Inside Gossamer Gallery last Tuesday, Joan Merry pulled out a framed portrait to demonstrate the dire economic situation in Zimbabwe: the colorful image of a man sitting on a chair was painted on a paper “canvas” made from $25 million Zimbabwe dollar notes stitched together.
“This is sort of a representation of the whole scheme of things there,” said Ms. Merry. “[The bills] are worthless.” Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe has rendered its currency essentially valueless, which is why Ms. Merry chooses to pay with U.S. dollars on her yearly visits. Her payments are especially helpful to the artists and sculptors who provide her with a good portion of the material she sells in her new Chilmark gallery.
It was during one of those visits to Zimbabwe with her husband, Don Lyons, that Ms. Merry was introduced to Shona sculpture, named for the artists’ tribe. The figures were sculpted with hammers and chisels — no power tools — from blocks of hard rock varieties including serpentine and opal stone. She was instantly captivated by the artwork. “The artists will get a block of stone or a lump of stone . . . and unless they set out to make something very specific, they let the spirit of the stone come out, and then it becomes whatever it is,” she said, explaining the sculptural results. She quickly decided to bring a few pieces back home with her.
“People loved it,” said Ms. Merry of her friends from home. “[The] next year we bought a crate full.” She began to sell the sculptures in her friend Mike Smith’s shop, Forget-Me-Not Antiques, where she stayed for several years. “It sold nicely, and people appreciate it. Shona sculpture is special,” she said. This year, when the South Road space formerly occupied by the Stanley Murphy Gallery became available, she decided to take it. And despite a slow business season in her first venture into gallery work, she considers her move a success.
“I absolutely adore it,” said Ms. Merry of the gallery. “It’s a sweet little spot, and the breeze comes through and it’s great because I can keep the sculpture outside in the garden setting.” In Zimbabwe, she said, most of the artwork is kept outside as well. Artists set up “studios” outdoors, often next to trees, where they make and sell their work. In a country with 90 per cent unemployment, these artists depend on people like Ms. Merry to live. “We have never bargained with a soul, and a lot of people do, because they take advantage of these already poor people, which is horrible,” she said.
Ms. Merry isn’t particularly worried about the slow first year. She’s not in it to get rich. “I would bring tons [of artwork] home if I thought that I had a market for it. Just to sell, just for [the artists]. I don’t mark it up as much as I could ... I’m doing it according to what it costs me. It costs a lot to get it shipped here. Sometimes more than the piece itself cost me ... [but] I’m able to pay my rent, and I’ve paid for the sculptures,” she said. “So it’s nice.”
Her proximity to Blue Heron Farm — her gallery is mere yards away from the entrance to the property where President Obama and his family are spending their weeklong vacation — should help to bring in some traffic. “I don’t know if they’ll be genuinely interested in the gallery but I surely hope so,” she said.
In recent weeks, Ms. Merry has noticed curious motorists and sightseeing buses slow, hoping to catch a glimpse of the presidential retreat. She expects to see the President at some point, and hopes that he might make a visit to the gallery. “I don’t care about it for me, I don’t even care if I’m here,” she said. “But I would love to have a picture of [President Obama] with a sculpture, so that I can send [it] to the artists. They would be over the moon to see the President beside their sculpture. I mean, it would do so much in one little snapshot . . . It would just elevate them.”
Zimbabwean artists are not the only artists featured at Gossamer. Ms. Merry also sells an assortment of artwork by other, mostly Island-based artists. “I don’t want to be known as an African [art] gallery, I want to be known as a gallery that features Shona sculpture . . . with Vineyard artists as well,” she said, explaining that she doesn’t feature tribal masks, spears, soapstone sculptures, or other artifacts that people expect to see in an African art gallery.
Ms. Merry hopes to continue to rent the space indefinitely. She loves the beauty of the spot, as well as its rich legacy. The gallery’s former owner was the legendary Island painter Stan Murphy. “It’s quite an honor to be here,” she said. “I feel this is sacred ground.”
For more information about the artists, see online gossamergallery.net.