Merrilee Challiss - Alabama Reckoner

Birmingham, AL-based artist Merrilee Challiss discusses her meditative process and her use of single objects repeating throughout her work.

The Vision, 2017

The Vision, 2017

Risograph zine collaboration with Julia Martin Gallery, Graeme Morris, and Josh Shearon (SOLD OUT)

"Disappearing Act" 2017

Collaboration with Blake Wimberly Don’t miss “Disappearing Act,” a mesmerizing sound performance by Birmingham artist Merrilee Challiss and musician Blake Wimberly. In this Q&A, Merrilee discusses the creative process and inspiration behind what she calls a “sonic journey.” Birmingham Museum of Art: Your work crosses many different mediums and genres. Do you have a favorite? Merrilee Challiss: For a couple of years now I have begun to realize that no matter the medium, the message is always the same: everything is connected. I am just a vessel for the message and I keep trying to find the best carrier for that message. BMA: What excites you most about the Birmingham art scene? MC: Birmingham is such a powerful place, both the site of acts of unfathomable violence and evil and also a place of powerful non-violent resistance. It is a heavy, but very special energy. Still mending from its wounds, it’s like Chiron the wounded healer. I see a lot of young people making art (and music) and that gives me hope. BMA: Where do you go in Birmingham to find inspiration? MC: Ruffner Mountain, Red Mountain Park. BMA: What can the audience expect from your Opening Party performance? MC: Blake Wimberly, of Wray, constructed the performance to have three parts: Land, Animal, and Man. He gathered dozens of audio samples like glaciers calving, sea storms, bees, Inuit throat singing, etc., to represent the various categories (geophony, biophony, etc). He did all kinds of crazy things to the samples and he mixes all the tracks live, and we are very much going to be improvising a dance between us. First we go way, way down, into the earth, and then we meet the animals, and then at the end we come back up into the world of man. I will be playing a little theremin, moving around to clear the energy, and performing ritual acts of prayer. Blake and I are going to take you on a sonic journey- and like any good journey, we hope it will be both challenging and rewarding. Strap yourself in. BMA: How is your performance influenced by the exhibition Third Space? Were there specific works or ideas that influenced your creative process? MC: This performance, which we have titled “Disappearing Act,” is partly a devotional act of prayer to the earth and partly a reckoning for how we have treated the earth, her creatures, and each other. Climate change is the sticky web that connects many of the issues presented in the exhibition, just as it does in the greater world. The science is overwhelming and incontrovertible. The rich biodiversity that supports all of earth’s systems is a rainbow, and we are draining the rainbow. We are all well aware that we are losing our wild places, our indigenous cultures, and predictions for devastating losses of mammals on this planet in our lifetime is dire and rapidly approaching. We can neither untangle the collective action of our species nor our individual actions from climate change– nor can we escape from it. There is no “away,” or as Timothy Morton, who describes climate change as a hyper-object, puts it, “we are living inside a catastrophe”… and yet, despite the facts and calls to action, most people, including myself, often feel immobilized and helpless to affect any change. Through doing some shamanic work and shadow work over the past several years, I have begun making room within myself to hold space (we’ll call it my personal “third space”) for the grief that I feel. By engaging with and processing these feelings, I honor them and at the same time allow them to flow through me, instead of becoming mired in a swamp of sadness and despair. This public performance is a modified version of my private practice (sans Theremin), which is about reconnecting with the earth and living each day with a sense of gratitude and reciprocity. We must mourn what we have lost and celebrate and work to protect what is left – that is the message of “Disappearing Act.” BMA: How do you hope this performance will inspire the audience? MC: Just as I am inspired by others – from the Black Warrior River Keepers here in Alabama to the Black Mambas, an all-female anti-poaching unit in South Africa, I hope this performance will encourage others towards more inspired acts of courage and creative resistance in their own lives and in whatever spheres of influence they operate. It is important to remember Gandhi’s words: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”

Collaboration with Reza Khodadadi, bioinformaticist:

Collaboration with Reza Khodadadi, bioinformaticist: "New Life Forms" (2016)

"New Life Forms" created from Reza's data sets from the genetics lab at UAB. 2017

Collaboration with Reza Khodadadi, bioinformaticist:

Collaboration with Reza Khodadadi, bioinformaticist: "New Life Forms" (2016)

New Life Forms" created from Reza's data sets from the genetics lab at UAB. 2017

"Crying Rainbows" 2017

This photo was taken on an emotional day near the end of 2017 and i almost canceled several times leading up to the appointment but decided to just let it ride. My friend Faythe Levine is the inspiration for this piece -a watercolor she painted about crying rainbows. Here is my attempt at channeling sadness into joy. The talented Julianna Richey painted eyes on my eyelids and I'm holding a small sculpture I made.. Charity Ponter is a Birmingham-based artist publishing her forthcoming second book - this one is a series of collaborative artist portraits. 

