This blog serves as a behind-the-scenes peek into the life and journal of an interdisciplinary artist. Learn more at merliguerra.com or luminariumdance.org, and thank you for reading my thoughts on setting the visual and performing arts into motion.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Creative Projects for "Framily"

Over the past two years, I've managed to squeeze in some additional artistic projects not for my career, but for my "framily." Enjoy this sampling of creations that brought me joy to make, while pushing me to continue trying new things as an interdisciplinary artist. Simply click on each image to enlarge!

Botanical Seating Chart
Botanical Seating Chart. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

It isn't every day you get Elizabeth Taylor as your client! But at the point my college roommate Ellie saw the finished product hanging on the wall of her gorgeous barn wedding reception, she was now "Elizabeth Taylor." Perhaps it was three years of living within candy-throwing distance of me, or helping me with art projects around the campus, but for some reason, Ellie got it into her head that I could create a hand-painted, garden-themed seating chart for her upcoming wedding, despite the ever so small hurdle that...I'd never once painted. Lucky for Ellie, it turns out painting and drawing are two very different skills, and I quickly caught my stride. Voila! A hand-painted seating chart with garden beds mapping the table layout, and vintage botanical sketches denoting who sits where. Truly one of the most enjoyable design projects I've ever had the pleasure of taking on!

Garden Bed Painting. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.
Botanical Seating Chart. Design © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Botanical Seating Chart. Design © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Cozy Turtle Nap Mat / Sleeping Bag
Cozy Turtle Nap Mat / Sleep Bag. Turtle Design © Merli V. Guerra, 2018.

In late-2018 I had the honor of helping two of our closest friends decorate their Hawaiian sea-themed nursery for their very first child. Not only did they trust me enough to design a full-wall mural, but Sean and I have had the joy of watching this little cutie grow into an adorable, active toddler. So what better way to welcome this smiley lil bumpkin than with a custom designed, handmade sea turtle nap mat that's also a sleeping bag? I'll admit this sucker was quite the challenge to build from scratch, but in the end, I wished I'd made it a wee bit bigger so I could thieve it for myself! With a plush pillow head, padded nap mat body, and blanket shell, this turtle is ready for daycare, preschool, and beyond. The tail might actually be my most favorite detail—allowing the turtle to button up into a bundle for easy transport. It's amazing how much smaller this cozy turtle seems to be getting every month, as this sweet boy keeps on growing!

Detailing. Turtle Design © Merli V. Guerra, 2018.

2.5 Weeks. Turtle Design © Merli V. Guerra, 2018.

4 Months. Turtle Design © Merli V. Guerra, 2018.

Whimsical Drawer Knobs
Whimsical Drawer Knobs. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Not long after discovering I had basic painting skills, I offered my new-found services to another set of friends. They, too, were expecting their first child, and had scored a gorgeous, all-wood nursery bedroom set for a steal, minus the fact that it needed painting. While they tackled painting the dresser white, I offered to spruce up the old wooden knobs, as they'd been considering buying new, prettier ones. Using paint from my art supply closet and a clear lacquer spray, I dove into painting a sweet little collection of fanciful drawer knobs to welcome Baby T. into her nursery. The end result was far from a Monet, but paired with the whimsical animal prints above the dresser, they looked just perfect. Can't wait to see this chubby-cheeked cutie—and her brand new nursery—post-Covid!

Blue Pansy Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Butterfly Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Dragonfly Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Iris Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Marigold Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Sunset Peony Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Cornflower Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Pink Poppy Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

White Pansy Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Daffodil Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Glory-of-the-Snow Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Orange Echinacea Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Plumeria Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

White African Daisy Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Custom-Tailored Growth Chart
Design © Merli V. Guerra & Lovisa Lane, 2019.

Covid has prevented us from visiting Scruffy the bassador and his little sister for the last six months, so it's a good thing we gifted her a growth chart! With the inspiring and ever-enthusiastic Lovisa Lane as my partner, we embarked on creating a custom-tailored growth chart, choosing colors that matched the nursery, and creating stencils that tied in our friends' love of science and all the neighborhood pups—including actual heights of each of the dogs when playing, begging...and yes, counter surfing. The best part about a growth chart is you can take it with you when you move, which Team Scruffy has done three times in the past year alone!

Design © Merli V. Guerra & Lovisa Lane, 2019.

Design © Merli V. Guerra & Lovisa Lane, 2019.

Design © Merli V. Guerra & Lovisa Lane, 2019.

Design © Merli V. Guerra & Lovisa Lane, 2019.

Design © Merli V. Guerra & Lovisa Lane, 2019.

