Wearing a shaggy beard and smelling of cigar smoke, Armand Merizon greeted me at the door. It was 1962. I was a sophomore in college living next door, and had been hired to babysit his five children. I was hoping the income would help pay living expenses, but it didn’t look like I’d be paid lavishly. His jacket was paint-spattered, his shoes worn, the carpets were threadbare, and the cupboards nearly empty. I knew the signs. I was poor and hungry too. Unlike most students, I was completely on my own financially. Ordinarily I would have been more skeptical, but something about his smile beckoned me. Beyond him I could see an array of paintings on the wall, the kind that made me forget about the growl in my stomach.
That evening while I folded laundry and read to the children, he and his wife Betty took a rare night out to celebrate the sale of one of his paintings, after quite a long drought. When they returned they paid me more than I’d expected and surprised me with a generous shrimp cocktail.
Armand had warned me, emphatically, to stay away from his makeshift front porch studio that housed his artwork and his sensitive stereo machine, a machine that an earlier babysitter had damaged. As respectful as I wanted to be, I found his easel irresistible. Surreptitiously I began to lean over the sagging sofa that separated the living room from his front porch studio. Incrementally I inched closer, curious how his canvas could express beauty in the most ordinary things: in rocks, weeds, stumps and grass. I began to take note of every intentional stroke, every nuance, every provocative comment and question he’d propose on canvas.
College years came to a close. Facing graduation, marriage, and a teaching position in Indiana, I feared that my connection would end. Mustering what courage I had, I approached him asking if he’d paint a memento for me, knowing full well that by now most of his paintings were selling for considerably more than the hard-saved $100 I could offer him. Six days later he surprised me with a sizable Lake Michigan scene, barely dry. Oh, how I treasured that painting.
In time, I moved, married, and had two sons. For the next fifteen years visits were few, yet inspiring. Over an occasional lunch we discussed what new technique he was experimenting with or the evolution of his latest composition. Then, on one stop I brought along my Lake Michigan painting for him to review. He surveyed it unhappily, pointing out that the composition was off, the horizon line too close to the center, the colors too pale. Alas, he confessed that he had painted it too hastily, compromising his own integrity. So he asked if I’d give it back to him—to destroy. I did, hesitantly. Later, during another visit, he surprised me with a replacement which, he said, would be an upgrade.
On the phone we continued spirited discussions about our similar ethnic and religious backgrounds as well as whatever dramas were marching across the world theater. Invariably talk would turn to what he called the “war of the spirits.” And invariably, it influenced his work. Armand, more than anyone, made me think–– philosophically, religiously, and artistically.
As my two boys grew up, I made more frequent visits. All too soon Armand was nearing his eighty-fifth birthday, in failing health and struggling with macular degeneration. With a growing sense of urgency to preserve his legacy, I returned several times to record interviews with him. On one occasion in 2004, my niece, Jennifer Dornbush, came along. Inspired by what she saw and heard, she proposed we create a documentary about him. The following year ARMAND premiered at Calvin College with Armand and his wife, Betty, in the audience.
Requests began coming in to see and know more about this artist. Several years later, when my college roommate, Jan Keessen, saw the documentary for the first time, she insisted we co-write his biography. I agreed. I invite you now to enjoy the legacy of this Twentieth Century artist.
I hope I can leave something that’s not just interesting or challenging but something that will give people a lift, instilling on the one hand joy and on the other hand reverence.