All Creatures Gathered Here: Susan Merrill at Hancock Shaker Village
She welcomed me into her farmhouse in Stockbridge one cold February morning. The corgis circled my feet as we made our way through the cozy rooms with fireplaces and past the windows that looked out onto the snow-covered gardens. We walked up a few stairs into her studio (she made the corgis wait outside) and we looked at what she was working on for the spring show. Her paintings offered a vibrant alternative to the present conditions outdoors. They gave one hope for the spring that seemed so far away.
Every spring for 10 years, Susan Merrill exhibited her paintings and drawings at Hancock Shaker Village. Her first show, "All Creatures Gathered Here" (a Shaker quote), featured the Village's baby animals. Later shows branched out from the baby theme: In 2011 "The Black-and-White Barnyard" focused on animals whose black-and-white coats take color from shadow and other atmospheric circumstances; and her 2012 show, "Families, Flocks and Herds," depicted animal groupings and the artistic patterns that result. She saw something in her subjects that the rest of us might not, at least not without some prodding.
Susan loved that her solo show occurred during the Village's popular Baby Animals festival, which provides so many children with an up-close-and-personal encounter with farm animals. That her show was in the 1878 Poultry House — i.e., the Shakers' chicken coop — seemed all the more fitting. Her exhibit openings — always well-attended despite the mud and snow — were a spring ritual at the Village. Friends and fans turned out to admire what Susan had created over the winter. The openings were spirited gatherings, and Susan's brother, Michael, a talented fiddler, would often make the trip from his home in North Carolina to play music. Susan once quipped: "He just throws his toothbrush in his fiddle case and gets on the plane."
Having grown up on a farm in rural Maryland, Susan had treasured memories of farm animals. Her interests were not limited to "traditional" farm animals; she also sought out more exotic ones: skunks, llamas and even peacocks. Susan enjoyed meeting farmers in Berkshire County and feared that farms, not to mention access to them, were disappearing from the Berkshire landscape. She loved that at Hancock, children could interact directly with the animals in the barn. Susan avidly believed that children today should have experiences like the ones she remembered so fondly from her childhood.
An art teacher for many years, Susan talked often about sharing art with children. She purposefully hung her paintings low so that children could view them more easily. She always had two guest books at her shows — one for the adults to enter comments about the exhibit and one for children to draw pictures of their favorite animal or their favorite painting.
One year a young boy visited Susan's exhibit during Baby Animals and said to his grandfather, "Look at this horse!" The boy looked for a while at the painting and then drew it in Susan's guest book. He captured the horse's movement in his drawing. "That's the behavior you want to see in a museum or gallery — you want people to stand there and really look at the art," Susan said later. "What this boy learned had nothing to do with animals or Hancock Shaker Village — he learned about angles. That was an art lesson." Susan's paintings helped people really look — not only at art, but also at animals.
Susan was a warm and generous spirit. We will miss her immensely.
Lesley Herzberg has been the curator at Hancock Shaker Village since 2009. She lives in Pittsfield with her husband and two boys.
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