Leigh Merrill

Leigh Merrill received her BFA from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, NM and her MFA from Mills College in Oakland, CA.  Merrill’s work has been a part of exhibitions throughout the United States in venues such as the Phoenix Art Museum, the diRosa Art Preserve, The Lawndale Art Center, the Tremaine Gallery, and the Museum of Texas Tech University. Merrill was a part of the 2011 Fotographia Festival Internazionale di Roma at the Galleria Gallerati in Rome, Italy. Merrill’s work has been included in online and print publications such as the Design Observer/Places Journal, Dwell.com, BLDGBLOG blog, PaperCity Magazine, and the Houston Chronicle.  Her work is part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Texas Tech University, the City of Phoenix, the California Institute of Integral Studies, and various private collections. Merrill currently lives and works in Dallas, Texas where she is an Assistant Professor of Art at A&M University-Commerce. Today we share her series, Cinder Blocks and Cherry Blossoms.

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Cinder Blocks and Cherry Blossoms 

My work examines the construction of desire, fiction and beauty in our urban environment. My process begins by making thousands of individual photographs, videos and audio recordings while exploring a city or neighborhood. In the studio, I then digitally re-assemble these sources to create photographs and videos of imaginary spaces. Some of these composite images have some veracity, but more often they suggest visual hyperbole – an embellished scene circulating around a small detail or object that fascinated me. These composite images function as a metaphor for the ways in which desire is physically constructed in the landscape.

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I came of age in the southwestern suburbs, and became sensitized to the aspirational quality of the front yards of our streets. Each street was nuanced with desire, achievement, and personal aesthetics. In the various places I have lived, I have been attracted to the different architecture, but noticed similar yearnings for perfection and delineation. In the images I create, my fabrications highlight the ways in which our built environments pull from a variety of different architectural and landscape styles and reflect cultural ideas of beauty and perfection. The source photographs for these images were shot throughout the southwest United States and range form Albuquerque, NM to Dallas, TX. There are several sources originating from the developer driven neighborhood I grew up in, Cherry Hills, in Albuquerque, NM.

The images in this project incorporate both urban scenes and still lives. I am interested in the visual and cultural relationship between the objects in the still lives and the urban settings as well as the conceptual parallels of construction and control evident in both types of images.

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AB: Hey Leigh, thank you so much for talking with us today! We are so excited to talk about your series, Cinder Blocks and Cherry Blossoms.

Thanks! I appreciate your interest in my work and it’s always nice to get to talk about art.

AB: Give us a little background…we want to get to know you. How, when and where was your love for photography birthed?

My interest in photography happened early and solidified in college. I was fortunate to study photography at two great institutions, the University of New Mexico for my BFA and Mills College for my MFA. Both experiences were formative.

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AB: Can you talk to us about your process? You mentioned in your statement that you begin by taking thousands of individual photographs before narrowing in on an idea or theme. Have you always worked like this?

I do not necessarily take thousands of photographs to narrow down to a theme, but rather start with an interest in a place or idea and then take thousands of photographs of locations or objects to later composite together into single images. When I get back to my studio, I cull through those images and digitally construct imaginary spaces out of bits and pieces of different photographs. The final photographs are comprised of somewhere between five and a hundred little bits and pieces of different images. Though this process, my interests have remained consistent. I have always either made work about the constructed nature of spaces or of spaces constructed specifically to be photographed.

This current project includes both landscapes and still lives. I like that in the two types of images certain aspects mirror each other. Both types of images embody construction, staged realities; the simulation of objects/places; and on a formal level, they echo color and compositional elements.

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AB: Your photographs tend to have an extremely graphic quality to them that lies in an almost obsessive-compulsive perfection (and we mean this in the loveliest of ways). Do you think this has to do with growing up in the southwestern suburbs? Do you think our upbringing inevitably influences themes throughout our work?

Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico was an influence on my work. From an early age, I was aware that we construct our environments. When I’d see a perfectly manicured lawn up against a desert environment – obviously not a native element of the landscape – I was aware of the unnaturalness of it. What began as a simple awareness of how we construct spaces grew into an interest as an artist. The neighborhood where I grew up was called Cherry Hills. Cherry trees are not native to Albuquerque and although there are beautiful mountains right in the city, my neighborhood was not particularly hilly. “Cherry Hills” was a fiction. Much of my work plays with the construction of desire in urban environments and it would be logical to trace that back to early experiences. Many of the source images used to construct the photographs in Cinder Blocks and Cherry Blossoms were shot in Albuquerque. I was interested in making some photographs that are able to feel both specific and place-less. A complex feeling that I think many suburbs have.

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AB: Although we are not featuring any audio or video today, can you talk about the relevance of sound within your work?

My video pieces are built in a very similar way to my photographs. I composite numerous video and photographic elements together to create a scene. The scenes are often empty suburban spaces that are a little too clean and distant from reality. The audio is often a mix of ambient sounds of a neighborhood or street. The audio echoes the visual qualities of the videos – plausible but somehow disconnected with reality.

Both my video making and use of audio came as a natural extension of my photographic and digital compositing practice. In the end I think that practice influenced how I approach making the audio tracks for the video.

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AB: On an endnote, can you speak to the importance of the use of negative space within the images? We sometimes forget that this can be as important as the busyness. 

I digitally built the spaces in this project to be empty and often they depict enormous vacant spaces. However, in many of the photographs the viewer is placed looking into a wall. The spaces depicted are at once vast and completely without physical depth. I am interested in those types of contradictions. Spaces where reality and fantasy are intertwined – like the front yard in my childhood house – the manicured lawn may not have grown like that naturally but it was still there in all its perfection.

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To view more of Leigh’s work, please visit her website.



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