Spencer Merolla uses ashes and the visual language of mourning in her post-election art

Spencer Merolla says she has been interested in art for as long as she can remember, having grown up with a mother who was an artist herself. But when she attended Wesleyan University she pursued a different path, majoring in religion and envisioning a future as an academic. While in graduate school at NYU she realized she was very unhappy. She started working in event design and creating art “on the side,” which became more and more the central focus of her life.

“I realized there were all these signs that there wasn’t enough creative practice in my life,” Merolla recalls.

And so the academic instead became the artist.

“Love Lost,” by Spencer Merolla.

Merolla is a visual artist who makes concept-driven work that uses a wide range of materials that all have the capacity to transmit and retain meaning. It is the materials and humanity’s relationship to them that interests her most. She does everything from small-scale works to large installations, and is currently in the process of creating a first performance piece.

A common theme throughout her work is that she uses materials that are upcycled or found materials that have a significant history or a strong association with them. She has worked with human hair, funeral clothing, heirloom wedding dresses – “any material that carries some sort of memory with it.”

“After a Fashion II,” by Spencer Merolla.

Much of her work utilizes the language of mourning – her work with human hair recalls antique Victorian ornamental hairwork, painstakingly crafted from the hair of deceased loved ones, while her Funeral Clothes Project features pieces all entirely made out of clothing worn in mourning.

Most recently her work has taken on a decidedly political theme, using her previous work with funeral clothes and the idea of mourning as a sort of launch point.

“The same language of mourning applies to the experience of reading the news,” she says. On the day of the presidential election last November, she donned a white pantsuit – a visual nod to Hilary Clinton – and cast her vote.

“I felt like okay, this is going to happen, so I let myself relax into the idea of being present for this historical moment,” she remembers. “The next day I cut it up and made it into a mourning corsage.”

“Mourning Corsage,” by Spencer Merolla.

That pantsuit was reborn as several mourning corsage-inspired pieces and was really her first unambiguous foray into politically motivated art.

“I used to really keep a lid on my politics in my outward-facing art life,” Merolla says. “I didn’t want to ruffle feathers. I wanted to keep the two things separate. I was worried about alienating people, and my work was not explicitly political so I felt there was no need to go there. But obviously there’s important work to do here. You can’t make people find you unobjectionable. It doesn’t matter if you try not to be a ‘nasty woman.'”

Her feelings changed after the election.

“That was a turning point for me personally, as a woman and also as a person in the world feeling like I really had to be more accountable in my art practice to the values that I hold. Those were my lessons from the election.”

“Ashes in Our Mouth,” by Spencer Merolla.

Her next project in the immediate aftermath of the election was called Ashes in Our Mouth. The name was taken from a line that originated in a famous speech President John F. Kennedy gave on the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, saying, “The fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth.” For this project, Merolla made “baloney sandwiches” out of coal ash and resin.

“Food had no flavor the week after the election,” she says. “I started thinking of all the people whose lunches tasted like ash.”

The project was created as a benefit for climate justice organization 350.org. It also inspired her next big undertaking, a mobile bakery/performance piece in which she will go out and sell castes of baked goods made out of ash called Coal Comforts. This project will also be a fundraiser to combat climate change.

“What’s interesting to me about it is that a bakery has so much rich association for people as a sort of nostalgic place for birthday parties and happy memories and wholesome, innocuous treats,” she explains. “But nostalgia was a powerful force in bringing us to this new political reality and I really wanted to address how its insidiousness makes the familiar seem innocuous even when it’s incredibly harmful.”

“Would It Were So,” by Spencer Merolla.

Coal Comforts will be her first performance piece. Though she says she is not really interested in being a performance artist, “somebody needs to be the person behind the bakery counter.”

The use of coal ash is also significant, beyond even the relationship to Kennedy’s decades-old yet once again psychologically relevant speech.

“I thought about coal and how it is familiar and so ingrained in our economy, so we treat it like it’s not a problem,” Merolla explains.

And the symbolism behind the bakery services more than just a comment on toxic nostalgia. “I wanted to represent something that is empty calories at best, and all the health risks sugar imposes.” Once again, something that seems wholesome and innocuous and American is much more of a social menace than a simple treat.

Coal Comforts is currently preoccupying Merolla’s time and energy, but in thinking beyond this next massive project she feels like she will probably continue with the overtly political themes in her work, at least for the foreseeable future.

“I feel like the list of things to be done has exploded with this kind of administration,” she says. “It’s not like there wasn’t work to be done before, and it’s not that I wasn’t supporting it, but it’s like everything is on fire now. I don’t know what form my future work is going to take, but [addressing that] feels imperative.”

(1) How do you like to collaborate?
Keep talking to other people about what they’re working on, so natural opportunities for collaboration come to light. Think about the different strengths everyone brings to the table.

(2) How do you a start a project?
There’s usually some kind of mad scientist aspect about it. I get an idea and then just become totally consumed by it and basically disappear for a while. Then after that first flush of activity, when I’ve figured out some of the technical challenges, I step back and see what shape it might take.

(3) How do you talk about your value?
In an abstract way— I remember the value of art that has moved me. I think of that as a tremendous gift to receive and if I’m lucky I get to give it to other people.

(4) How do you define success?
The word “success” always rings a little hollow to me. It’s too binary and outward-facing, it sounds as if you are ticking things off to prove something, whether to yourself or someone else. Growth is more interesting to me. External recognition is so fickle in the arts, and probably ought not to be trusted anyway.

(5) How do you fund your work?
Whatever ways I can…I’m working on a crowdfunding campaign for my next project since the material costs are much more than what I usually work with.

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