Issue 211
Winter 2019/2020

The Artwork Logo

Feb 26, 2020

See pdf for current issue (below):
ArtWork Newspaper Issue 211
Winter 2019/2020 (6.12MB)

Download a free Adobe PDF Reader to view pdf files.
Please click here for "back numbers"

ArtWORK App on Android Smartphones (HoneyComb and above). Click/Scan on the images (below) to install
ArtWork Android App ArtWork Android App

Send us details of an event for listing on the ArtWork Guide here

The 'Formidable' Merilyn Smith

The critic Clare Henry remembers an artistic life lived with "courage, conviction, integrity and with ferocious clarity and intelligence"

TO SAY that Merilyn Smith was feisty is to understate. Her lifelong determination to break down barriers and forge a provocative pioneering path as an artist took her to Nigeria, Italy, Yugoslavia, Romania and Liverpool, where she was first ever femaleProf of Fine Art. She was deprived of the one place where she would have been uber perfect – Rome, as head of the British School there. Why? Because that establishment, she was told by the board, could have coped with a woman director, or an artist as director – but not both together.

Today things would be different. Different because of people like Merilyn. Her celebration in 1992 of Jenny Geddes and the famous Cutty Stool at St Giles Cathedral epitomises defiance. Geddes flung her stool at the minister's head back in 1637 in protest at the new 'anglicised' prayer-book imposed on Scotland. Outragous then for a woman to act. Predictably It started a riot. If only we had a Jenny Geddes now to hurl her stool at our politicians! Smith's three-legged stool, the traditional 'Cutty Stool of Repentance' for 'penitants' was cast in bronze by Smith & unveiled in St Giles during the Edinburgh Festival.

Merilyn Smith grew up in Arbroath and Kirkcaldy, then studied at Edinburgh College of Art from 1960-1965. There she gained a travelling scholarship in 1963 and a postgraduate scholarship in 1965. Teaching in Africa from 1966-67, with her husband and two kids, tenure was curtailed by the outbreak of the Biafran War, so she returned to Edinburgh with her family. It was the first of a number of times where circumstances required her to recoup, reappraise, and rebuild from scratch. Next came a lecturer position at her Edinburgh alma mater.

In 1969 she also set up the famous Ceramic Workshop at Edinburgh's Victoria Terrace, which she managed till it closed in 1975. She considered it one of her proudest accomplishments.

Merilyn's ceramics came in very sculptural form. Today this would be taken for granted, but then had to be fought for. She had a story which exemplified this. As a student she was reprimanded for her unconventional approach. "This is a ceramic department, not a sculpture department." At which point, she pressed her fingers into the soft clay at the top of her creation, and exclaimed proudly that she'd made a vase! The lecturer was enraged, but the challenge was there: to rethink, re-conceptualise. A challenge she held not only in her art, but in her life too. In Merilyn's words… 'I needed the debate.'

I reviewed her cutting edge work on numerous occasions, first in 1983, when she showed both at Glasgow's iconic Third Eye and also with Demarco in Edinburgh. There, according to my Herald review from October, she was seeking "to devise an innovatory synthesis of the disciplines of painting and sculpture." I quoted her words, "What we artists can do is to reassemble so that the sun shines brighter and the rain rains wetter," she said.

The show contained ordinary objects, often upside down, camouflaged with bright red and green or silver and blue. I observed that the show did not entirely convince me! The following month in her big solo show at Third Eye she went to town with a brighter, bigger, better installation. "Only an outspoken, enterprising committed professional artist like Merilyn Smith could – dare I say it – get away with such a joyful convincing impudence," I wrote. Merilyn always emphasised that her work was about breaking out, about celebration, about freedom.

I also travelled with her twice – always great fun – in 1988 to the then Yugoslavia just before their war, including Mostar and Sarajevo, where she created a wonderful site specific wrecked car, a decrepit Peugeot, repainted, yes, in bright red and green, and accompanied by a brilliant animated 20ft slide projection. Then in 1991 to Hungary and Romania where we shared wonderful convivial visits to artists studios and a room with the most scratchy bed covers ever.

In Budapest she created nine heroic Trophy Heads dealing with dignity and destruction. Her original plan for ceramic was impossible there, so transferred to adobe mud and straw without losing any impact. Displayed in tall serried ranks they made a powerful installation.

Italy remained a favourite place. In the 1970s she and family lived in Gubbio, in a former monastery up a mountain. Returning to Edinburgh's Jeffrey Street, she continued to teach, and in 1979 became Senior Lecturer in Fine Art & Sculpture at Liverpool Polytechnic, later becoming Reader in Fine Art in 1990 and then, as I said, breaking boundaries as the first ever female Professor of Fine Art at the subsequently renamed Liverpool John Moores University. She exhibited in Yugoslavia, Hungary, Rumania, Italy, Scotland, England and was awarded the 30th Anniversary Prize at the Concorso Internazionale. At Liverpool she founded the Centre for Art International Research – a collection of international arts experts spanning the globe.

Meanwhile, in 1981 she had remarried, to critic Murdoch Lothian, and had her youngest daughter Catriona. Second only to family, she loved teaching and loved her students, nurturing new talent, just as she done earlier through the Ceramics Workshop.

Her career encompassed many firsts – from curating the 1973 Festival exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery, (which went on to the Whitechapel); through to the eighth Biennale, Gubbio, Italy (1974-5); to being awarded the 30th Anniversary Prize at the Concorso Internazionale, Italy (1990). In Liverpool she founded the Centre for Art Inter-national Research – a collection of inter-national arts experts spanning the globe.

Candid and honest, Merilyn's generosity came with much wit and humour. There's a saying that if you aren't living life on the edge, you've simply got too much room. Merilyn's trajectory through life was always vigorous, often turbulent, sometimes tempestuous, never easy but she revelled in it all.

As the minister said in her eulogy, "Merilyn expressed her art through life, life through art with courage, conviction, integrity and with ferocious clarity and intelligence. Formidable? Challenging? Certainly. Original? Most definitively. Her guiding philosophy was "to make the best of life, to leave things better than how you found them."

The funeral service included a poem from her son, two images of her work projected, as directed by her to accompany the eulogy, and ended with a rousing Frank Sinatra That's Life. Yes, she had choreographed her own funeral – as I knew she would.

Dr Merilyn Smith, February 14, 1942 – August 7, 2019


An extensive new preface by the Ross Herald of Arms, Charles Bunnett, Chamberlain of Duff House

AA trveller's guide to Scotland's Train Stations