Rustic Boats: "Fetching" Home Decor
Rustic Sailboats. © Merli V. Guerra, 2018.

Long before tiny humans came on the scene, our pups had already brought us together with local neighbors who soon became fast friends. On one particular trip to the Poconos, I distinctly remember Sudarshan teasing me as Banksy, Ollie, and Scruffy raced around the lake fetching sticks, with me collecting them too! Driftwood DIY boat decor had been circling Pinterest for a while, so I decided to take it for a spin and make some pup-fetched keepsakes from our Poconos adventure to gift our friends. Now, we're the last family still living in the old neighborhood, while these sweet little (slightly chewed) boats have sailed out to NYC and Pennsylvania with Mr. Ollie and Sir Scruff.

Meet Me at the Nest Pillow
"Meet Me at the Nest" Pillow. Design © Merli V. Guerra, 2018.

Thinking back to when the first of our neighborhood friends moved on from a condo to a full-fledged house, I was beside myself. Ira and Shaina were moving from a home literally 20 steps away from ours to one 45 minutes by car. It may not seem like a large distance—and truly, it isn't—but nothing can replace the joyous spontaneity that arises when your friends are a short jog across the street... To help ease the disappointment, I stayed up one night cutting stencils and making them a house-warming pillow to remind them of their framily at "The Nest," as we all lovingly refer to our neighborhood. Now, this sentimental pillow sits invitingly (and colorfully!) against a stunning red chair in our friends' forever home. 

Banksy [Piranha-Puppy Nala] Guerra Connolly

It should be noted that in all but one of these instances, our friendships were initially started thanks to our sweet pup Banksy introducing herself and getting the conversation going. Thank you, Lady Banks, for continuing to bring such wonderful people into our lives, and for being patient with me every time I take over the living room floor with a new creative project.

Want to become Banksy's friend too? Follow her shenanigans @BanksySighting on Instagram!

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Something borrowed, something blue...

For me, marriage is about commitment and partnership. I never grew up dreaming of the perfect wedding nor what my dress might look like, and for a proposal, I insisted a Ring Pop was all I needed. (And a Ring Pop I got!) In my eyes, marriage was about the act of promising permanence, rather than the materialistic flourishes of a pricey wedding. 

But when Sean insisted on a traditional wedding rather than an elopement, I decided (in my typical scholarly manner) to research the origination of the popular rhyme "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue."

First off, American brides are missing out on arguably the most exciting line of this old verse! It turns out the original English version includes a final line, "and a sixpence in her shoe," signaling financial prosperity. You better believe I found a sixpence to add to my conveniently hollowed shoes...though being the rebel I am, I went with an Australian sixpence boasting a kangaroo and an emu. (Because who doesn't want a kangaroo in their wedding?)

For something old and something new, I turned to jewelry—with a fresh pair of earrings and sophisticated bracelet by Kendra Scott for the "new," and my great-great-grandmother's bracelet for the "old," symbolizing lineage and family who could not be present at the event.

Yet "something borrowed" had me stuck. The tradition calls for brides to borrow an item from someone in a healthy marriage, in essence a role model. Meg and Bob Marsden immediately came to mind. As longtime neighbors of my parents (and essentially a third set of grandparents for me), I grew up popping by their home regularly to show them my latest Halloween costume or, in later years, to chat with Meg about the latest fashion trends while she pointed out the "handsome young men" jogging by (who she had stopped with her walker earlier that week to casually inquire if they were single!). Meg was a role model of brains, humor, and tenacity. Her sharp wit never left her, even as her body deteriorated with age, and the supportive steadfastness of her marriage with Bob never ceased to amaze me. I particularly recall one occasion in which Meg discussed this and even proffered me advice: "Wait until you're 30 to get married," she advised, "That's what I did. You don't know who you are as a person until you're 30, and that's the most important thing to know before you marry."

Fast-forward many years later to Sean and me driving down the highway to visit my mother in Concord, MA... I had just told Sean how I wished I had something physical to "borrow" from Meg beyond her excellent advice; something tangible. Not being a member of Meg's family, I had no physical token from our friendship after her passing, only the memories of moments shared. Sean heard me, and it was because of this car-ride conversation that we both stood eerily stunned in my childhood home a few minutes later when my mother handed me a perfectly preserved envelope, saying, "Look what I found in my stack of old files today! I was just about to shred everything, but decided at the last minute to sort through it—and look, somehow this note from Meg was in there!"

