Julie Carter Merwin is an artist, writer, and illustrator of 14 books, including her latest, a young adult fantasy, “Hobb’s Lake Secret.” She is also a prolific author of adult fantasy fiction.
Merwin lives and works in Castleton, where she and her husband, Tom, have their studios. She graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology and resolutely followed her own unique star in art and writing.
On display at the Southern Vermont Arts Center, through November 6, are 40 of more than 110 pen-and-ink drawings created to illustrate “The Tales of Earden” fantasy novels, along with other books and covers. They fill an entire long hallway and adjoining gallery with fantastical and imaginative images.
It is noteworthy that Carter Merwin puts on such a comprehensive display of her illustrative work after many years of creating books. Of a generous nature, she has been a great support for her husband, the artist Tom Merwin, and her son, the filmmaker Matt Merwin, and the Merwin Gallery.
Carter Merwin is a lifelong active member of his local and regional communities. She has been very involved in rescue work with the Rutland County Humane Society, as well as being a longtime participant in the Tom Smith Poetry Group at the Castleton Free Library. She is active with the Independent Publishers of New England, as well as a member and judge of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association’s annual “Rising Star” award, given annually to a member of a diverse international community.
I have long been fascinated by the many talents of Carter Merwin and her dedication to family, art, writing, and community. It is a pleasure to interview him on the occasion of this last comprehensive exhibition of his work.
BA: Why are you an artist?
JCM: I heard an interview on the radio with a musician who described why he wrote songs and performed them. He said it was “keeping a promise” or a “commitment” to himself, that he had this music inside of him and knew he had to let the world know it, that someone else l hear or not. It’s a feeling of passionate engagement bordering on obsession that I think all creative people struggle with. “Why am I doing this?” “Is what I write, draw, dance, sculpt, film really relevant? I view the work of artists as birdsong, something vital to our life and our understanding of the world which, if lost, would diminish us.
BA: Were you an artist as a child? What was your favorite mode of expression?
JCM: You know, I think I always doodled when I was a kid in Rochester, New York, especially with the “new” ballpoint pens. When I was 13, I got a nice set of pen and ink at Christmas and started spreading India ink on our living room couch. It wasn’t a good thing, but from then on I was addicted to ink and quill pens, all through high school. I was fascinated by the pen and ink illustrations of the classic children’s books my dad read to me, especially “Old Mother West Wind”, “Alice”, “Winnie the Pooh”, “Eloise” and more later I discovered the exquisitely medieval “King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table” by Howard Pyle. I was addicted to this medium – it’s been my ‘preferred method of travel’ ever since.
BA: Most of the works in the SVAC exhibition are in black and white. Some are in color. What is the relationship between your color and black and white work?
JCM: I entered the RIT illustration program with a series of drawings from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”. When the RIT canceled this major in my second year, I was forced to switch to painting and printmaking. The printmaking was fascinating and shared so much history with the black and white processes, printmaking, lithography, no problem…but the painting seemed to be about copying a teacher’s particular style, especially last semester’s course before graduation. I told the painting teacher that I was going to do a pen and ink series instead of learning to paint like him. He told me to do what I wanted but, of course, he finally refused me. Many students have actually handed in work like his. I clicked with another painting instructor and graduated a semester later.
BA: How do your books take shape? Do images or stories come first?
JCM: There is perhaps a link between my writing and pen work… I have always been able to switch from one to the other. I see an image or scene in my mind and write or ink it. Also, I think I’m a very black and white person; I make up my mind and stick to it. Well, maybe the stubborn Scottish heritage is more like that. When I work, I sketch the composition lightly in pencil, but I do most of the final drawing freehand. A little dangerous but it keeps the work fresh. There’s something I need to meditate/isolate/get away from the everyday by spending four to six hours on an ink drawing. Being an only child probably has something to do with it, but it’s also a deeper trait of many creatives. I see it in others, especially one of my favorite students, and it’s a joy to see her focus and what she creates.
BA: Can you tell us about this five-volume series “The Tales of Earden? Intended age range? What was the inspiration? Did you complete all five volumes during COVID?
JCM: In my last years working at the Rutland County Humane Society in Vermont, you would see me drop my scrub brush to run and scribble a note about a plot point. Fortunately, the rest of my colleagues supported me because it was a rather intense period of writing. Don’t ask me where all these people, creatures and countries, their customs, gods, intrigues, spells, triumphs and loves came from, but it led to the creation of “The Tales of Earden”, a fantasy series for adults in five of the volumes that took over four years to complete.
I had the chance to work with an English publisher (Braiswick) for my first book. (My sister-in-law Eileen Merwin is also an author and introduced us, lucky you!) Unfortunately, after much preparation, he closed up shop. This led to a few years of flogging my manuscript to publishers and agents. At the same time, independent publishing exploded with website formatting, programs like CreateSpace, Scrivener and KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). It was a steep learning curve for a while. To date MacGregor House, my own company, has published over 14 books of fiction, poetry, etc. and a few other local authors. It seems to me that I have a small audience in Japan (even my cookbooks) where fantasy is even more popular than here.
“Shelter Cat” is a children’s book dedicated to the RCHS and features illustrations of the staff and animals we cared for for a season. I myself have four rescues and proudly helped heal over 12,000 creatures of all kinds during my time there. I sponsor one of the dog pens and keep in touch with these exceptional and dedicated people.
I also enjoy cooking and recently published ‘The Tales of Earden Cookbook’, in collaboration with Rob Staedler, ‘The Wine Guy’, at the Village Store in Castleton. We’ve paired Vermont craft wines, beers, beers, and spirits with recipes from the different regions of Earden (since Vermont is a special region and some might say “fantastic” on its own).
Last year during the COVID outbreak, the Southern Vermont Arts Center commissioned me to do a pen and ink series based on Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (a 10 piece piano suite) . Hopefully they will be auctioned at the Manchester Music Festival in 2023.
When they were finished I decided to get COVID out and eight months later (and probably 50 Prismacolor 0.005 dead pens) I finished over 110 pens and inks for “The Tales of Earden”. I think I did justice to a fantasy world that simply had to be more than words on a page.
BA: What do you hope to share through the fantasy worlds you’ve created?
JCM: Merwin Gallery (Tom, Matt and I) has been part of the art community since we opened our doors 25 years ago. The gallery features Tom’s work, but in recent years I have also started to put my art on the walls. This is my first exhibition since 1973.
It’s still rare for an illustrator to get the chance to show off a body of work, so I’m proud to be one of the Southern Vermont Arts Center’s Fall 2022 Solo Artists and get the chance to show my art to more people.
As for what I hope to share…escapism and adventure, we can all enjoy a little of that.