Meryl Redux: Sassy & Sweet

It’s been a really, really busy spring. Bushwick Open Studios is coming up, so there’s that to get ready for. I also write for Arts in Bushwick, and there’s been stuff for that (see “Chasing History: The 2015 AiB Benefit Exhibition“), then there’s Meryl Meisler. This photo-based artist is at it again, with a new book Purgatory & Paradise: SASSY ’70s Suburbia & The City scheduled to arrive in time for BOS (Bushwick Open Studios for those on other planets).

In it are her first pictures ever, which are very good. She seems to have sprung forth fully formed, immediately creating cohesive and visually compelling bodies of work. It began when she was on break from the University of Wisconsin, and started documenting family and friends in the suburban enclave of Massapequa, Long Island. At the same time, she also began photo forays into New York City, the Big Apple, which at the time was rotting, ridden with crime and decay. She loved it, and the pictures show her love and compassion for the people of its streets as well the people in the sheltered neighborhood where she grew up.

Meryl is a wonderful person, so when she asked me to contribute the introduction (I wrote the one for her first book), I jumped. This year there was that frenemy of all writers–time! I could actually prepare instead of scribbling off the cuff! I read books on the 70′s, looked up icons of its culture, even went back to the 60′s, reading the magnificent, lofty speeches of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I had so much research going that when it came time to actually write, I was overwhelmed. There was enough material for a thesis, but way too much for a 1,100 word intro. Oops.

Less can be more, but less is hard, like packing a small suitcase. You can’t take the whole closet, but need clothes for day and evening, rain and shine, cultural events as well as sports. If this sounds like something a 1920′s lady of leisure would say, you know what I mean.

There were numerous drafts, how many I can’t even say. Too embarrassed. They spilled from my iPad to my iPhone to my laptop. Finally had to use that glorious app, Mellel, the docent of long documents, to sort it all out.

Meanwhile, Meryl and Patty (uber-designer Patricia O’Brien) were frantically editing images with the help of publisher Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire. Amy Leffler was composing her reflections on the famed “Mystery Club” (outings to seances and a nudist colony), and I was hacking away at these ginormous text documents I had going. Let’s just say everyone had something to do and was very, very busy.

The book went through several drafts, the feel shifting with each version. When I first saw the pictures, the thing that stood out was the eclectic, outlandish interior design of the suburban homes, that ranged from French Empire to Mid-century Modern, with comic book touches thrown in. Yet in the next iteration (with my draft well underway), other things seemed more prominent. Was I mad? Losing my mind? How could I have gotten things so horribly wrong?

I shifted certain paragraphs of the draft to reflect the new tone, yet had tremendous doubt whether I was still touching too heavily on the wrong things. With deadlines looming, everyone brought their work to an end. The final cut brought even more sass to the project, and restored many pictures featuring the ornate decor that had caught my eye in the first place.

Lesson: I thought I was the only one with sprawling, messy work habits, but I am not. It is a part of everyone’s creative process, no matter how refined and “inevitable” the final product is. Stay tuned for this book–it’s going to be a good one.