I couldn't believe the timing of its unburial. There, in my hands, was the physical token I had hoped for in this cheerful note from Meg (dated 14 years prior), allowing my fingers to touch the indentations of the ever-familiar luscious handwriting.

That night, Sean and I enjoyed Restaurant Week at a Concord restaurant neither of us had previously tried, and I ended the day by emailing my father in Paris to tell him of the note's synchronous unearthing. In the morning, I awoke to a reply with yet another overlapping—my parents had dined at that same restaurant only once: the day of Meg's funeral.

Wanting to keep Meg close during the wedding, I dashed to my local Joann Fabrics, and immediately spotted a beautiful blue lace that would be perfect for making a simple pocket on the inside lining of my dress to hold Meg's note during the ceremony. Without reading the label, I walked up to the cutting counter, was handed a slip of paper and my folded blue lace, and headed for the register. It wasn't until I began getting antsy in line that I finally noticed the name of the color blue I'd selected: "celestial" (synonyms: "heavenly," "ethereal"). "Ok, Meg," I whispered under my breath, "You don't have to be quite so obvious."

So although my desire for elopement was thwarted by my ever-traditional husband, I am grateful to have delved into the symbolism of this traditional verse to bring good tidings. The strength of Meg and Bob's marriage was present physically and metaphorically that August day, and as I tucked Meg's note into my dress that afternoon (while Sean waited under a celestial blue sky), I remember laughing and shaking my head upon finally realizing—in a matter of weeks, Sean and I would both be turning 30.

This entry is lovingly dedicated to Meg and Bob Marsden of Concord, MA. 

My Marbles on a quiet floor entry from 2012 speaks more about my wonderful friend Meg.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Red is the color of music

Childhood is a funny thing. For its inhabitants, it seems to go on indefinitely, yet in truth, it’s gone in an instant. Moments we take for granted as children later become cognitive snapshots we second-guess as adults—Was his mustache really that scratchy? Was the pool really that deep?—yet regardless, they leave a lasting impression, an invisible part of ourselves that impacts our lives moving forward, be they realistic memories or those warped through rose-colored glasses.

But when your cousin, Becky, one decade older than you openly shares her childhood memories of the grandmother you both shared, and they match your own nearly word for word, you know that your memories are not only accurate, but that the woman they depict really did, and does continue to, impact your life significantly.

When I think of my father’s mother, my Noni, I think of the color blue. Perhaps it’s because of the blue kitchen in which so many feasts were created and multiple conversations shouted across roomfuls of relatives (Many of whom I later learned weren’t relatives at all! But were always warmly treated as such.); maybe it’s because of the blue water of the above-ground swimming pool my cousins and I basically lived in during the summers (and that I accidentally nearly drowned my brother in, as I tried to teach him how to swim!); or maybe it’s simply due to the color of Noni and Pop Pop’s house—the feeling of sheer excitement upon seeing that blue exterior as we pulled into the packed driveway, and the accompanying sadness upon watching it (and my waving grandparents) gradually disappear as we left for home. 

Pieces: Window Pane #2. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.

Blue was the color of happiness, of a warm embrace, of being passed from aunt to uncle to who-knows-who; blue was the color of the carpeted stairs that Erin, Jack, and I would slide down until we had rug burns or hit the floor a bit too hard; blue was the color of the ever-popular tacky backdrops in our annual school portraits that (although deeply embarrassing to look at) were always proudly displayed among dozens of other photos, old and new, on the wall above the living room sofa. And in later years (when I lived with her in the summer of 2009), blue was the color of my Noni’s nightgown, as we sat on that sofa: her, sassily teasing me and offering me food to the point of giggling and winking at me when I’d inevitably give in; me, sassing her back to make her laugh, and answering that evening’s three repeating questions with varying answers to keep us both entertained (as by then, her Alzheimer’s had truly begun to set in, especially in the evenings).

But red—red was the color of music.

Pieces: Window Pane #9. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.

As a lifelong professional-level pianist and organist, my Noni played every mass, every wedding, every funeral, all while teaching quite literally every child in “Western Mass” weekly piano lessons from the small music room in their home. Family gatherings would naturally spur impromptu duets between Pop Pop on bass or guitar and Noni on piano, with a Pied-Piper flock of grand- and great-grandchildren huddled round and adding the occasional spirited (yet out of tune) chord on the other end of the keys, which was always welcomed with laughter and delight. Between my Italian grandmother and Portuguese grandfather, food was certainly a huge part of every visit (You could show up unannounced and somehow there would undoubtedly be a roast chicken in the oven!), yet I would argue that despite every DIY Network show saying “the kitchen is the heart of every household,” here, at the Guerra’s, it was the music room that was the heart. While living with Noni years later, I’d awake (far too early) to sounds of Mozart and Beethoven—at times, romantic and passionate, at others fiery and complex—but always red. Red as the blood in her veins, the blood we share; red as the dress adorned by the pianist in the painting opposite her in the room. Red was, and continues to be, the color of music.

