Kansas City and the world lost a multi-talented, big-hearted and much-loved artist and leader Sept. 19 when Hugh Merrill passed away unexpectedly but peacefully, according to his wife, Staci Pratt.
Merrill’s prints have long been admired for their richly layered images and subjects. More than 50 museums have collected his work, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, the National Museum in Poznań, Poland, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. In 1985 the Nelson-Atkins exhibited his “Lucky Dragon” suite of etchings, named after a Japanese fishing boat that was tragically exposed to fallout from a nearby United States hydrogen bomb test in 1954.
“Hugh stood up for what he believed in and said things that needed to be said but couldn’t be said by others, whether the road was easy or hard, whether people thought he was right or not.”Casey Whittier, KCAI associate professor of ceramics, Kansas City Art Institute
Difficult subjects like the Lucky Dragon were a hallmark of Merrill’s 50-year career. In the artist’s words, his 1970s “Western Garden” etchings suite reflects a landscape “of abuse, ownership, more abuse, profit and toxic waste . . . yet retaining a sculptural magnificence, and intimidating beauty.” His “Luxemburg” and “Wallenberg” prints of the 1990s paid homage to thinker and anti-war activist Rosa Luxemburg and the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who helped prevent the deportation of thousands of Jews in World War II-era Hungary.
Art history informed Merrill’s approach, as he stated on his website. “It should be noted that the history of printmaking ranging from Durer to Goya, Romare Bearden and Elizabeth Catlett, consistently dealt with social, political and psychological content. I was deeply interested in social change and was part of the civil rights, gay, women’s and anti-war movements.”
Merrill taught at the Kansas City Art Institute for 46 years, where he was known for his ability to connect with students. At the time of his death, KCAI President Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar was about to honor Merrill by naming him a Senior Professor. His former student Patrick Moonasar, now an assistant vice-president of technology at a global banking firm stated, “He imbued you with the first steps of a lifelong process of cultivating your self-worth.”
KCAI associate professor of ceramics Casey Whittier admired Merrill’s commitment. “The passion that he brought to the school was inspiring. He stood up for what he believed in and said things that needed to be said but couldn’t be said by others, whether the road was easy or hard, whether people thought he was right or not.” As a student at KCAI, Whittier studied with Merrill in the Community Arts Service Learning program that Merrill had advocated for. The program has developed into a Social Practice minor that Merrill was appointed to this semester.
The artist’s activism went well beyond his own art. Among many collaborations with schools and social service organizations, for nearly 20 years he was director of Chameleon Arts and Youth Development, a Kansas City non-profit with the mission to inspire and foster an interdisciplinary artistic community of racial, ethnic and cultural diversity to serve youth, artists and community. Chameleon provided inner-city neighborhoods with a cultural arts center, creative and technical resources for community groups, and opportunities for professional artists, educators and youth from the urban core.
More recently, Merrill’s creative output had evolved to include poetry and autobiography.
Nettie Zan Powers, Merrill’s editor for “Dog Alley,” asserted in a Facebook post that this book of poems and art is “the closest one can get to Hugh as a man and individual, outside of his persona and art life.”
As in his printmaking and teaching, Merrill’s writing addressed tough topics bravely. In 2019 he published “Whiteout,” a recollection of his upbringing in a family of white privilege and power in the South of the Jim Crow era. In his words, “Over generations, my family helped shape the Jim Crow laws in Alabama, convict the innocent and protect the guilty. They profited from slavery, racial terror, the labor of hired convicts, the prison leasing system and took full advantage of all the other perks that go with wealth and easy access to the powerful.”
Merrill’s daughter Rebekah, a public defender in Los Angeles, traveled through Alabama with him to research source material for “Whiteout.” One of their conversations revealed what may have been Merrill’s deepest inspiration for a lifetime of social activism. “As we talked about family history, we agreed that we are not personally responsible for the actions of our forebears, but as beneficiaries of that legacy we have an obligation to acknowledge it and to help chip away at institutionalized racism.”