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Portrait of the artist

Armand Merizon’s life and work inspired filmmakers to document the joy and reverence created over 70 years of painting.

 

By Curt Wozniak
Photography by Dave Evans

Armand Merizon has spent most of his life creating. Countless works in oil and acrylic, as well as masterful drawings from early in his career, have poured forth from his studio.

Today, these works of art hang in private collections and public buildings here in Grand Rapids and beyond. And while the 85-year-old painter still creates, filling the walls of MercuryHead Gallery, 962 E. Fulton St., with his most recent pieces, during the past 18 months Merizon has ceded some creativity to a pair of filmmakers who have sought to document his life and work.

“ These girls have to be very creative,” Merizon exclaimed during an interview at his Caledonia homestead. “That’s more than 75 years of my life! How in blazes can these gals and the editor get that down to an hour?”

These “gals,” executive producer Muriel Zandstra and her niece, writer/producer Jennifer Dornbush, wrapped up post-production work in July on their 55-minute documentary, titled “Armand.” The project began in April 2004 and over the course of production, Zandstra and Dornbush shot over 50 hours of interviews with Merizon, his family, his collectors and local experts on his unique painting style.

“ He’s just worked and worked and worked and painted and painted and he’s never been interested in making a fuss about himself,” Dornbush explained. “I think that might be part of the reason why his works haven’t been more widespread. And after meeting him and seeing his work, I just really felt that this man needs to be known.”

Dornbush is a screenwriter and a native of Fremont. She moved to Phoenix five years ago. She met Merizon through Zandstra, whose friendship with Armand and his wife of 55 years, Betty, goes back to Zandstra’s time as a student at Calvin College. Zandstra, a retired assistant bank vice-president who now lives in Indiana, babysat for the Merizons from 1962 to 1965. “I moved away in 1965, but kept in touch,” she recalled. “His integrity impacted me a lot — the integrity of how he dealt with people, his environmental concerns, his spirituality.”

That personal impact became the impetus for the documentary. Originally, Zandstra wanted to create a video as a memento of her aging friend’s life, and asked Dornbush, who spent 10 years as a journalist before branching into screenwriting, to help with the project. “She just wanted a personal recording for herself of who this man was, because he had meant so much to her,” Dornbush recalled. The resulting videotaped interview became the seed from which “Armand” grew.

The complete documentary reveals a loving husband and father of five, but also a man incapable of compromise when it comes to his art. Yes, Merizon did labor throughout his life, working for short stints in factories, a shipyard, a printing plant and an advertising agency. But for the most part, he raised a family while working as a fine artist, following a call which, on the surface, ran contrary to the Protestant work ethic with which he was raised. Yet, Merizon’s commitment to his life’s work remains as strong as that of any pastor — and stronger than that of any businessman — even today.

Plagued by painful rheumatoid arthritis and nearly blind after suffering for 20 years from macular degeneration, Merizon continues to paint — and to experiment. Throughout his career, Merizon deftly moved between photo realism and more abstract impressionism. His eyesight failing, Merizon has worked in a strictly impressionistic style over the last few years. He’s moved even further into abstraction in recent months, starting new paintings in a purely abstract way against a black background.

“ Take a piece of brilliant white paper. Draw a dark line,” Merizon instructed. “It will shrink greatly on that pure white paper, and with me especially, with my eyes … So I said, ‘Well, I’ll have to reverse that and start on something very dark and work with something light. And the light expands and I can see it. This way, I can control better what I’m doing.”

From the young man who walked away from a scholarship to the Vesper George School of Art in Boston and immersed himself in his own research on the rocky shores of Maine, to the 85-year-old painter who continues to embrace radical departures from the norm, Merizon’s life offers plenty of material for his documentarians. In turn, their film offers plenty of food for thought for its audience.

“ I have hopes for this thing,” Merizon mused before seeing the finished film. “I hope it does some good. I hope it will encourage others. And if it can make anybody think, that I think is a success.

“ If it’s just a curiosity of the past — people might say, ‘Oh, yeah … that’s right … he’s from Grand Rapids’ — if it’s just that, OK. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But if somehow, it can arouse a thought process in somebody, then it will be worthwhile.” GR

   
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