By Mary Phan
All images by MadameFraankie
An old Greyhound bus station converted into a storage facility sits unassumingly at the corner of Front St and Mill in Memphis, Tennessee. I meet artist Lester Merriweather at the back of the building near remnants of an old bus bay. He leads me through a maze of storage units with antique cars and boats in my periphery until we come upon an industrial door with boxes and wrapped canvases stacked around its threshold.
Upon entering Merriweather’s studio space the light envelops you. A greenhouse skylight floods the large room with sunshine. The large scale collages on which Merriweather has made his name line all walls and corners, towering well above the piles of art materials, books, paint, odds and ends. Small ecosystems of house plants are strewn about the space, peppering the paper and paint with a lushness. In an afternoon, we speak on serious matters of art, theory, and race, and not so serious, yet equally as thought-provoking matters of sport and play. Situating myself at a corner table loaded high with baubles and magazines, Merriweather speaks to me seated at his work table, casually mixing paint and tearing tape as we converse—our discussion unravels into his origins, education, personal practice philosophy, NBA opinions, and much more. Merriweather has dedicated his career to capturing a corner of the world at the intersection of craft and culture, and our conversation in his studio was both expansive to the mind and inviting to the eyes.
As a student at Central High School facing the decision to take computer class, home economics, or art, Merriweather found himself in instructor Bill Hicks’ art classroom. Hicks was the type of artist that was concerned about the things that Merriweather now calls his primary focus: a continued love of understanding studio practice, which entails a meticulous dedication to developing the hand and cultivating an artistic subconscious. To Merriweather, what you choose to absorb from the world is as important as what you place on the canvas. After graduating from Central with a traditional portfolio, Merriweather matriculated to Jackson State University. As an undergraduate, painting informed much of his development until he took a photojournalism class with AP Sports photographer Rogelio Solis. Learning photography from this sports/photojournalistic perspective invited Merriweather to explore the relation of art to time—on how to construct narratives through visual means when the moment is happening before your eyes. This narrative element persists in his practice, with pieces that reward close looking.
Merriweather’s graduate training at Memphis College of Art and his acceptance to the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture provided a new world of resources for Merriweather. Coming from a historically black college (HBCU), the predominantly white private school experience provided a slew of new resources, including an introduction to the Adobe Suite and image editing/manipulating technologies. A deep exploration of digital art provided the training to develop his arm and eye, and an interest in the writings and theories of Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and Luce Irigaray transformed his relationship to the practice of art and its greater implications in culture and literature. Merriweather describes his experience at Skowhegan as the most pivotal experience in his younger art career: “After a place like Skowhegan, you’re a changed person. You start to realize that your art career has nothing to do with selling paintings or gaining notoriety. It has everything to do with your practice and how you manage that practice.”
Today, in his dreamy studio space, Merriweather manages his studio with a handful of assistants and a dedicated daily practice. Though the pandemic has slowed the calendar of openings and exhibitions, his work has stayed consistent with commissions and long-term projects keeping him as productive as ever. He keeps a steady cadence to his work, reading and writing as much as he wields the X-acto knife for finding collage material—all the while sports radio droning in the background. The material and themes in his collages, though eclectic, share a central theme of commercialism and Black figures. Upon an initial glance, a Merriweather collage almost feels like a large proof from a stylized magazine ad, but further inspection yields a painterly hand, a playful yet poignant character, and layers of trompe l’oeil. The pieces seem like digital art created by hand on canvas, inviting the viewer to play I-Spy with the seemingly endless collage layers and figures.
A lifelong Memphian and veteran of the local art scene, Merriweather has also shown his work nationally and internationally. His artist statement is simple: his work is a commitment to capturing his own, and thus a Black experience. The pop culture icons in his pieces, including a large range of characters from Rihanna and Tupac to Jay Z, all speak for him. His work asks the viewer: how are Black icons portrayed, especially in relation to the dominant culture of whiteness, and what does that suggest for the Black experience? Having seen the landscape transform not just for himself but for various young artists whom he has mentored in his career, Merriweather is hopeful yet critical of the conditions for other artists of color making their mark in Memphis. Sitting in his studio, surrounded by decades of his work, one can’t help but revel in Merriweather’s unapologetic conviction to his craft.
About the artist:
Lester Julian Merriweather (b.1978) is a Memphis-based visual artist. He attended the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture. He holds an MFA from Memphis College of Art and a BA from Jackson State University.
Merriweather has exhibited extensively throughout the U.S. at various venues such as the Studio Museum in Harlem, NYC, TOPS Gallery, CrosstownArts and Powerhouse Memphis, Diverseworks in Houston, Stella Jones Gallery in New Orleans, and the Atlanta Contemporary. He has also exhibited abroad at the Zacheta National Gallery in Warsaw, Poland.
Merriweather served as the Curatorial Director of the Jones Gallery & the Martha & Robert Fogelman Galleries of Contemporary Art at the University of Memphis from 2010-2015. He worked on the Board of Directors for Number, Inc. independent journal where he created the Art of the South Exhibition Series. He also served as a founding member of the ArtsMemphis Artist Advisory Council and the artsAccelerator Grant Panel. Merriweather is currently on the Advisory Panel for the CLVT. He was the inagural Curatorial Consultant for the PPF Contemporary Art Collection in Memphis, Tennessee.
About the writer:
Mary Anne Phan is a writer from Memphis, TN. She received degrees in Economics and Art History from Rhodes College, and is currently an MA candidate for History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. She is also a Certified Sommelier and is always on the hunt for a good dry riesling.