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Rock Hill artist Gene Merritt dies, leaving behind ‘rare, singular, original vision’

Gene Merritt did much of his drawing from his “desk” at the old Watkins Grill on Main Street in downtown Rock Hill.
Gene Merritt did much of his drawing from his “desk” at the old Watkins Grill on Main Street in downtown Rock Hill. Herald file

Gene Merritt didn’t put on a shirt and tie every day, punch a time clock or earn vacation time for every hour he worked. He did not work out of a lofty studio, and nobody ever told him what art was – or what it should be.

But those who spent time with Merritt knew him as a hard-working man, a talented, self-taught artist with a desk in his makeshift “office” on Main Street in downtown Rock Hill. He sat at that desk near the window of what was then Watkins Grill in downtown Rock Hill for nearly 10 years.

From there he crafted thousands of drawings, said Tom Stanley, chairman of Winthrop University’s Department of Fine Arts.

Despite a difficult life – he suffered brain damage as a boy, lived for several years at a Rock Hill homeless shelter – Merritt had a following among Winthrop art students, local artists and everyday folks.

Merritt died earlier this month at his home at Agapé Senior in York. He was 78. His funeral is scheduled for Friday at St. Mary Catholic Church in Rock Hill.

“He was a kind and loving man,” Stanley said, “embraced by those who knew him for his remarkable memory and wit.”

Merritt’s work traveled around the world. His drawings were included in exhibitions in London, Tokyo, Paris and Lausanne, Switzerland, Stanley said.

In the United States, his work was displayed in collections at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art and the South Carolina State Museum. He also has been recognized closer to home, at the Museum of York County.

But those lofty heights didn’t always seem in sight.

‘Just a plain, simple man’

Merritt was born in Columbia. When he was just 5, he developed an extended fever that left him brain damaged, Stanley said. After the death of his mother a few years later, he moved to Fort Mill to live with his father and attended high school there.

After the death of his father, Merritt moved around – living in a nursing home, with a Catawba Indian family, at his home on Confederate Avenue, at the Pilgrims’ Inn homeless shelter and finally his last home, Agapé.

Aside from making his art, and selling some of it to help with living expenses, Stanley said, Merritt worked as a bag boy, a shoe shine and a movie theater janitor.

Walking along Confederate Avenue to his “office” at Watkins Grill, the outgoing and quirky artist would check in on the other hard-working people in his life. He would stop in at a barber shop, dry cleaners, a loan company, a car dealership, a scuba shop, a pawn shop, and the Arts Council of York County.

“It was these folks who realized, who knew and who loved his special genius, just as he loved them,” Stanley said. “Gene would walk every day and would bring a small smile to anyone still willing to smile. He cared about people.”

Tracey Mobley, Merritt’s friend and onetime caregiver for nearly a decade, became so smitten that she paid him regular visits and welcomed him into her home on holidays. She would bring him baskets of goodies during Valentine’s Day and Easter.

“My heart is aching,” said Mobley, who considered Merritt a part of her family. “I wanted to keep him forever.”

While she worked as a certified nursing assistant at the assisted living community where he lived, Mobley said, Merritt asked if he could draw for her.

“I got bombarded with about 100 pictures of Scooby-Doo!” she said.

He drew a portrait of her wearing lots of makeup, then several sketch books full of drawings.

“It’s kind of mind-blowing because he was just a plain, simple man,” Mobley said. “He did not know his drawings were famous.”

Mobley’s mother still keeps one of Merritt’s drawings on her refrigerator. He would confess his love for her and she would reciprocate, Mobley said, but he would then come back with, “I would marry you, but I can’t afford a wife.”

‘What we could all be’

Merritt drew much of his inspiration from the people around him, or those he saw on television. He liked to watch old westerns and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”

His drawings often depicted characters from those shows or anybody he had seen on TV – from Phyllis Diller to William Shatner to Helen Gurley Brown. Sometimes he would draw odd scenes that might have seemed confusing at first.

When the manager at Watkins Grill mentioned in passing one day that Merritt was “beating a dead horse,” he drew very literal scenes labeled “Man beating a dead horse.”

His basic, two-dimensional renderings were simple, but his style was consistent – faces lined and segmented, often mask-like. At times, it appeared he would be drawing scary or absurd disguises on his subjects. He often included a caption, which might contain dates or explanatory information. The dates were often two or three weeks in the future.

“I like to keep ahead of myself,” Merritt explained in a 1997 interview with The Herald.

For Merritt, drawing was his business. Sometimes he would add a dash of color to his work with colored pencil, but not often.

“I’m getting too old to do some of this stuff,” Merritt said in 1997. “My mind would blow a gasket.”

With what money he earned, Stanley said, Merritt would buy nail polish for the women he considered his sweethearts. He often gave away his art.

“Sharing with others was part of his creative process,” Stanley said. “Since his drawing was there for everyone to see – from the first carefully conceived line to the last – his work was very accessible.”

A great number of people see art as being somehow repetitive, Stanley said, but Merritt’s work is “singular,” meaning it’s original, harder to find. That might make it difficult for some to understand.

“I think that would be true,” Stanley said. “The reason is because his art falls into a special niche.”

An admirer of Merritt’s work told Stanley recently that “the world has become a little less interesting.”

“Through his work, he exhibited his own personality,” Stanley said. “People who like it oftentimes see it as an example of what we could all be, as far as self-expression, and that’s important."

‘A cultural icon’

Paul Matheny, chief curator of art at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia, said Merritt’s work came from his “own personal unique vision – how he interprets things.”

Merritt’s drawings weren’t typical portraits, Matheny said, and his art evolved over time.

The self-taught artist focused on pop culture, movie and television stars, country music artists, politicians and people he cared about, Stanley said. Other subjects included Martians and outer-space drawings, Matheny said.

“What he was doing was extremely captivating,” said Matheny, who met Merritt in 1992, while studying art at Winthrop.

Matheny and his fellow students were intrigued and respected Merritt’s work. They gathered at Watkins Grill to learn from him.

“He was a cultural icon of downtown Rock Hill,” said Matheny, who houses nearly 40 of Merritt’s drawings at the State Museum. The Sumter County Gallery of Art is also home to a permanent collection of Merritt’s art, he said.

Merritt did not refer to his drawings as art, Matheny said, choosing instead to call it his “paperwork.”

Between 1992 and 2012, Merritt signed his name to his work in various forms, including “Gene’s Art,” “Gene’s Art Inc.” and “Gene’s Art Museums Inc.” His drawings served as his business card, Stanley said.

“He could make you laugh with the way he associated things,” he said.

When asked in the 1997 interview whether he was happy, Merritt gave a matter-of-fact response.

“I have to be. I’ve got no place else to go.”

Over the years, Merritt’s art has found plenty of places to go. In addition to museums and galleries, his work has been featured in “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,” a University of North Carolina Press publication, and “The Outlanders,” which featured artists from around the globe.

“His drawings represented a rare, singular, original vision,” Stanley said, “and spoke to the connection between hand and eye, between mind and pen, between heart and paper.”

Services

A funeral mass for Clyde Eugene Merritt is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Friday at St. Mary Catholic Church, 902 Crawford Road, Rock Hill.

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