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The Art Next Door: Mia Merlin Goes Local

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By Rebekah Goode-Peoples
Inside Mia Merlin’s bright yellow studio space, which she shares with a juggling troop and a weaver inside the Little 5 Points Community Center, paintings from her Parade series were propped up around the perimeter of the floor. Merlin knelt in a chunky knit poncho below soaring windows and considered the fruits of a year’s worth of labor.
Last year Merlin, a resident of Boulevard Heights, attended the Grant Park Conservancy’s Halloween Lantern Parade with her daughter Lily. She shot photos that she later used as inspiration for a series of parade paintings. The paintings depict costumed figures, parents, and children as they walk through the park and gather by the pavilion. “I feel like my paintings are ‘go-local’ paintings. It’s what is happening right here. It’s something for everyone. It’s nourishing.” The neighborhood scenes capture both the simple sweetness of celebration as well as thoughtful exploration of more complex issues about race, death, and innocence.
Merlin combined elements taken from her photographs of the parade and added her interpretation of the scenes to create a combination of memory and reality and light. The Halloween costumes on display allowed Merlin to tap into archetypal themes. “It’s a neat mix of everyday life and the ritual side of celebrating the season change. I was able to catch a little more of a poetic aspect of people,” said Merlin.
In one painting, Merlin shows a man dressed in a prisoner’s uniform. She said that when she took a photo of the man, his daughter watched carefully. While the father probably wasn’t trying to make a statement with his costume, Merlin felt a certain drama in the eyes of the daughter. “I called this piece Inheritance because I was thinking of growing up in the South, thinking about our racial legacy, though it’s more complicated than just that,” said Merlin. While those thoughts may be difficult to put into words, Merlin uses the language of painting to express herself. “Most photographs are moments, but this is something different, more archeological, that goes deep.”
Merlin’s work has forged some unlikely connections in the neighborhood. In Parade III, Merlin shows a large group of people winding up a path during the parade. She didn’t know anyone in the picture. “I was just taking pictures. I’m not taking them because of who they are. I’m taking them for compositional reasons, the way they tell a story,” said Merlin. The painting hung for a while at Stone Soup Kitchen, and one day a woman contacted Merlin after eating at the restaurant. “A lady walked in, and her entire extended family was in the picture, including her kids, her kids’ godparents, and her brother. She called me, but she didn’t tell me at first. She didn’t tell me it was her whole family, but I figured it out. She ended up buying the painting, and now it’s in their house,” said Merlin.
While a short sale attracted Merlin to buy in the neighborhood, she’s found that Boulevard Heights is “quiet and a real mix of everything in the neighborhood, every style and way of life.” She loves the old, historic trees and proximity to the park. Her family keeps beehives and occasionally sells honey to their neighbors. The simple joys of home and neighborhood life, from the Halloween Parade to the competing lights of the BP station and the decoration enthusiasts at the corner of Moreland Avenue and Confederate Avenue shown in Gas Station, Christmas, have inspired Merlin’s artwork. “Instead of art being for academics, specialists, or the coolest people you know, it’s for us. We need it. It fills a need.”
Mason Murer Fine Art is planning a show including Merlin’s work, including more paintings based on this year’s Halloween Lantern Parade.
 
Mia Merlin is available for commissions and teaches life drawing and oil painting at The Little 5 Points Community Center. For more information, visit www.miamerlin.com.

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