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The Dean of Eight

Sitting comfortably in a tan hat, plaid shirt and blue suspenders, Armand Merizon's stories flow with wit and clarity. He could have been a Portuguese fisherman. Gnarly hands, enormous angular knuckles and eyes deeply mysterious. He looks like a person who knew the sea and lived from it.

But Merizon was driven to paint. Born in Kalamazoo, he moved to Grand Rapids with his Dutch immigrant parents at the age of four. At five, he was drawing. At ten, during the Great Depression, he received an art kit and began painting on anything he could find—old cigar box covers, scraps of cardboard. An enterprising young lad, he went door-to-door, selling his works for a quarter. On a really good day, he had $2.25 in his pocket. A father’s response to his son's proud earnings: “That’s more than I’ve got.”

Now, at 87, Armand Merizon is considered one of Grand Rapids more venerable local painters. Area art lovers and collectors recognize and appreciate his contribution to the fine arts. Some collectors specifically seek out particular years. And kids who inherited his earlier work are reselling canvases for a tidy profit. Like so many revered artisans, Merizon is achieving a new level of notoriety late in life.

“Armand is a grand master who makes paint vibrate with intensity like no other,” says Ben Perrin, owner of Mercury Head Gallery, which has showcased Merizon's pieces for years.

Later this month, Merizon will join seven of his colleagues for Grand Rapids' first exhibit of the West Michigan 8, a group of friends and respected local artists that includes Carl Forslund, Jim Markle, Jon McDonald, Larry Blovits, Jack Brouwer, Collin Fry, and Chris Stoffel Overvoorde. The group, modeled after the renowned Group of Seven, a troupe of similarly styled painters established in Canada in the early 1900s, formed for exhibition purposes and sponsored their first formal exhibit last year at the Muskegon Museum of Art.

Eyekons Gallery will host the group's latest show beginning September 21 running through November 17, 2007. Armand Merizon will join other members of the West Michigan 8 for a special reception at the gallery on opening night.

Surprisingly, Merizon didn’t feel comfortable in Grand Rapids as a young artist. Few understood his need to experiment, explore, and search for beauty, he says. He even goes so far as to describe the scene in those days as "anti-art." “I had to get away for my salvation,” he says.

Merizon roamed as a teen, hitch-hiking from Grand Rapids to see the world. Inspired by the naturalists, he began to study the complexity of the environment and the natural world. The smells, shadows, and sounds of water would eventually breathe life into his marine and landscape paintings.

His career ‘gathered some steam’ when he earned a scholarship to an art school out east, only to discover that he was more advanced than the classes. He remained his own best teacher, continuing to experiment with and learn about the integrity and durability of paint.

“It’s all Picasso,” Merizon was told during those formative years of his unorthodox training. “Picasso was considered the crowning symbolism of the modern rebellion,” he says. So Merizon ventured to Europe in search of yet another school. He disembarked from an Italian boat in Gibralter and stepped into the middle of the Spanish Civil War where soldiers stood on every corner. Travel brought still more dimension to his art.

The true beauty of great classical music—Beethoven, Handle, Mozart, and Schubert—often transported Merizon to a transcendental state throughout his career. Now, as a master of realism, the abstract and impressionism, Armand asks himself, “If I had an hour to live, what piece of music would I want to hear, emotionally. Nothing tangible to look at or read, just notes, a guide.”

Merizon's daughter Chantal is his personal framer and assistant. She keeps a recent painting in her downstairs shop that illustrates how the harmony and composition of song stirs his creativity.

“It is an abstraction of the charm of color,” Merizon says. "It is a group of people together, human beings. The impact presents a collective color pattern; it intertwines the pattern. Going from color to color is a movement in itself. Sometimes there is an obvious rhythm of strong lines that carries the sense of dynamic. My league of abstraction is silent background, music, great music.”

“I have a complexity of approaches," he continues. "Some of it is sly humor, wit, and others are pure scenery, the Lake Michigan shoreline and dunes, yet other canvases are more imaginative, like Indian spirits. People change as they get older. I have changed. I look upon time, and I don’t like what I see in this world. The trend bothers me. Our minds are not as exercised as they were. Art students today are in such a hurry, they don’t want to sit and work with the naked eye. Today's artists are too impatient, going too fast with all this technology.”

Armand continues to paint in the preferred evening silence of his home ‘after Betty goes to bed.’ He needs his silence and privacy to work. Macular degeneration has gradually taken its toll and Armand has been declared legally blind. As a result, his painting is more from the heart than ever.

Still, he continues to live by his art, faithfully. His signature is steady to this day: “Merizon…we don’t know where the name originated. My mother’s name fits the soil. My dad’s dad was a sailor, a seaman. Merizon could be French. Some say it could be Portuguese.”

He paints an honest reflection of us, through seven decades now. A humble giant, who voices the deepest thoughts and feelings of humanity, he continues to inspire his paint and images with experimentation, truth, beauty, light and movement. A living Grand Rapids’ legend, he promises, “I will paint until my nose touches the canvas."


Nancy Davis is an independent writer and artist living in Grand Rapids. She last wrote for Rapid Growth about vintage clothing shops in the city.

Photos:

Armand Merizon in conversation in his daughter Chantal's Alger Heights home

Armand Merizon

A large collection of Armand's paintings in Chantal's home

Chantal selects a molding for a recent painting in her basement framing studio

Armand shares a laugh (and a cookie)

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

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