Iowa Artist Fellow Spotlight: Rachel Merrill
They say history is written by the victors. But art is often created by the underdog, the dark horse, the longshot or the loser.
Like many creative professionals, Iowa Artist Fellow Rachel Merrill of Des Moines has a fat stack of rejection letters. She hangs onto them, she says, because they make her think about “the less thans, the people who just don’t measure up.
“As a woman or, really, someone who just knows how it feels to be ‘the other,’ I obsess about a lot of the things people say, those random critiques,” she says. “And I think, what’s going on with me? Does this affect everyone else who’s also on this weird treadmill of life?”
The answer is a resounding “yes,” judging from the way people respond to her latest collection of sports-inspired videos and sculptural installations. Anyone who has ever swung and missed can relate to Merrill’s video clips of herself wearing wacky handmade uniforms — athlete, referee, cheerleader, mascot — trying her darnedest to complete various nonsensical routines.
The rules of her made-up games are unclear, but you get a hunch she isn’t winning.
For one series, she knitted the number 85 into several uniforms, a detail inspired by an offhand comment from a friend who once told her she was “an 85-percent artist.”
“Well, at least that’s a B,” Merrill muses now. “But it made me wonder, how do I get to 100 percent?”
Merrill has a background in photography, with degrees from the University of Northwestern, in St. Paul, and the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield, Michigan.
She first turned her artistic attention to sports about seven years ago, after she spotted a TV interview with a pro football player who explained that he wanted people to know him for his “body of work.”
Merrill could relate. At the time, she’d already been teaching for several years at Grand View University, where she still works, and was climbing the ladder of academia. In addition to teaching, she was making artwork, pitching it to museums and galleries, collecting more rejection letters — and watching her peers win various honors.
“Why am I feeling bad for myself?” she wondered. “Why do I want the award?”
She thought a lot about the psychology of competition and started noticing examples everywhere, not just in academia but business, politics and, of course, sports.
She went to a Kansas City Chiefs game and took notes. She leaned on her sporty husband and daughter to explain some things that she never learned from her own athletic career, which had ended, without fanfare, after a season of basketball in fourth grade.
“I asked them so many questions,” she says. “Like, ‘Do you have a costume?’ … ‘Mom, it’s a uniform.’”
Some people assume Merrill’s artwork is making fun of sports, but she is quick to explain that sports just happen to be the material she uses to explore broader themes about our competitive society.
“Some of it is funny. I mean, why do coaches yell? Why do fans go crazy?” she says. “But it’s also cultural critique.”
It’s also a form of therapy. Now she sees her stack of rejection letters as creative fuel rather than a depressing curse.
Last summer, when a curator from New York’s Whitney Art Museum chose some of Merrill’s work for a show at the Dubuque Art Museum, a friend texted her what has become a running joke:
“You’re 100 percent.”
This is one of five short profiles about the 2019–2020 Iowa Artist Fellows, each of whom recently filled out a worksheet about what makes them tick.
— Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs