The Fabric of Life

Text by Caroline Cunningham

From any distance, Merill Comeau’s collaged murals of repurposed textiles are compelling landscapes, almost kinetic in their cascading patterns of colors and textures. Up close, these multilayered arrangements of disparate fabrics, embellished with her intricate needlework, reveal the enduring beauty to be found in the things we cast aside or leave behind. Comeau embraces the inherent disarray and decline of her chosen materials—antique linens, frayed men’s shirts, discarded artists’ rags, and mesh vegetable bags—as an evocative metaphor for the tumultuous cycle of life. There’s some darkness here, but the melancholy is balanced by the implicit promise of new beginnings.

Comeau grew up outside of Boston, and enrolled as an art major at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, switching later to  social theory and political economics in an effort to reconcile the solitary nature of the artistic process with her desire to engage with the world. Upon graduation, Comeau worked in arts administration, but she missed having an outlet for her own creative expression, and enrolled at the Boston Architectural College to study design and architecture.

Working as a commercial and residential designer, which she did for many years, provided the opportunity to refine her visual aesthetic and further explore a long-standing fascination with fabric. She also joined Boston artist Clara Wainwright on the Faith Quilt Project, helping diverse congregations and interfaith groups express and share their beliefs through collaborative quilt-making.

Comeau’s transformative moment occurred during a time when she was facing a critical family health crisis. She gathered fabric samples together, and then tried to create a sense of order from a haphazard collection of swatches on her dining room table. As she worked, various forms began to emerge from an abstracted tableau of shapes and colors, forms such as nests to symbolize home and cacti that captured the sharp pain of medical issues. Drawing on her training as a designer, Comeau organized the textiles with close attention to massing and color relationships, and established a consistent horizon line. She fastened the pieces together using archival glue, and finished the work, by then three distinct panels, with hand and machine stitching. Comeau was invited to include In Between I, II, III in a group show at the Concord  (Massachusetts) Art Association in 2006, and her artistic career was launched.

Her work has since evolved to reflect a more confident and sophisticated grasp of her craft, but many things remain the same, including her deep attachment to her eclectic collection of textiles. “I am never alone,” she says. “The community of family and friends who have given me their worn clothing always surrounds me.”

She has moved from her dining room table to a light-filled studio where she uses the squares on the linoleum floor to organize her work. She climbs a ladder and looks down to gain distance from the composition, or uses a set of binoculars, held backwards, to give her the perspective she desires. Once a section is completed, she joins the deconstructed and distressed fabrics—some painted, or printed with handmade stamps—with a light adhesive, and pins it on the wall, adding and editing until she’s satisfied. At the end, she adds elaborate stitching. The geometry of the frame in her earliest work has given way to more-organic shapes, like the slender tendrils that twist across Ladies of Weir Farm and trace the loose half-circle of the crimson and pale-blue background.

In Fragments of Eden VIII: Burnt Trees, part of a recent exhibition at the Danforth Museum in Framingham, Massachusetts, black branches and tree trunks stand in silhouette against a field of vibrant fuchsia—a gorgeous declaration of hope amid devastation.

The frame is fully deconstructed in Women’s Work is Never Done, where multiple scraps of dark fabric are arranged in a grid, with deliberate tucks and tangles symbolizing the rich complexity of a woman’s life. “It’s an integral part of the human condition to hover between despair and joy,” Comeau explains, “and it’s important to acknowledge and understand both.”

What gives Comeau’s work such power is that both medium and method are her message: out of loss, there is rebirth, and unexpected splendor can emerge from chaos. •

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