Right before the Coronavirus outbreak shut gallery-goers in, the artist Tanya Merrill had just opened a show at Half Gallery in New York. Entitled “Woman Laughing Alone in the Woods at Night,” Merrill’s exhibition was expected to run from February 29–March 28, but had to close early.
During the beginning of the pandemic outbreak, Merrill was isolating at her mother’s house in upstate New York. She quickly focused her attention on her mom’s collections of old records, books, and magazines. She’s also been doing research, getting back to drawing, and figuring out what’s next.
A few weeks ago, Whitewall caught up with Merrill to see how she was passing time—from watching live streams of birds to following online recipes from her aunt.
WHITEWALL: How are you doing?
TANYA MERRILL: I’m at my mom’s upstate. My partner and I came up in March for a visit, then the shelter-in-place was announced, and we are all still here! I am feeling very grateful for everyone’s health, especially family are friends who are healthcare workers.
WW: What are you listening to, reading, watching?
TM: In March and April, I was reading COVID-19 news every day, constantly checking for an update. It felt necessary to stay as informed as possible as things were rapidly developing, but it got a bit obsessive, and I had to cool it and make some mental space.
My mom has a great record collection, we’re listening to a lot of John Prine in his honor. I’m going through her photography books too, and old issues of Avant Garde magazine. They’re the same books I would read over and over as a little kid. There is a specific kind of nostalgia revisiting the images you grew up on. It’s fun to check in on Cornell’s bird cams. The baby owls just hatched, and they look like puppets.
WW: What are you cooking?
TM: My favorite thing we’ve made was a recipe for Picadillo from my aunt. It was one of her childhood favorites in Puerto Rico. She is a chef, and doing this cool thing where you tell her a couple of ingredients from your fridge that you need to use and she sends you an entire dining experience. Raisins, olives, cumin… I can’t stop thinking about it.
WW: How are you staying connected?
TM: Calling and texting with friends. FaceTime has taken on a whole new purpose of stopping by to see what someone is up to.
WW: How are you staying creative? Are you able to make work at this time?
TM: I have ongoing lists in my phone’s note section called “Is this an idea?” or “Make this Painting!” For example: “Veronica Lake beaming with Heidi hair and a big bow. Holding something. (Cradling like a baby or cupped in her hands?) It’s a FROG (Ukiyo-e), and is there a sailboat/nun’s convent behind her?” Or “Woman in the painting (my fav L.F.) playing at the cinema, Art Deco, the sleeping nude on screen, everyone’s watching in the theater, and we are watching outside the frame. Look at her breasts—they’re giant like a billboard, at least 30 feet wide across. Think attack of the 50 ft woman. She’s so big and beautiful it’s DANGEROUS.”
I just finished a series of drawings that were up in the online Frieze Viewing Room since the fair was canceled. The Veronica Lake shows us a frog drawing is included.
My show at Half Gallery opened right before everything started shutting down in New York. Since I had just finished that body of work, it actually feels like the right time for drawing, researching, and planning the next.
WW: Where are you finding hope/inspiration?
TM: We just planted baby fruit trees and I love them. I’ve also been ordering seeds online from this native plant nursery PraireMoon. Picture this combo: Butterfly Milkweed, Mountain Mint, Wild Bergamot, and Goldenrod. It’s all about planting for pollinators—no food without bees. If this was all happening mid-winter, yikes! It would be bleak. I’m feeling very grateful for the arrival of spring. When it rains everything looks so saturated and high contrast out the window—those brand-new neon green leaves against a deep grey and purple sky. It’s real-life Charles Burchfield out there.