A life in clay - Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

In the 38 years that Stephen Merritt has showcased his work at the M&T Bank Clothesline Festival, he has seen it all. Heavy rains, windstorms and extreme heat, beating down on his delicate art pottery.

"About the only weather I haven't encountered is snow," Merritt says with a chuckle.

Merritt has displayed and sold his ceramics at every Clothesline show except last year's, when the MAG had construction blocking his usual site in front of the University Avenue entrance. He decided that was a sign to try something else and opted for a festival in St. Louis.

He'll be back at the Rochester festival next Saturday and Sunday, though, having vowed never to test the Clothesline gremlins again. Too many things went wrong last year when he traveled.

Merritt is perhaps the most well-known of all the festival's artists; his pottery is in the Smithsonian Institution collection and Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. He no longer does the festival circuit, opting for only a few and, in Rochester, only Clothesline.

"The art gallery needs the recognition of the local arts community," Merritt says. "If people who have an interest in the arts community don't show their support, that strength is weakened."

Clothesline ? considered the premier arts festival in the Rochester area by art enthusiasts ? has helped launch the careers of many prominent artists, including Merritt, who through the years has showcased his Asian-inspired works alongside other Rochester notables such as the painter Ramon Santiago and sculptor Nancy Jurs. Now in its 55th year, the juried art show draws about 20,000 visitors from the region to see about 400 artists, says Joe Carney, director of advancement at the Memorial Art Gallery.

Taking shape

Merritt's roots in pottery began in Nagasaki, Japan, more than 40 years ago, where he and his wife, Donna, worked as English teachers. He trained with two sensei during his tenure there ? first with Ishikawa Seiho in stoneware and then with Inoue Manji in porcelain. In the 1960s, being a pottery artist was considered an artistic hippie-type career in the United States, but in Japan the art form was held in high regard, and skills were passed from generation to generation.

"You are either a part of a family of potters or you studied with a master," Merritt says.

Most students start out as apprentices doing grunt work, but Seiho took Merritt under his wing, perhaps because he was delighted to see an American, Merritt recalls. Seiho is considered the founder of modern Unzen-style pottery and once presented a tea bowl and vase to the emperor and empress of Japan, a high honor for an artist in that country.

Following his work with Seiho, Merritt continued his studies with Manji, learning the art of porcelain making. Porcelain is a more delicate medium requiring more precision, Merritt says.

Coming home

The Merritts returned to Rochester in 1972, and Stephen Merritt set out to begin his artistic career. To make it work, he juggled two other part-time jobs.

That same year, Merritt debuted his work at Clothesline, selling his small pots for $2 to $3 a piece.

Yearning to make a full-time living as a potter to support his family, Merritt sought out different techniques. He tried his hand at production pottery, making lower-priced functional pieces such as mugs in large quantities, but his heart just wasn't in it.

He wanted to make fine art, but he needed to find a style and then market himself in a way that set him apart. The young artist then recalled his training in Japan where large pieces were created in sections, enabling a potter to make major sculptural works. Merritt applied that technique to his own vessels, which were well-received among art collectors.

"It's a more dramatic art form," Merritt says of large works.

As his popularity grew, Merritt eventually gave up his part-time jobs, making ceramics his full-time occupation to support his wife and five children. In the studio at his Irondequoit home (they moved there in 1976), Merritt works in quiet tranquility, shaping and molding his pots and firing them in a kiln.

A distinct style

Merritt works in porcelain and terracotta, though he is perhaps better known for his terracotta creations. His style is often identified by his one-stem vases, popular in Japanese pottery; the etched, clean lines around his vases give them a contemporary look. "The influence of being in Japan is a strong one," Merritt says.

Marjorie Searl, chief curator at the Memorial Art Gallery, has been collecting Merritt's work for 20 years, attracted to the elegance of its form, the subtlety of its color and mastery of the ceramics process. "He seems to 'hit it' exactly right in each piece," Searl says. "For me, a ceramic piece feels right in a physical and a visual way, almost as though the pulse of the artist's hand remains. I feel that essence in Steve's work."

Over the years, Merritt continues to experiment with form and push the limits of scale, Searl says. "I am particularly impressed with his ability and interest in combining the most bulbous, rounded body with the most narrow and elongated neck," she says, noting that she and her husband, Scott, enjoy a variety of Merritt's work, both large and small and with different glazes.

Merritt also gives back to the local arts community, Searl says. His "Art in June" series brings people from all over the community to his studio to see his work and the work of other Rochester artists, Searl notes.

The art of listening

Merritt enjoys talking to people, says the MAG's Carney. That rapport could be why he returns to Clothesline year after year.

It takes thick skin to interact with an audience, Merritt says. People, by nature, can be critical of art when it doesn't fit their tastes. With time, an artist learns to not take criticism personally and to use feedback to improve his body of work, he says.

Doing an outdoor show for any artist also is challenging because you are at the whim of Mother Nature, Merritt says

Yet he plans to continue his long tenure at Clothesline because he believes in the MAG's mission and supports how the festival helps emerging artists make names for themselves.

He also likes to mingle with fellow artists and art fans he sees each year. "You have the legitimacy of Rochester's premier art institution," Merritt says. "It's probably the best way to market yourself."


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