Welcome...

A Greater Boston native, I'm a professional dancer and award-winning interdisciplinary artist with talents in choreography, filmmaking, art, and graphic design. I'm co-founder and artistic director of Luminarium Dance Company (Boston, MA), art director of Art New England magazine, senior contributor for The Arts Fuse, and am the Boston area dance critic for the international Fjord Review. I recently completed a one-year term as co-chair of the Arlington Cultural Council, and am regularly hired as an arts advocate to speak at events ranging from legislative assemblies at the State House to entrepreneurial panels for students at Mount Holyoke College. 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.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Sorry, Sean. You're stuck with me.

The not-very-Merli wedding bouquet I was gifted pre-Ubering.

Not long after getting engaged, my friend Jenny set us wise to the wonders of engagement events hosted by venues throughout Boston as a ploy to lure young couples into their pricey grasps. One such event—at a venue I’ll refrain from revealing—threw quite the impressive shindig, complete with full buffets on every floor and open bars around every corner. Having been kind to the florist in attendance, Sean and I were handed their display flowers at the end of the night: a boutonnière for an already dapper-looking Sean, and a luscious bouquet for me. Hugging Jenny goodnight, we hopped into the back of our Uber shared ride, and proceeded to head to the driver’s next pickup. An older woman soon climbed into the front seat, did a doubletake at the two of us—dressed to the nines and flowers in hand—and finally asked “I’m sorry but…did the two of you just get married?” Sean laughed and shook his head as I immediately blurted, “It’s so funny you ask! I was just telling Sean we’ve got the flowers and look amazing…why not get married tonight?” “Well what are the odds,” our stranger replied, “I’m a minister!” “And I’m a witness,” chimed in our otherwise grumpy driver.

At this point, I apparently turned wide-eyed to Sean who, ever the voice of reason, calmly reminded me that “everyone we know would kill us.” Recognizing defeat, I thanked our fellow passenger, and continued to smile in the dark at the thought of a spontaneous, cost-free wedding.

...

Over the years, I’ve seen friends post their thoughts on weddings, be it their own or in response to society’s view of them in general. Some view it as a chance to realize their childhood fantasies of the “perfect, magical day;” some deem it a religious necessity; and others argue that getting married isn’t an “accomplishment” and should not be exalted as such. Whatever your own views may be, here are my own: I agree that marriage is not an accomplishment, but I do view it as one of the most important commitments one can make (or not make, if that’s your choice!). It is the formal recognition that not only have you found someone you value to the point of sharing your life with them, but also that you agree to be their partner emotionally and physically from this day onward.

Personally, I never dreamed of my wedding. I never crooned over wedding dress magazines or thought about how I’d style my hair. In fact, I downright laughed when one popular wedding website (who bought my email from who knows who) sent me an Urgent Reminder! that my wedding was only 365 days away and in order to stand any chance of looking beautiful for my ceremony, it was imperative that I start my wedding beauty regimen now! Can you imagine? 365 days of torture! But I digress… No, for me the perfect marriage—I thought at the time—was a quiet, simple, meaningful elopement, sharing my vows with Sean and Sean alone, outdoors surrounded by the sounds of nature and the eyes and ears of only the one marrying us. My fiancé on the other hand, was the one who had selected his groomsmen back in middle school; had visions of me walking down the aisle in a white dress; and represented our friends and families' pleas for a traditional wedding.


My view from the barn, early Saturday morning. Those gorgeous deep blue-gray clouds soon drifted away before returning at the end of the ceremony.

They say marriage is often about compromise, so compromise we did. I got my outdoor ceremony (on an alpaca farm, no less!), and everyone else got the rest. Yet the kicker is this: I loved every minute of it. Maybe it was the quiet Vermont setting, or the last-minute drop in numbers on our guest list, but our ceremony actually did feel quite intimate. I found myself turning to my friends standing by me and my family and framily in the rows along the lawn, laughing as Sean and I displayed our clear differences as people—him: earnest, meticulous, and at times, cautious; me: gregarious, spontaneous, and at times, impatient—and choking up as Sean revealed his secret ability to kick my ass at writing vows. 

The totally-Merli wedding bouquet I was thrilled to carry. Shout out to Fast Pony Flowers for creating the most insanely stunning bouquet I've ever held, and for answering my initial outreach email with "Haphazard is my specialty." Thank you, Melissa!