Noni and Pop Pop, assorted images.

Fast-forward to 2017: As the year started, I was already knee-deep in my We Create project, having begun my work as one of its selected 2016-17 cohort artists in September. I was honored to be chosen for this project run by Marsha Parrilla, Director of Danza Org├ínica, and although I ultimately found the 2017 We Create Festival to be largely flawed in its execution, the piece I created through this process turned out to be quite poignant in more ways than one.

Through April, I continued to research and develop my initial concept: delving into the cohort’s 2016-17 theme of “hidden stories” by creating an art installation recognizing those with physical and mental disabilities. As my work unfolded, I found myself narrowing in on the specific story of my Noni’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, and society’s habit of tucking Alzheimer’s patients away—glancing by them only on the surface, unaware of the beautiful, multifaceted lives hidden within.

After many early sketches and conceptual notes, I eventually landed on the concept of peering through a window (itself, taken from the wall of my childhood bedroom, since knocked down…luckily, like me, my dad keeps everything!), to find layers of overlapping memories (some complete, some missing sections, and others seemingly looping on repeat), as this is often what Alzheimer’s does to the brain.

Pieces: The making of. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.

The construction process was difficult, as I knew I wanted each layer to consist of varying opacities, to blur into one another once eventually backlit by a simple table lamp. Scanning old photographs, I spent hours delicately taping tissue paper to cardstock, successfully printing one image, only to jam my printer on the next. By the time I reached the textual memories I planned to incorporate, I’d gotten a bit smarter (so I thought) by purchasing semi-opaque plastic film, only to learn the hard way that ink takes way longer to dry on plastic than it does on pulp! Ink-smudged hands and a healthy portion of swearing later, I embarked on the most tedious task yet: intricately hanging each image with thread onto thin wooden dowels acting as a trellis above.

Pieces: The making of. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.

Setting the full installation up in my tiny Boston living room, I was so pleased. Visually, the lamp, window, and images of Noni reminded me vividly of every evening visit on my way to and from Mount Holyoke College as an undergraduate, peering through the living room window to find her doing her crossword by lamplight. Symbolically, I was putting into physical form the age-old saying “Eyes are the window to the soul,” while the lamp served as the human spirit—still bright and beaming behind all those layers of misaligned memories.

Pieces. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.

My intention was to place an empty chair in front of the installation, encouraging audience members to sit and peer through the window panes, piecing together bits of the puzzle and learning about this beautiful multi-faceted woman by simply taking the time to do so. The goal was to speak to Alzheimer’s (and society’s treatment of the elderly) as a whole, reminding viewers that simply because an older individual might be slow to respond, it is not for a lack of knowledge, as they have years more experience than we, ourselves, have known. There are stories there, and when given the time, the patience, to peer through those eyes, we too can piece together the puzzles of these memories, and construct a truer image of who this person is, not was.

Pieces. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.

 I will keep this next section brief, as I do not want to dwell on my negative experience with the We Create process, but its outcome is key to the full experience of my installation, which I had titled Pieces. Explaining to Marsha just how delicate and complex an installation this was, I inquired if I should be setting it up during tech on Wednesday, or setting it up directly before opening night on Friday, as I wanted to be sure it wasn’t damaged in between. (My project was the only one that was an installation piece; the rest were various performance art works.) After being told Wednesday was definitely the day to do it, I carefully and lovingly spent a full two hours setting up the piece, complete with the chair, a lamp from our home, and a small write-up on the work.

Two days later, Sean and I entered the space to a bustling audience, a clearly lit stage, and—to my shock—no installation. I felt my heart plummet, as if I’d misplaced Noni herself somewhere in the room. Where could it be?? With Sean’s help, we eventually found it: literally shoved into a corner, the chair gone, the lamp unplugged, and several of my delicate tissue paper memories torn.

Delicately installing Pieces. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.

