Gerald Merfeld: Patience at the foot of the Sangres

Article by Leah Lahtinen

Local Artists – January 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

Gerald Merfeld is a lucky man. For 40 years, he has been an artist, making a living and living his dream. His greatest challenge, he says, has been sustaining the passion for art that started him on this road as a young man.

“The biggest thing is not to change how you think about it. Don’t become disenchanted when you hit a brick wall making a living at it — at surviving — and cop out,” he muses on a snowy day in his studio on the shoulder of the Sangres. He has stopped expecting to be in the hall of fame, stopped hoping to get rich and famous — stopped even wanting it. “Fame takes too much time,” he says. “Who cares?” His initial philosophy was to appeal to enough people so that he could sell some of his work… “Then you’ve got an excuse to paint more.”

As time passed, Merfeld says he became less certain in his work. “One thing I discovered… if you can define it, you can’t do it.” Art of any kind is something to take part in, says Merfeld. “it’s the art of the thing — painting, sculpture, poetry. You can appreciate it even if you don’t do it.”

Merfeld describes painting as “visual poetry.” “If stuff makes you think, it doesn’t have to be Goya to be profound.”

Merfeld started at Chicago’s American Academy of Art. He later apprenticed himself to illustrator Dean Cornwall, moving to Greenwich Village in 1957. His career took him to New England, and then back to Illinois, to New Lennox, where he lived and painted until he moved to Westcliffe four years ago. He designed and built his mountain studio on the site of a hay barn and cow shed that collapsed propitiously after Merfeld bought the property.

Merfeld’s studio, large and bright, is full of sketches of paintings that aren’t quite ready, or quite right, with banks of wooden file cabinets containing work from the forties. The room is dotted with clay figures, required because a hand was not quite right and the model has moved to Paris, or because a mother might have objected to having herself and her child photographed — but the artist could not rest until the image was somehow out of his system.

In his studio, he works in oils and does some watercolors and drawings as well. A frustrated sculptor, Merfeld says, “I think in 3-D better than flat, but I like color.” He says his favorite painting is “the next one.” “If I did a masterpiece, then I’d be done.”

Through experience, Merfeld has learned not to pass a painting on to a buyer until his artist’s soul is satisfied with the work. Some pieces have resulted in past drawings, oil sketches, even clay sculptures to help Merfeld work out his frustration with uncooperative paintings. That allows for flexibility in his work, and still lets him “get some art in it.” A painting is right, says Merfeld, “when there’s nothing you want to fix on it.”

Because he won’t be rushed into selling his work before he feels it’s ready, he’s pulled out of many galleries. The gallery world is not the same as used to be in this country, says Merfeld. Most galleries can’t afford to operate in that manner. “Too much of what’s being done today is just soap jingles,” he worries. Galleries have had to become commercial, and the philosophy of art has dropped out, leading to the return of the “salon” where commercial success is not a consideration.

Merfeld shows at only two galleries, one in a beautiful home in an elegant part of Oklahoma City with a clientele who truly appreciate art. Like many other artists, he also shows out of his own studio, retaining control over his work. He prefers to show at area and regional shows such as the Governor’s Invitational or the Northwest Rendezvous in Utah — shows patronized by serious collectors.

Merfeld work can be viewed at the Grapevine Gallery in Oklahoma City and at Fritzler Fine Art in Mesa, Colorado, as well as out of his own studio, Brookwood Gallery in Westcliffe. Call 719-783-2166 for an appointment and directions. The artist’s work has also been profiled in a documentary by Westcliffe videographer, Mark Spink.

Leah Lahtinen, who lives in Gardner, also writes for the Wet Mountain Tribune in Westcliffe.