So although I didn’t have my Uber-ride elopement, I did have the perfect wedding. Sean and I made a good team, from site visits to tastings to décor planning, and those who attended or sent their love from afar made the weekend that much more powerful. Even Mother Nature gave us each what we desired: for Sean, a rich blue sky with a few puffy white clouds (his exact request), and for me, a sudden deluge of rain as our guests raced inside the reception barn, while Sean and I laughed our way through fields and covered bridges. Compromise at its finest.



Another shout out to our incredible weather-defying photographer Somerby Jones!

In the end, I am grateful. Grateful to Sean for committing to a lifetime of shenanigans with me, and for pushing me to include our incredible network of friends and family in this important life event; grateful to my family for making it financially possible for us to spend an entire weekend visiting with our guests (nothing felt rushed, and no one felt missed); grateful to our amusingly renegade officiant Wayne for balancing humor with solemnity; and grateful to all those closest to us who took the time out of their busy lives to travel to middle-of-nowhere Vermont and celebrate this commitment. Truly, I could not have asked for a better partner, nor a better way to legally kick off our partnership.

To everyone in my life: Thank you. To Sean: Let’s do this!




Friday, August 18, 2017

From Dusty & Dated to Clean & Current: DIY Hutch Makeover


...

When Katie and I first moved into our Arlington MA apartment back in 2013, we found ourselves with a considerable increase in living space, particularly thanks to the addition of a beautiful dining room. With my plate collection spilling out into the pantry, and our cupboards filling up quickly, you can imagine my glee when I came across this beauty at a nearby tag sale for a local cause.

My old and battered hutch, standing in the Arlington apartment, featuring my grandmother's china and photos of both Katie's family and mine.

The owner of the hutch was incredibly kind, offering to not only drive it back to my apartment up the road (when my parents' car turned out to be too small to fit it), but helping my dad carry it up the winding staircase. Had my parents not be there to help me bring it in, my interaction with the seller would have ended there, but—being the ever-proud mother she is—before I knew it, my mom had begun bragging about my recent trip to Indian as a lead performer with a local dance company. "That wouldn't happen to be Deborah Abel Dance Company, would it?" he asked, "My daughter studies at Deborah's school!" From there, the conversation built with laughter and story sharing, as he explained that this old hutch had served its purpose loyally for many years before being repurposed as a storage unit for his kids' arts and crafts. Not surprisingly, I spent the remainder of the day picking glitter out of crevices, and scraping paint off of drawers, while my friend Anna sat in a chair next to me stitching shimmery beading onto her latest dress. An homage to arts and crafts, indeed!

The dark stained hutch stood regally alongside my antique hutch and table, giving our dining room a formal, sophisticated vibe for our three years in Arlington. Upon moving to Sean and my first home in Brighton, it became clear our furniture collection wasn't fitting together very well, and when the news came that we'd be relocating to New Jersey, it seemed like the appropriate time to put certain items out on the street for free taking, while finally treating ourselves to a few new items.

And in the middle of this "out with the old; in with the new" cleansing, stood the hutch. Realizing that new or refurbished farmhouse-style hutches run anywhere from roughly $800 to $2000, I set out to give this poor thing yet another new life on my own—this time with a refreshingly bright and current look.

— BEFORE —

While every item on here was display worthy, their tiny sizes quickly added up to unintentional clutter.

Deep gouges everywhere...

...as well as stubborn paint and glitter!

And some dated, scratched up hardware.


— DURING —

Step 1: Kick out the terrible, warped backing to replace with more modern beadboard.

Step 2: Thanks to our excellent friend Russell, we were able to borrow an electric sander! Looking back at my desk refurb project, I can't believe my week of sanding by hand could have been accomplished in 40 minutes.

Step 3: My first experience with chalk paint! I chose Opera Gown by Valspar (and no, they did not pay me—I'm mostly writing this down for my own knowledge later).

It wasn't until I finished painting (of course!) that I decided I just couldn't live with that old-fashioned valance on the hutch. Solution? Call Russell again and bribe him with a bag of candy to cut off the "frills" and leave it as a simple curve. Thanks, Russell!

Yup, this hardware—while gorgeous on my antique secretary desk—had to go.

Step 4: After staining the top with Minwax Golden Oak (again, wish I was getting free samples, but sadly I'm just an enthusiastic amateur), it was coming across far too orange in comparison to the blue/gray paint. It also looked too bright! So I set out to darken it up, tone down the orange hues, and give it a slightly more weathered feel by layering Jacobean and Weathered Oak.

