Columbia Health Complex
Interview between Hugh Merrill and artist and educator Eleanor Erskine Professor Portland State University, Portland, Oregon
Hugh, what was your approach to the Health Department project for Columbia and how was it different form other public art projects you have created?
My approach to public and community work is consistent in process and varied in outcome. I start with getting to know the individuals in the community. I do that through an archiving process called Portrait of Self it is a process in which I interview and get people to provide me with their life stories, provide me with their family documentation and photos. The archive becomes the resource for the images to be created.
How did you apply that process to the Health Department in Columbia/Boone County?
First I had to understand what a health department does, who it touches. The Health Department and Clinic are comprised of a series of scientific and medical services including animal control, public health, a family clinic, and environmental science among many others. They serve a broad and diverse community and are staffed by a committed group of professionals. I felt that the artworks for the building should respond to the function of the department, reflect the lives of the staff and the cliental using the clinics. I wanted to create a visual environment that flowed through the architecture unifying the various clinics and public spaces.
So part of your investigation is focused on the community, getting photos from people, hearing their stories and part is a formal response to the architecture. Is that right?
Yes absolutely. Its part collection of imagery and stories from the community and part a search for what will function as an interactive part of the overall architectural design. Having seen the wonderful architectural plans of Kylyn Monroe I wanted to make artworks that would take advantage of the openness of the space and the beautiful natural light she designed for the building. I wanted the artwork to resonate with the richness and variety of construction materials used in the building; wood, concrete panels, translucent plastic, sheet metal and stained concrete. My sense of what the building would become, with its quality of light, color and multiple girded patterning led me to conceive a series of large oval shaped digital prints.
What made you place the work in the building at tilted angles and at unexpected viewing levels?
The oval shapes and the determination to install the works throughout the building at raking angles and in unexpected positions on the walls was a counter point and compliment to the beauty of the architectural grid. The building is a complex layer of grids, of visual starts and stops, of changing speeds and sounds. I wanted to create organic forms that fall at obtuse angles across and in opposition to the grid.
How did you begin, what was the first thing you do when you start on a public or percent for the arts project?
Rather than coming to the project with a preconceived idea of what the final work should look like I employed the Portrait of Self community archiving process I have used this process for 9 years to collect content and visual information from communities. Then I use that information as content for the images I will create. Each project is different with differing environmental and architectural spaces. The outcome is designed to best suit the specifics of each project.
Can you take me through the process?
Let me start with
a short history. In 1996 I was invited to produce a collaborative installation
with artist Christian Boltanski for the Kemper
Museum in Kansas
City. Boltanski and we came up with a citywide installation project titled “Our
City Ourselves” which invited the residents of the Kansas City
metropolitan area to bring their family photographs to the museum, copy;
them on the walls. Several thousand people brought their family photographs
to the museum, copied them and pinned their photographs to the walls,
soon the gallery was covered with Xerox prints from floor to ceiling.
How did you begin to collect community information and stories in Columbia?
I began the process with an artist residency sponsored by the Missouri Arts Council to work with high school students at Hickman High School in Columbia. We created large digital collages from the items the student’s carried in their pockets and bags. These collages became the first layer of content for the images to be created for the health department. The archiving process was then shifted to the staff of the health department. They provided family photographs. Other images were taken from health department publications of the 1940’s and 50’s. Then I was invited to go to the Boone County Historical Society to look at their collection of glass plate photographs from the 1890’s. From that I selected a number of images that became the base layer of the digital prints.
What was the final outcome for the project?
I designed 6 series of prints for the building, the large oval digital prints mentioned before, 4 Poly Silk banners, about 30 silk-screened text plaques of quotes given by staff, vinyl decals based on DNA forms, laser cut plywood silhouettes of DNA structures, and digitally printed canvases. The works are non-stylistic yet I attempted to achieve a thematic and formal continuity. All the various works were then installed
You said it was important for the works to flow through the building did the installation achieve what you expected?
Yes, I was very pleased with the outcome of the installation the work flows well from room to room I used the small brightly colored text plaques to activate large empty wall spaces. Placing the plaques at odd and out of the way viewing positions the space looses its lingering institutional quality. The plaques and other works make for a much more playful and activated environment.
If you had to find one factor or quality that was at the heart to the project what would that be?
At the heart of the project are people, the people who were willing to share their lives and family documentation with me. People’s images I borrowed who I can never know, the wonderful staff at the health complex and the students at the high school. The architects. The individuals that are involved in the political work of the city and the county, Marie Hunter whose gifted work brought the project to fruition. Lastly, the artists who assisted on the project were Adelia Ganson, Caleb Hauck, Patrick Moonasar, and Miranda Young. Sharon Hartbauer and Greg Thompson.