BLOG: Creatures of Contact
Mar 15, 2017
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?
BMA: Where do you go in Birmingham to find inspiration?
MC: Ruffner Mountain, Red Mountain Park.
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.”
Mar 4, 2017
Time-lapse of "Totem of Animal Consciousness" shot by Kyle Sullivan in the Spring of 2016
Jun 8, 2016
"The purpose of evolution is to be more conscious."
For the month of May 2016, I participated as co-host of a temporary art space, SHIFT, in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. An initiative by the Birmingham Museum of Art, the space was intended as a "temporary platform for social change." My co-host was Reza Khodadadi, a bioinformatician who worked with the genetics lab at UAB, creating visual plots to illustrate and accompany genetic testing results data. As part of our collaboration, which was a five month-long conversation about art and science, we decided to make a short film that encapsulated many of the highlights of our discussions. Our weekly talks spanned the gamut from cave paintings to evolution and CRISPR cas technology. I talked a lot about my "Anxiety of the Anthropocene," a self-diagnosed disorder charactarized by a sense of the uncanny, a dis-ease of hyper-awareness of being a member of a species that is: 1. the cause of the 6th great mass extinction on the planet, and concurrently: 2. able to hack and edit the genome and create new life. This sense of unease (the burden of my consciousness) and its cacophony of white noise - the soundtrack of impending future doom- confounded with the feeling of an inability to act, injects and permates the waking, sub and unconscious layers of my psyche; it is the "hyperobject" in the room, and the room itself. Our discussions led me to an awareness that I needed, for my own serenity, and for those that will be left when I am gone, to begin to actively cultivate a hope garden inside myself. It is ok for me to mourn what biodiversity we have lost, but we have to also celebrate and protect what is still with us. Jane Goodall gives me hope. Even Reza, the scientist, wisely pointed out that change and innovation are not only expanding exponentially in the scientific realms, but there is an expansion in all levels and spheres of our collective experience. Consciousness and awareness continue to grow. Anway -enjoy the short film, made by Kyle Sullivan.
Oct 29, 2015
Rattling around in my feeble brain (as I am painting - getting ready for my show in Nashville) are the following subjects and sentiments:
<<"Everything going forward must either be an elegy for what we have lost or a celebration for what we have left." >> ... not sure who said this.... or if I made it up in my head.
<< Hyperobjects, Speculative Realism, Object Oriented Ontology, the Aesthetic Dimension >> all things Timothy Morton
<< The origin of human consciousness, cave art, shamanism >> David Lewis Williams, Paul Devereaux, Carlos Castaneda, Graham Hancock, Terrance McKenna, etc.
<< Deep Ecology, Fractals, Patterns in Nature, Chaos Theory, Quantum everything >> Jane Goodall, EO Wilson, Mandelbrot, Lorenz, etc.
<< Integral Model of Consciousness >> Ken Wilbur, etc.
<< Theta State >> the music of Alemu Aga, etc.
<< Guided Meditations >> Kalawna Biggs, etc.
All of this as I make attempts to paint energy and objects (baby steps) // as I attempt to understand energy and objects (baby steps).
If we create our own reality, and if consciousness is an object, then we create a feedback loop every day that reinforces our concept of reality, which itself is / becomes an object, and on and on... We are connected to everything, everything is a part of us, past and present. There is no room for cynicism in this view, because it is there is no being "outside" the problem, there is no "away" out there.
I have been incorporating shamanic practice into my paintings recently. In essence (because I feel a lot of people tend to shun or recoil at any idea of the spiritual or the mystical) all this means is that I am being really present both in and for my work. The process is its own journey - from chaos to order, from ego to formlessness, from abstract to the real, from conscious to the subconsious, from matter to spirit, from intention to accident, human to animal, all these constructs looping back on themselves throughout the course of the painting. When the process works, there are lessons, gifts imparted to me in return for the painting of my paintings : they teach me how to paint, they teach me how to be present in my own reality, how to use a brush, how to breathe, how to imagine, how to formulate and hold a thought, how to ask and answer my own questions. All topics for future further exploration. Meanwhile, painting has become a great teacher.
*Photo taken at Cape San Blas, Florida in April 2015, at the tip of the peninnsula > a six + mile hike through dune and beach scrub.
Jul 1, 2015
7 July 2015:
My July so far: Nina Simone / heart healing / witchy rock circles on top of mountains (pictured) / connecting with friends / hiking & swimming / painting what will become a series of spirit animals for a solo show in nashville at julia martin gallery / helping friends process through stuff as i process through my own stuff / reorienting towards a new path / working on a commission for revelator coffee / working on a mural project for yellowhammer creative / breathing / stoned yoga / bike rides through the city alone at night... onwards and upwards!
*Photo credit: MaDora Frey. We hiked up to the top of Arabia Mountain, a monadnock, in Georgia, near MaDora's family's place. It's a very stark and barren place - stone cairns marking the trail, little pools of water and colored lichen, and lots of loose rocks for making witch circles.
Apr 15, 2015
My world these days: the sounds of (not so) hot, nu-jazz from the club on the street outside my government subsidized loft, clashing (or blending perfectly? ) with the harsh jags of Broad City and the admonishments of Werner Herzog from the tv as I sit in the dark stroking cats and drawing / always in the dark/ as I pretend to read books on Object Oriented Ontology and procrastinate on a commission that I need to finish/ colored lights on water/ always stoned yoga / defining boundaries / making time for people / processing the changes that are reorienting my daily routine as I hide out and try to remember who I am and why I am here.
*I am not sure where the photo came from or who took it, or who made this wonderful creature. I found it on the internet and forgot the search that led to it.