Success! 

Back outside with the hutch, the freshly cut valance already looks so much cleaner!

Step 5: After cutting, it turned out the original valance wasn't as evenly shaped as I originally thought, so it took some careful sanding to shape each curve to mirror the other.

Step 6: Last but not least, the back! Took some finagling to fit it into place, but it's 100 times cleaner, brighter, and more solid than its flimsy, warped predecessor.


— AFTER — 
Ta da! Here she is—adding a warm and inviting touch to our new New Jersey dining room.

Finally, the finished piece!

Sean's "evoo" and "vin" pourers have found their place.

The new hardware came to us by surprise—while wandering the Blueberries & Bluegrass Festival in Peddler's Village, PA, we came across a hardware shop with the perfect knobs and pulls!

Finally, my serving tray and beautiful Merula olive oil have a perfect home, reflecting the colors of the buffet beneath them!

To give the tea kettle a little extra height, we sat it on a box (we quickly emptied) that once held french chocolate liqueurs, gifted to us on one of my dad's trips. A nice reminder of family and our time in Paris.

The teapot and cups themselves are a souvenir—bought on our trip to Napa, and made by local artisans using glazes created from vineyard ashes when the land needs cleansing. Another beautiful reminder of our love of traveling.

Remember what was here before? I removed the old drawer to instead use it as a functional display shelf for our clean white plates!

Sean's the cook; I'm handy with a hammer. We complement each other pretty damn well.

And look at all that storage!

So there it is—my hutch makeover. Enjoy this before-and-after image below, and we hope to keep this beautiful piece for a long, long time.

Dusty & Dated turned Clean & Current

Monday, March 20, 2017

Kinetic Craft Residency: Thoughts on Metal

Before beginning this project, I never could have rattled off the five crafting elements (metal, ceramics, fiber, glass, and wood), yet now I find myself thinking about them all the time. Be it wrapping my hands around a hand-thrown mug, hearing the different pitches of a coin bouncing down a metal grate or enjoying the tactility of a journal’s weathered pages, I am now constantly aware.

While I would love to pair each of these with the five senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch), I sadly don’t have the sanitation means to encourage our viewers to lick a series of metal spoons, or create the pleasing aroma of a burning wood fire inside the museum, so instead I’ve chosen to utilize the remaining three while focusing on the properties of each element that intrigue me most.

METAL

For Metal, I am focusing on its sound—from tinny tinkling to rich melodic tones. The page from my sketchbook below shows my preliminary thoughts and images for how I eventually grew to envision using metal bars and movement to create a large-scale, dance-propelled wind chime. As always, this project took several conceptual (and logistical) twists and turns through the creation process. Consistent across all versions was my intention to give the dancer a wide space for full-bodied movement, and to create a playable instrument of sorts. Yet getting there took several steps.

Preliminary sketches for Merli V. Guerra's Metal Breathing Installation; March 2017.


I first pictured the dancer in the center of several stationary xylophone-like structures of different tonal qualities, however I soon realized that in order to achieve a clear sound from each, I would need some kind of wooden striker. Suddenly I became aware of the fact that the dancer would likely need to hold the striker in her hand and intentionally move her hand across the chimes around her, which felt far too disconnected to me. How so? I wanted this to be a wind chime propelled by the complete range of the human body, rather than a single limb—regardless of how creative the performer might be as she danced from structure to structure, she would be limited to the use of one hand to ultimately "play" the installation.

Detail of preliminary sketches for Merli V. Guerra's Metal Breathing Installation; March 2017.


This led to the illustration above, in which I devised a way for all body parts to be able to instigate sound as the dancer moved through the installation, yet as I began setting it up, I soon came across another obstacle: delayed resonance. The cords, while clever in concept, actually caused a disconnect between visual and audio. As I moved, my body would push against the cord, pulling the striker away from the chime. It wasn’t until I had already released and moved on that the striker would then swing back into the chime and make its rich sound! The result was a delay of perhaps 1-2 seconds, yet it was enough to make it difficult, as the performer, to feel as though my actions were directly causing each sound, not to mention the visual lag similarly experienced by the viewer.