I was heart-broken, as my mind instantly replayed one of my “bad” visits with Noni earlier that year. I had shown up at her center to find her, and ten others, lined up along the wall in their wheelchairs waiting to be wheeled into the dining hall, and while I completely understand that the staff can only be in so many places at once, my Noni was at the end of the row, tucked around the corner, anxious and confused. I tried to calm her; tried to explain where she was and where she was heading next. I tried to show her photos of my parents; tried to remind her I was “the dancer” as she always called me (she regularly “auditioned” for my dance company while gliding through her kitchen in later years), yet nothing worked. Over and over she repeated, while crying, “I’m sorry; I’m so sorry I don’t know you. I’m so sorry I don’t remember these people. I’m so sorry I don’t remember who I am.” I held it together until the staff came to wheel her to lunch, then sat in my car and sobbed—not because she didn’t remember me, but because she was apologizing for forgetting herself.

It was amazing to me how the simple act of wheeling her into an empty hallway with no one around, no reminders of her family (photos, music), and no one to talk to, had led to that light briefly going out. And now here I was, staring at my forgotten installation—an installation whose purpose was to actively remind the public not to bypass the elderly by leaving them alone in a hallway (but to sit with them and learn from them), literally pushed aside, forgotten, and abandoned. As I hurriedly reset the now damaged work with Sean, the symbolism of this incident was lost on neither of us. (I later learned that the performance space serves as an after-school program for kids during the day, hence the installation was moved for “safety” reasons. My instinct to arrive early on opening night had been the correct one.)

Pieces: Window Pane #7. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.

As we left that night, taking Pieces home with us, a gust of wind hit us moments before placing the installation inside the car, causing all of my intricately threaded memories to instantly knot and entwine, as if permanently damaged. It seemed beyond hope to untangle it, nor did I know of another event I’d be showcasing it at down the road, yet I still felt compelled to make it right. As if performing a ritual, I spent hours upon hours carefully unbraiding each strand until all were back in their rightful place. I packaged it up for safe travel to our next destination, and it hasn’t been opened since.

Photo: Quincy Guerra Hepburn, 2020.

Fast-forward one last time to now: mid-April 2020. Never in my wildest thoughts would I have known that the entire world would be in quarantine; that my Noni (despite the staff taking incredible precautions) would be diagnosed with COVID-19; and that my family would be visiting her exactly as my installation had portrayed: spending time with her by peering through a window, sharing memories, and enjoying that precious light emanating from her soul as flickers of memories, her signature humor, and boundless love glow from the other side of the glass.

As I write this, I am trapped in New Jersey, whose quarantine is strictly enforced, and beside me (by pure chance), among all my disheveled art projects since moving into our new home, is the damaged, yet carefully preserved installation. I cannot drive up to stand outside the window; and even if I could, I cannot indulge in the comforting “blue” of that warm embrace; but there is one thing I can hold onto: This past December, not long after her 95th birthday, I visited Noni on the second floor of her building. Perhaps my hours of installation detanglement were finally paying off, because from the moment I entered the room, Noni and I shared the most incredibly lucid, loving, and joyous 2.5 hour visit (with poor Sean and Banksy waiting patiently in the car). “Where’s Sean?” she would ask, “He’s just so handsome.” “He has a bad cold, Noni!” I replied, “He didn’t want to take a chance and make you sick.” “But he’s so handsome,” she insisted (with a twinkle in her eye), “I’ll take that chance!”

Photo: Quincy Guerra Hepburn, 2020.

And so we sat together, chatting away like old times, showing her photos and videos from our summer trip to Scotland, photos of hikes in New Jersey during the fall, videos (on her request) of my recent choreography, and as I showed her a sweet video of Banksy opening an early Christmas present in my parents’ family room a few days prior, she suddenly paused—her hands cupping mine around the phone. “Play it again,” she said, peering closer, and so I did. Her eyes brimmed with tears as she pointed above my pup to the guitar on the wall, “That’s John’s. That’s John’s guitar!” “Yes, Noni!” I exclaimed, having become so used to my grandfather's guitar being there that I’d nearly forgotten. “Johnny, your grandson, plays it now.” She shook her head, crying yet smiling, “That’s so good. That’s so good… You know,” she reminded me, “John and I could never dance like you—we were too busy playing in the band; we never learned to dance!” Laughter returned to her soul, and I listened to her reminisce about my Pop Pop, her true love, and their deep connection through music.

And so, as I sit here feeling so far away, I will hold onto the fact that she and my Pop Pop will soon be reunited—a vibrant red reunion—for red is the color of music; their music.


ADDENDUM: I completed writing this post on Thursday, April 30th, 2020, a little before 7pm. I read it aloud to Sean, sent it to my cousin, then heard the phone ring—my Noni had passed away just after 7pm.

This post is lovingly dedicated to Francesca Cristina Guerra (1924-2020).