Merle Axelrad Serlin

Posted on September 7, 2011 – 6:15 AM | by Admin
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By James W. Cameron  Photo by Scott Duncan

Merle Axelrad Serlin knew at an early age that she wanted to exercise her creative side. She filled that desire by becoming an architect, working on creative projects for Disney, Lucas Films and other large firms. At the peak of her career she walked away from the safety of the day job to pursue her dream of becoming a full-time visual artist.

Now a Midtown resident, she has become one of the region’s best known artists, employing a unique style she describes as “fabric collage.” Serlin is the recipient of several public art commissions, and her work is on permanent display in Sacramento’s Environmental Protection Agency Headquarters and City Hall, as well as in numerous other public and private collections across the country. She settled in with us recently to discuss her unusual career.

When and how in life did your creativity surface?

I was always a wannabe artist.  I loved making stuff.   My favorite toy was a wood box.   The lid, which slid into a slot at the top, was a chalkboard on one side and a pegboard on the other.  Inside the box were animals, trees, building blocks on pegs.  and lots of colored pegs that could be made into anything.  There were all manner of things.  I loved playing with that box.  It was magic to me.

I always wanted to be an artist, but I liked the idea of a paycheck. Architecture seemed like a good way to get both of those.

How did it evolve into fabric art?

I learned how to sew when it was required for all girls in junior high.  My graduation present from ninth grade was my first sewing machine.  I thought it was pretty amazing to be able to create something totally by myself – from start to finish.

Back in the ‘70s, I entertained myself in the few boring college classes by embroidering and/or beading elaborate patterns on denim work shirts and leather jackets.   In the ‘80s I made a cloth toy as a baby gift for my nephew.  We knew he was going to be named Noah, so I made him a three dimensional fabric Noah’s Ark. It included forty pairs of cloth animals.  I got totally obsessed with it.  When my own son was born I took some time off to be a full-time at-home mom and I made a baby quilt. I was hooked.  After twelve years working as an architect, I was once again smitten by the ability to create something myself, from start to finish.  My quilts got non-traditional pretty quickly, and I began making them for the wall instead of the bed.

The great thing about wall art vs. wearable art – nothing has to “fit.”  I adore watching Project Runway, but I could never ever do that!

When was your unique style created and were there outside influences involved in its creation?

It began with looking out of the airplane window and thinking “it looks like a quilt.”  I don’t know how many times I said that to myself when it hit me – I make quilts!  The first landscape I made was an aerial view of the fields you see as you land in Sacramento.  That was a very small piece, and it hangs somewhere at UC Davis Medical Center.

That was the only landscape I’d made when I applied for a large public art project.  My proposal was to create eight large landscapes out of fabric.  I was shocked when I got the commission!  Now I had to figure things out pretty quickly.  It was a lot of trial and error.  My technique continues to evolve.  I can now get much more detail into my pieces although that detail takes more time.

I’m just starting what may become a new direction.  I have a possible commission for four very large collages of buildings.  I’m currently creating a small sample piece to see how the technique translates to the built environment.

How long does it typically take to create a single piece of your art?  What is the largest piece you’ve done?

[My] largest piece was just over six by seven feet. The new pieces depicting buildings will each be over eight by five feet.

As for time….I’m getting slower.  Actually, my work is much more detailed than it was ten years ago, and that takes time.  Those first eight landscapes were fifty inches square and each took about two hundred hours.  I just finished a piece that is thirty by twenty inches and iIt took three hundred and fifty hours.

A lot of people think that seems like a lot of time for one project, but you have to remember that I’m coming from the perspective of an architect.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours could go into a set of drawings for a building – and it may never even be built.  For me, my collages are “immediate gratification.”

Merle Axelrad Serlin’s studio at 1021 R Street, 2nd floor will be open as part of the Capitol Artists’ Studio Tour on September 10-11, 2011.


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