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Kansas City Art Institute professor Hugh Merrill, a 'fierce advocate for young people,' dies

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Julie Denesha
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KCUR 89.3
Printmaker Hugh Merrill in his Central Hyde Park studio in September 2021. Merrill spent nearly five decades teaching students at the Kansas City Art Institute, and his work is in collections around the country.

A prolific artist, educator, writer, and community activist, Merrill taught at KCAI for nearly five decades.

Writer, educator, community activist, and artist Hugh Merrill has died, according to a Monday night social media post from the printmaker's partner. Merrill was 73.

“It is with extreme dismay and utter heartbreak that I let you know Hugh Merrill passed away this weekend," Staci Pratt posted on Facebook.

Merrill started teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1976. A tenured professor, he taught in several departments, including printmaking and foundation.

“For 46 years, Hugh was a mainstay on campus,” wrote KCAI President Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar in a statement. “As a professor, he challenged his students to think differently and push boundaries ... he served as a fierce advocate for young people.”

"The KCAI community is deeply saddened by the news of Hugh’s passing," she wrote.

For nearly 50 years, Merrill influenced generations of students. Some shared their stories on Facebook:

“I learned ... how to take risks and look at making in a different way,” wrote Bernal Koehrsen, a 1993 KCAI graduate. “It was those lessons I use every single day, in just about everything I approach. Rules are to be learned, unlearned or can be rearranged.”

“You left what you learned in the edges of so many people and I am surprised your edition is over, the plate marred,” wrote Peregrine Honig, who studied at the Art Institute in the 1990s and finished her degree in 2019. “Pull back the paper and your life was rich with the darkness of knowing.”

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Courtesy Todd Weiner Gallery
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A mixed media work by Hugh Merrill called "Untitled 2."

Merrill, who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art and a Master of Fine Arts at Yale University, was a prolific printmaker and artist, with works in corporate, museum, and university collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Harvard Art Museums, the Cranbrook Museum and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Gallerist Todd Weiner represented Merrill’s work in Kansas City.

“Hugh let me into his life in what could be considered his prime and zenith,” Weiner wrote in an email. “I’m so sad. I’m a huge fan and collector of his work.”

He added, "As the great Jim Leedy always said, 'Don't admire it (the work), make more!' He did! And was about to!"

Crossroads Arts District pioneer and artist Jim Leedy was a colleague of Merrill’s at the Art Institute. He died in 2021 at the age of 91.

In recent years, Merrill also wrote about his own family history — taking a hard look at growing up in Alabama in the segregated Jim Crow era of the 1950s and '60s in a memoir called “Whiteout.”

"I'd say that Hugh and I really share a drive to be constantly creative and are always folding in real life into our work," writer Nettie Zan Powers, who edited the memoir, told KCUR in 2019. "But this project was particularly exciting because it is so open and vulnerable and direct."

Friends describe him as a generous spirit. Artist and gallerist Kevin McGraw cited the example of Merrill giving his work away in 2021.

"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," Merrill told KCUR at the time.

"He was just always so willing to talk to you, he was accessible," said McGraw, who first met Merrill in the 1990s. "To me, he was kind of a star."

"I'm really starting to miss him already," McGraw said.

Merrill’s work will be on view at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in the upcoming exhibition, “Five Years and Counting: Expanding the Permanent Collection," which opens Sept. 30. More than 35 artworks will be on display, recently added to the museum’s collection.

“We are deeply saddened to hear of Hugh Merrill's passing,” said the Kemper’s director of curatorial affairs, Erin Dziedzic, in an email. “His guidance, enthusiasm, and support for art and artists is felt widely throughout the community in Kansas City.”

Family members did not respond to KCUR's requests for comment.

A visitation is scheduled for Monday, Sept. 16, 12 p.m. - 1 p.m., and the celebration of life service is scheduled for Monday, Sept. 26, 1 p.m. - 2 p.m. at St. James, 5540 Wayne Ave., Kansas City, Missouri. Immediately following at 2:30 p.m, a reception will be held at Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore Ave., Kansas City, Missouri.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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