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Q&A with Merrilee Challiss

/ Interviews

Merrilee Challiss and Blake Wimberly will perform during the <em>Third Space<em> Opening Party Photo Jonathan Purvis

The energy of Third Space will extend beyond gallery walls during our Opening Party on Friday. After all, an exhibition this exciting deserves a kickoff that’s just as unique!

Don’t miss “Disappearing Act,” a mesmerizing sound performance by Birmingham artist Merrilee Challiss and musician Blake Wimberly. In this Q&A, Merrilee discusses the creative process and inspiration behind what she calls a “sonic journey.”

Birmingham Museum of Art: Your work crosses many different mediums and genres. Do you have a favorite?

Merrilee Challiss: For a couple of years now I have begun to realize that no matter the medium, the message is always the same: everything is connected. I am just a vessel for the message and I keep trying to find the best carrier for that message.

BMA: What excites you most about the Birmingham art scene?

MC: Birmingham is such a powerful place, both the site of acts of unfathomable violence and evil and also a place of powerful non-violent resistance. It is a heavy, but very special energy. Still mending from its wounds, it’s like Chiron the wounded healer. I see a lot of young people making art (and music) and that gives me hope.

BMA: Where do you go in Birmingham to find inspiration?

MC: Ruffner Mountain, Red Mountain Park.

BMA: What can the audience expect from your Opening Party performance? 
MC: Blake Wimberly, of Wray, constructed the performance to have three parts: Land, Animal, and Man. He gathered dozens of audio samples like glaciers calving, sea storms, bees, Inuit throat singing, etc., to represent the various categories (geophony, biophony, etc). He did all kinds of crazy things to the samples and he mixes all the tracks live, and we are very much going to be improvising a dance between us. First we go way, way down, into the earth, and then we meet the animals, and then at the end we come back up into the world of man.
I will be playing a little theremin, moving around to clear the energy, and performing ritual acts of prayer.

Blake and I are going to take you on a sonic journey- and like any good journey, we hope it will be both challenging and rewarding. Strap yourself in.

BMA: How is your performance influenced by the exhibition Third Space? Were there specific works or ideas that influenced your creative process?

MC: This performance, which we have titled “Disappearing Act,” is partly a devotional act of prayer to the earth and partly a reckoning for how we have treated the earth, her creatures, and each other. Climate change is the sticky web that connects many of the issues presented in the exhibition, just as it does in the greater world. The science is overwhelming and incontrovertible. The rich biodiversity that supports all of earth’s systems is a rainbow, and we are draining the rainbow. We are all well aware that we are losing our wild places, our indigenous cultures, and predictions for devastating losses of mammals on this planet in our lifetime is dire and rapidly approaching. We can neither untangle the collective action of our species nor our individual actions from climate change– nor can we escape from it. There is no “away,” or as Timothy Morton, who describes climate change as a hyper-object, puts it, “we are living inside a catastrophe”… and yet, despite the facts and calls to action, most people, including myself, often feel immobilized and helpless to affect any change.

Through doing some shamanic work and shadow work over the past several years, I have begun making room within myself to hold space (we’ll call it my personal “third space”) for the grief that I feel. By engaging with and processing these feelings, I honor them and at the same time allow them to flow through me, instead of becoming mired in a swamp of sadness and despair. This public performance is a modified version of my private practice (sans Theremin), which is about reconnecting with the earth and living each day with a sense of gratitude and reciprocity. We must mourn what we have lost and celebrate and work to protect what is left – that is the message of “Disappearing Act.”

BMA: How do you hope this performance will inspire the audience?

MC: Just as I am inspired by others – from the Black Warrior River Keepers here in Alabama to the Black Mambas, an all-female anti-poaching unit in South Africa, I hope this performance will encourage others towards more inspired acts of courage and creative resistance in their own lives and in whatever spheres of influence they operate. It is important to remember Gandhi’s words: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”

Third Space is presented by



 Additional support provided by the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, City of Birmingham, Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, Protective Life Foundation, Vulcan Materials Company Foundation, Robert R. Meyer Foundation, Susan Mott Webb Charitable Trust, The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Alabama Tourism Department, Alabama Humanities Foundation, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Lydia Eustis Rogers Fund, and Friends of Third Space.