Muriel Zandstra first met Armand Merizon in 1962 when she was attending college. She lived next door to his family and took care of the children when their parents were out. The pair developed a lifelong friendship and she became a champion of his work and preserving his legacy.
“When I first met Armand I was impressed with his sense of integrity, his honesty, and his uniqueness, both in his person and in his paintings,” Zandstra said. “After graduating from college I moved to Indiana but remained closely connected with the family. Each return visit strengthened my appreciation of Armand’s art, his philosophy and his world and life view.”
Zandstra said over the years she watched as Merizon’s paintings developed into “stunning, creative masterpieces depicting both beauty and tragedy. . . even humor at times.”
The artist faced several health issues, which influenced the direction of his work. “During Armand’s elementary school years he suffered from undiagnosed grand mall seizures,” Zandstra said.
“Because of the scary disruption they caused in the classroom he was often asked to stay at home. This created a kind of social isolation and stigma that colored his self-esteem and sense of self-worth for the rest of his life. While not at school he found escape in reading, sketching and hitchhiking.”
Later in life, Merizon struggled with macular degeneration. “He lost his central vision and his sense of color. He accommodated by changing his style and technique. Occasionally he hired his daughter, Chantal, to paint detailed geometric shapes on the underlayment of some paintings before he developed the final composition.”
But Merizon refused to give up painting. He once commented, “If I can’t paint, I’ll die,” Zandstra said.
She added, “Ultimately when blindness overtook him, he memorized the order of the tubes of paint on his table and painted from his mind’s eye, his soul, and his spirit. He continued creating masterful paintings using memories of images captured from bygone days and compositions developed from well thought out years of hard work and experimentation. A marvelous example of hope and inspiration.”
Zandstra said as she watched Merizon’s health decline over the years she felt compelled to preserve “his words and thoughts.”
“I started interviewing him, documenting his story and art for future generations to enjoy and study. His works seemed timeless to me, not trendy,” she said.
In 2005, Zandstra worked with Hollywood writer Jennifer Dornbush on the documentary, “ARMAND.”
“After being viewed on TV and at various Michigan film festivals, requests came in to know more about this artist and see more of his works. That was the impetus for the book, “Armand Merizon: His Life And Art 1920-2010,” published in October 2017,” she said.
The 240-page book is filled with human-interest stories of Merizon’s life growing up in a conservative, Dutch ghetto. “It tells of his innate drive to become an artist while dealing with childhood grand mall seizures, discouragement from family and community, and perseverance while losing his eyesight to macular degeneration,” Zandstra said.
It also includes 200 images from Merizon’s prolific career.
Zandstra said two of the paintings included in the book provide a strong example of the changes the artist’s work underwent due to his loss of sight.
“Note the intricate detail in the realistic painting titled “Horse Show 1973,” done before Merizon was diagnosed with macular degeneration. He claimed it took him over a week just to paint the man’s straw hat. The detail in the painting is remarkable. The man with the turned head is his buddy, Hank, who worked for the railroad, and with whom Armand traveled extensively.
“The second painting, “A Positive Outlook 1994,” a floral scene, was done nearly 20 years later when Merizon no longer had central vision. Note the more impressionistic style and lack of detail, yet the composition remains unsullied. Even the title, “A Positive Outlook,” shows his optimism and determination to paint until as he put it, ‘my nose touches the canvas.’”
Merizon’s work can be found all around his hometown of Grand Rapids, from the walls at Grand Valley State University and Spectrum Health Hospital to local churches and businesses, as well as on the walls of several private homes throughout the community. The Grand Rapids Art Museum is also home to at least 25 of his most significant works.
“Most paintings are still held in private homes with no access to public viewing. That was the reason for creating this book, which includes over 200 paintings that are now available for the public to enjoy,” Zandstra said.
The public will have the opportunity to view some of Merizon’s works later this year, too. This September the Muskegon Art Museum will host a three-month exhibit of Merizon’s works ending in January 2019. The show will then move to the newly renovated Dennos Museum in Traverse City. You can also catch the documentary “ARMAND” this spring and summer when it airs on WKTV.
The book is available for purchase at Grand Rapids Art Museum, Meijer Gardens, Baker Book House, Mercury Head Gallery, Perceptions Gallery, Calvin College and on eBay.