawings were identified by a progression of signatures or “autographs” including Gene’s Art to Gene’s Art Inc. to Gene’s Art Museums Inc. The drawings served as his business cards. Merritt’s drawings employed subjects we all knew from popular culture including movie and TV stars, country music artists, politicians and people that he cared about. And he cared about people.
With his passing it is important to note that many of us really did not know this quiet man who once walked daily from his Confederate Avenue home to regular stops along the way where he visited other hard working, everyday people. Stops included the barber shop, the dry cleaners, the loan company, Hardees, the car dealership, Scuba Adventures, the pawn shop, the arts council, and, of course Watkins Grill. Later he would find hard working people at Pilgrims Inn, Yorktowne Village and Agape. It was these folks who realized, who knew, and who loved his special genius, just as he loved them. And yes, Gene would walk every day and would bring a small smile to anyone still willing to smile. So thank you Clyde Eugene Merritt. We love you; your hard work is done.
Tom Stanley, Chair
Department of Fine Arts