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Famous Kansas City Printmaker Gives Away Artwork, Saying Art Isn't Just For 'People Who Can Afford It'

Julie Denesha
Former KCAI student Bryan Prather picks up a print from Hugh Merrill with a little assistance from Kevin McGraw. Prather drove from St. Louis where he is apprenticing as a tattoo artist.

Internationally known printmaker Hugh Merrill shared some welcome news on Facebook: He was gifting artwork to anyone who showed up at his door. Merrill's work is in collections at the Museum of Modern Art, the Harvard Art Museums, the Cranbrook Museum and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

On a recent rainy Saturday morning, a steady stream of visitors made the climb up a steep driveway to printmaker Hugh Merrill’s home studio in Central Hyde Park. They were friends, neighbors and former students and for one hour, Merrill was offering free etchings to anyone who wanted one.

"I think the power of art is when it is in somebody's view, when they have it, they put it up, they look at it," Merrill explained as he wrapped a print in a large plastic bag. "The people who have collected me have been wonderful and I love those people. But the work isn't meant just for people who can afford it."

Julie Denesha
Work covers the walls and a table is piled high with rolled up prints in the Hyde Park studio where artist Hugh Merrill hangs out.

Artist Bryan Prather woke up early and drove in from St. Louis. He said "something clicked" for him 16 years ago when he was a student in Merrill's art class at the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI). Prather said he was eager to find a place on his walls for the work of a favorite instructor.

"I saw his post on Facebook and I thought that would be the most amazing artwork I could have right now," Prather said. "It's going to be an amazing piece to hang up. I'm so excited."

Some 20 framed artworks and around 50 large, rolled up prints covered a work table in the center of the studio. Because of the sheer number of art he wanted to give away, Merrill enlisted friend and fellow artist Kevin McGraw to help.

Julie Denesha
Former KCAI student Justin Bell unfurled the print he picked up from Merrill's studio. Bell is now a blacksmith artist who works in metal.

“When they come up the driveway, it's like they have this crazy amount of joy in their body language in the way that they're approaching the house, like, 'Should I go yet? OK, is it my turn?'" McGraw observed. "And then they get here and it's like, 'Oh my God, it's framed.'"

Merrill is a prolific artist. Since graduating with an MFA from the Yale School of Art, he's held an art show almost every 18 months. Now in his 70s, he has stacks of prints that he wants to place in good homes. For Merrill, that meant reaching out to his friends on Facebook.

"I have work at the Museum of Modern Art and about 70 or 80 other museums, I've lost count." Merrill said. "I've done projects in every continent except Antarctica and have projects coming up in China and Buenos Aires. Over a lifetime, you accumulate a great deal of artwork."

Julie Denesha
Loading a framed print into their trunk, Lisa Laurenzo and Michael Duane picked up a work for a friend who had been one of Merrill's students years ago. He now lives in Colorado. Since he couldn't come to Kansas City, the two plan to ship the work to him.

Giving away artwork seems to be a part of Merrill's process. During his long career, he's also collected the works of friends and collaborators like Peter Winslow Milton and Ed Paschke. Over the years, he's donated many prints from his personal collection to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

"So this has been part of my life, this giving away stuff," Merrill said. "So now I'm probably within the last five years of my teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute, and I'm looking to live a much quieter life."

Justin Bell tucked a print under his arm before heading back to his car. He graduated from the sculpture department at KCAI in 1994. Bell now works as a blacksmith artist in Kansas City.

"I think what he's doing is great," Bell said. "Being an artist myself, I totally understand where he's coming from. It's much more valuable to have to work in someone else's hands."

Merrill said he wanted to gift prints that he considered important.

"What it boils down to isn't just a clearing of the studio," Merrill said. "The work I am giving away is work that is in museums. It's work that's been shown at major galleries in both Kansas City and Chicago. I want this work to be in the hands of my students, teachers that I've worked with over the years."

Julie Denesha
Merrill and McGraw take shelter from the rain as they chat with a former student who stopped by to pick up a print.

Chas Titus came up the drive to collect a print for his mother who was longtime friends with Merrill.

"This is a very, very generous gesture," Titus enthused. "I think it shows a lot about his wisdom and years and life experiences that this is something that he just decided to do. I think it's really impressive."

Prather loaded the framed print into his car before heading back to St. Louis. He said his former teacher was still finding ways to inspire him.

"I think it's absolutely amazing," Prather said. "He is actually like affecting my thought process now, even today. If I were a more prolific artist, like with my painting, and had a surplus of art, then heck, yeah, this is something that I would love to do."

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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