A Tale of Two Artists

  • A screening of Fredonia professor Roslin Smith’s documentary was at the Opera House this past Thursday. (Photos courtesy of Roslin Smith)


Special to The Leader


Last Thursday saw one of the first public showings of the documentary “Moods, Mountains and Masterpieces. A Portrait of an Artist: Marcia Merrins.” Showcased at the historic 1891 Fredonia Opera House, before a showing of “David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Art,” the piece is the third and final installation in the documentary triptych from SUNY Fredonia Communications Professor Roslin Smith.

The final piece in Smith’s artist documentary trilogy delves into the work of ceramic artist Marcia Merrins.

When organizing the third piece, Smith looked for someone who stood out as being different from the previous two artists profiled in her prior documentaries in the series.

“I had many other artists to choose from, but so many were also in oils or landscapes . . . Marcia’s skill is very unique,” Smith said.

For both Merrins and Smith, the process of constructing their pieces takes time. The final documentary in Smith’s artist profile took about four months.

“I started pre-production in the spring last year, filmed over several weeks during the summer and then had it edited by early fall,” Smith said.

Most of the pieces in Smith’s series focused on the artists Tom Annear, with his mountainous landscapes, and former Poetry professor from the English Department Carolyn Gardy, with her masterpieces that take inspiration from the grand masters through a variety of mediums. Smith set out to reflect the moods of Merrins’ work, as for her this piece is “the most colorful, cheerful and fun one.”

While Fredonia and its surrounding areas may be quaint, Smith said it is a rich community for artists like Merrins, Annear, Grady and herself.

“Everyone knows each other and many are part of the Northern Shore Arts Alliance . . . We support each other with regular meetings, events and general get togethers,” Smith said.

Smith and Merrins are both on the board of the Northern Shore Arts Alliance, as are the artists featured in Smith’s previous artist profile documentaries.

Merrins is the owner of the Fredonia studio, Kniti Griti Works, the setting where she crafts her ceramic pieces. Smith’s documentary shows Merrins at work in her home studio crafting pieces using different techniques such as the Japanese style of Raku firing which she uses for animals, face necklaces and other jewelry.

“When you’re young and starting a career and raising a family and going to school you forget – most of us forget the creative part of ourselves and then kind of later on in life, if you have the opportunity, you do something creative,” Merrins said.

For some retired people, it may be returning to a musical instrument or dabbling in painting watercolor pieces, but for Merrins it turned out to be pottery.

“I actually started reluctantly at Mudslingers downtown and that was because a friend of mine who did beach glass jewelry actually wanted to fill a class – she wanted to embed beach glass jewelry in pottery,” Merrins said.

Her friend had begged her to take the class, but Merrins said she was too busy with her work with the League of Women Voters and knitting. Eventually, she decided to give in.

“The first piece I made was on the wheel and looking back on it I thought it was amazing that I could do it, but from the perspective I have now I realize how much of a beginner bowl it was, but nonetheless I was very, very proud of it,” Merrins said.

She has taken her skill to new levels — creating a variety of pieces from a variety of ceramic animals such as elephants to masks, but perhaps what has become her signature pieces are her footed bowls.

Merrins has allowed her creativity to flourish through her footed bowls from Susan B. Anthony, Wonder Woman, Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” and Groucho Marx, but one in particular stands out for her.

“The first one I made that was my best-seller has garden boots with [hand-painted, brushed-on glaze flowers and legs] and it just holds up a bowl that has flowers painted on it, so that one was the first bowl that was very popular so there’s a little special place in my heart for that.”

Merrins has made platters, casserole dishes and bowls that she donates for Empty Bowls, an annual drive aimed at fighting hunger in Chautauqua County that showcases ceramic bowls for purchase. However, making her footed bowls gives her the most pleasure.

“Whenever I’m in the studio creating a footed bowl, I’m smiling and when I take them out of the kiln I’m smiling and when I sell them I’m smiling and . . . it’s almost like because they have personalities I’m sad to see them go which is kind of crazy when you think about it,” Merrins said.

Smith said her hope for “Moods, Mountains and Masterpieces” was to both take a look into the methods and pride that are behind the conception of art pieces, but also making a piece that helps people feel optimistic about the world.

Smith is also in the planning stages of her new documentary, “Among the Hemlocks: Fantastic Stories from Fredonia, NY” which she received a NY Decentralization Artist Community grant for.

“I am in pre-production for this with filming planned for the spring and summer,” Smith said.

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