"Sea Ghost"2016

Collaboration with Luxe & Lens, "Sea Ghost" silk scarf, Portland, OR *These scarves are available at Luxe & Lens

Collaboration with Kurtis Hough

Kurtis Hough and I were artists in residence at Signal Fire in September 2013. The artists were situated in tents at the base of Mt Hood, OR, where there had been a massive 100 year flood some years before. The drawing was created in about 5 hours in Kurtis' tent, where he had set up a primitive stop-motion table.

Time-lapse painting

Video by Kyle Sullivan, collaborator Reza Khodadadi

SHIFT bham Video test

Actor Virginia Newcomb activating a costume I created for SHIFT BHAM 2016


Collaboration with Andy Stewart and Charlie Sanders

Consilience - A Conversation Between Art & Science

Merrilee, an artist, and Reza, a bioinformatician, discuss the blurry boundary between art and science and what that boundary might mean for the future. This video was commissioned by participants of Shift, an initiative of the Birmingham Museum Of Art. Narration & Art: Merrilee Challiss and Reza Khodadadi-Jamayran Sound Recorder: Ashley Cleek Music: Ormorje - Photographer: Jonathan Purvis Additional Event Animation: Charlie Sanders, Andy Stewart, & Paul Wilm Performer: Virginia Newcomb Special Thanks to the people of Shift and the Birmingham Museum Of Art: Wassan Al-Khudhairi, Lindsey Reynolds, Carrie Montgomery, James Williams Shot & Edited by Kyle Sullivan Images 0:21 - Two Small Test Tubes Held In Spring Clamps, taken and uploaded by Amitchell125, 2011 1:12 - 49th plate from Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur of 1904, showing various sea anemones classified as Actiniae, by Ernst Haeckel, 1904, upoloaded by Ragesoss, 2006 1:17 - Phaethornis Pretrei, by John Gould, 19th century, uploaded by Janbat, 2015 1:20 - Medusa of Aeginura myosura, by Ernst Haeckel, 1904, uploaded by Mithril, 2011 2:02 - Oldowan Chopping Tool, José-Manuel Benito Álvarez a.k.a. Locutus Borg, 1987 2:05 - Acheulean Handaxe, José-Manuel Benito Álvarez a.k.a. Locutus Borg, 2002 2:08 - Levallois Technique Tool, José-Manuel Benito Álvarez a.k.a. Locutus Borg, 2004 2:11 - Acheulean Handaxe, Victoria County History of Kent, Vol. 1, p. 312, 1912, uploaded by Matijap, 2006 3:15 - A Common Dolphin, taken by National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration, 2008 3:16 - Sumatran Orangutan, taken by Dave59, 2006, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Unported License ( [image was cropped down from the original to fit a mosaic] 3:17 - Bonobo At The Cincinnati Zoo, taken by Ltshears, 2005, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Unported License ( [image was cropped down from the original to fit a mosaic] 3:18 - House Crow, taken by TawsifSalam, 2015, Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike 4.0 International ( [image was cropped down from the original to fit a mosaic] 3:20 - Killer Whales Jumping, Robert Pittman, 2006 3:21 - Lightmatter Chimp, taken by Aaron Logan, 2004, Creative Commons 2.5 Generic License ( [image was cropped down from the original to fit a mosaic] 3:22 - Humpback Whale, taken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2006 3:24 - Hildebrandt’s Starling In Tanzania, taken by Snowmanradio, 2009, Creative Commons Generic 2.0 ( [image was cropped down from the original to fit a mosaic] 3:54 - Alamira Bison Cave Painting, Rameessos, 2008 6:13 - Stars In The Sky, LH 95 Star Forming Region of the Large Magellanic Cloud, European Space Agency / Hubble, 2006 6:14 - The Quadratic Formula, by Jamie Twells via Wolfram Mathworld, 2012 6:15 - Animation of Rotating DNA Structure, created by Brian0918 using RasMol, 2005