After trying cords of different lengths, weights, and stiffness, I ultimately omitted them—rehanging all of the chimes and strikers (a tedious task!) on a multitude of levels that now allows the dancer to move through them directly for the instant gratification of correlated movement and melody. I’m eager to set this up in a space larger than my 10 x 5’ living room and allow the dancer’s notes to reverberate throughout the Great Room and likely down the halls as well.

 ...

This blog post is related to Luminarium Dance Company's upcoming one-week Kinetic Craft residency at the Fuller Craft MuseumGuerra's 2017 Cultural Community Outreach Project

Kinetic Craft
Luminarium Dance Company in Residence

April 18-23, 2017  .  10am-5pm, daily
Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton MA



 This project is supported in part by a grant from the Brockton Cultural Council, a branch of the Massachusetts Cultural Council.



Sunday, February 5, 2017

Hooked

I’m hooked.

On what?, you might ask. On glass.

There are so many elements of glass that excite me: How its texture can vary from silky to rough to sharp; how it can take a beam of light and dissolve it into an array of colors; how it can magnify or minimize; how it can encapsulate air bubbles; and how it’s actually an amorphous solid. All of these properties captivate me, and have for years.


Marblehead, MA.
My brother shows off the perfect gradient rainbow of colors he's found in one afternoon, including the ever-sought-after red sea glass. 

In trying to pinpoint when it began, I realize now that I can’t quite find a start. Was it when playing with my dad’s case of telescope lenses, overlapping the different circles of colored glass while carefully avoiding touching the surface? Or was it while looking for sea glass on the beach with my family in the summer, learning the chemistry (and more importantly the history) behind every color, every piece? Or maybe it was watching it being worked with for the first time, sitting on a bench in the sweltering studio at Simon Pearce in Vermont, studying skilled artisans as they turned glowing orbs into smooth, crystalline stemware.


Now we are here. Co-choreographed by Merli V. Guerra and Kimberleigh A. Holman, 2012. Photo: Jim Coleman.

Throughout my professional career, I’ve used glass as both a medium with which to work and an inspiration from which to conceptualize—from the glowing bulbs of Andromeda to the finger-smudged window panes of Now we are here. Now, as I head into a new project with the Fuller Craft Museum, I have been given an opportunity to create a "breathing installation" of dance and art that revolves solely around glass itself.

In an effort to research this topic up close (and because she knows me and my interests better than nearly anyone), Kim surprised me with possibly my favorite gift to date: A glass blowing class for two, and a scribbled note about how the person I brought didn't have to be her. (Please! As if it wouldn't be.)




Three months later, there we were: standing awkwardly in a class of four as our chill instructor casually meandered through us with a slowly dripping glob of molten glass on the end of a metal tube. As beginners, we were given the options of garden ball, paperweight, or pumpkin. I found myself staring into the intricately detailed swirls of color trapped inside each paperweight, as if tiny planets sitting on a shelf, and knew I had to create one. So did Kim, though her interest seemed to be focused more so on the satisfying feeling of rolling the paperweight around in her hands. (Again, as if this wouldn't be the case.)






Having both chosen to create a paperweight, I was struck by the heat I felt not only from the ovens but from the glass itself. My knuckles felt uncomfortably close to burning as I held a board against Kim's glass to help her shape it into a sphere, much like reaching just a little too far into a campfire to toast that last marshmallow.




As for color, we were surprised to find large buckets of tiny colored chips that we would roll our clear glass through. Our instructor helped us determine the right proportion of chips to give us the different looks we were aiming to achieve. Taking mine out of the kiln, I was a bit over zealous when told I could add air bubbles and twists with a large pair of tongs next to me—I was just so eager to witness for myself how malleable it was! Cooling quickly, the glass went from feeling like a chewed piece of gum to crystalized honey, and it took surprising effort to pry it into shape.

Two days later, it was time to head back to the studio in search of our fully cooled paperweights. The results speak for themselves:

Kim's "Ursula-the-seawitch-the-paperweight."

Merli's "Earth, as seen from the atmosphere."




So here we are, a few weeks later, and I'm still thinking daily about what could be next in my glass explorations. I'm 100% smitten with the medium, and only half-joking with Kim that one of us should build a kiln in the basement (perhaps the one who doesn't currently have a security deposit?). From broken on the floor, to fully formed on my shelf, to washed ashore as glowing pebbles, glass always catches my eye with beauty, light, and intrigue.





Till the next time, Glass...



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