Merle Davison’s Colors of Grief and Healing

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I first encountered Merle Davison’s artwork at Highlandtown Gallery last month, where her most recent show, Reaching from The Shadows, was on view. Shortly after, I experienced a personal loss and I found myself ruminating more and more about her colorful visions. I found solace in its imagery and the intricate ways in which her paintings communicate a spectrum of feelings.

Davison’s art practice is an exploration of human fragility and strength, supported by symbols that strike a primordial, psychological chord. Her body of work guides viewers to walk alongside an anonymous figure and witness them progress through the stages of grief, from denial, to isolation, and culminating with acceptance.

Davison’s art is best exemplified by three acrylic paintings: “The Unpredictable Beauty of Love,” “Who Will Lead Me Through the Shadows Once My Mother is Gone,” and “Rage of Melancholy.”

They form the beginning of Davison’s ongoing narrative, which follows an anonymous figure’s journey of grief. “Unpredictable Beauty” and “Rage” are both abstract paintings that are best appreciated as two sides of the same coin. The former depicts dynamic brushwork, swirls, and swatches in a wide spectrum of rainbow colors. Meanwhile, the latter is composed of languid, flame-like strokes of blue that glow against a yellow and orange background. The pieces flank “Shadows,” the first depiction of Davison’s anonymous subject. Two figures, an adult and child, walk hand in hand on a dark landscape, yet a halo of light surrounds them, signifying their strength as a pair.

Who Will Lead Me Through the Shadow Once My Mother is Gone?
Sitting in the Vast Expanse of Grief

The artist’s use of light symbolically and metaphorically creates a sense of connection throughout the series. As the adult and child figures in her work continue their journey in “Are You Still Leading Me Now That You’re Gone,” They are presented in the same hand-holding position, but now the adult is depicted in a blinding white and surrounded by a halo of light, suggesting a departure.

The child figure grows into adulthood in “Sometimes The Light Just Can’t Reach Me Or I Can’t Reach The Light,” in which they are depicted by an aura of darkness amongst a colorful abstract background. A burst of light is depicted off the image and its rays are swallowed by the darkness surrounding the subject. The painting, along with other pieces of the collection, focuses on imagery of the subject after the death of their mother.

This ongoing narrative is inspired by Davison’s own loss, as her mother passed away in April of this year. Her recent artwork revolves around the processing of her grief and other buried emotions, such as the anger, disappointments and joys that come with working through traumas to clearing on the other side of them.

The viewer follows the anonymous subject in the paintings “Storm,” “Not Sure Where My Prayers Go But I Send Them Anyway,” “Sometimes It All Just Hurts,” “Hanging By A Thread,” among others. The minimalistic design of Davison’s compositions accentuates the dynamism of the backgrounds it inhabits. Her abstract backgrounds are composed of vibrant colors, drip techniques, linear expression, and active brushwork. Light and shadow are often treated like their own figures, capable of autonomous action. All of these elements unite to give the impression of movement and direction.

We Walk With Our Ancestors
Are You Still Leading Me Now That You're gone?
Beautiful Black as God Intended

The journey continues onwards with “Beautiful Black As God Intended.” This piece features Davison’s own written language, only found in her artwork. Her proprietary alphabet is composed of triangles, circles, lines, and dots. Each symbol stands for a different word and includes definitions such as ‘intention’, ‘universe’, conjugations of ‘to be’, and more. “Beautiful Black” depicts the blacked out side profile of a woman’s bust on a vibrant abstract background, in addition to five ideograms organized in a vertical line along the canvas. Hidden behind the canvas, is the key to deciphering what the symbols mean. After translating it with Davison’s definitions, one discovers the symbols stand for the painting’s own title, each representing one of the words.

The artist felt moved to include language in her work in order to best convey the emotion that first inspired an art piece, yet many attempts with written words failed. Supported by the philosophy that humans relate better to pictures and symbols before words, she resorted to creating her own language using basic shapes that have personal meaning as the foundation. It is this innovative and creative form of expression that is present in each of Davison’s works that include her written language, providing an exciting new form of interaction for viewers and consumers of her work.

The Untimely Death of Self Esteem
Waking To My Own Light

In addition to her acrylic paintings, Davison’s body of work includes bronze sculptures. “Yoga at Dawn” depicts a woman doing the yoga position, ‘one-legged king pigeon’. The ripples and undulations in the bronze simulate the cloth of the woman’s sweatpants, as well as the curve of her back as she arches in order to reach the yoga position.

“Solo Flight” is also a sculpture of a woman stretching. Her upper body is bent forwards and her legs are spread wide, as if she’s stretching for a yoga session. “Rescue Me” is a depiction of two hands holding one another. The hand on the bottom is outstretched, as if asking for help, while the other hand holds on to the first one tightly, as if ready to pull it upwards into safety. Davison’s sculptural work focuses on detailed human anatomy, as she emphasizes the curves of musculature, prominent veins, and miniature wrinkles that define the human body.

Two pieces conclude the journey of the anonymous subject’s grief. “The Untimely Death of Self-Esteem” portrays the subject sitting under a tree. Their head is tilted downwards in sadness, so they are unable to see the beautiful foliage they are sitting under. The tree is composed of many rainbow-colored leaves, which extend beyond the subject and encapsulate them within the branches.

The subject sits in this small clearing by the tree’s trunk, surrounded by a warm light despite their saddened state. “Reaching From The Shadows of Disappointment” is the last installation of the subject’s story. The blacked-out silhouette of a hand, fingers outstretched towards the light, is the main focus of the piece. The background is one of Davison’s signature complex abstract designs, composed of active brushworks and color. The bottom of the canvas is blacked out, with the hand emerging from the darkness reaching out towards the warm light depicted at the top. “Shadows” is a harrowing depiction of the reality of grief. It is never easy and one does not need to reach enlightenment from the pain it causes. Pain is not always purposeful. One has to crawl out from the shadows of grief in order to see the light of day, which Davison has illustrated throughout this series.

As a whole body, Merle Davison’s artwork is colorful and dynamic, and with each brushstroke on the canvas, she peels off and reveals a new layer of herself. Her bright artistry juxtaposes the emotional heaviness that is her subject matter, which creates an emotionally complex and moving experience for viewers. Using her own emotions as her guide, Davison continues to paint until clarity is an unavoidable and unmistakable destination. She is learning, slowly but surely, that not all of her inner voices are critical. Davison’s artwork is an engaging illustrated story that exalts the human experience, the depth of emotion one feels as a result of being loved, and the ongoing struggle of learning to love oneself after a loss.

To see more of Merle Davison’s art:

Header Image: Not Sure Where My Prayers Go But I Send Them Anyway

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