swarm projects

Letter to Merritt Sher

Merritt was an incredibly important figure in my life.

I met him in 2004 in Oakland, I was working with an arts organization that moved into the Ironworks building. In 2005, Merritt encouraged me to give him a proposal for some space he had, and we worked together to develop Swarm Studios & Gallery. We built out the space in 2006 and operated for 7 fruitful years, and it was a beautiful space, and a beautiful project and brought a lot of people together, and great energy and visibility to the neighborhood. Swarm provided a platform for hundreds of artists to show work and rented studio space and hosted events. It was a project full of heart and vision, and my proudest professional accomplishment so far.

I grew so much as a person working closely with Merritt. During the development of Swarm he introduced me to Red Bank, Edgemar, Gregg Fleishman, ArtWorks and Smith Ranch Studios, Ed Fernandez, David Latimer and Pollinator Press, David Baker, Paolo, Mark, everyone at Metrovation, and so many more people and places.

Merritt offered a lot and inspired a lot in return. He exhibited an easy way of being, and an informal, courageous generosity. I had never met anyone who didn’t sweat the small stuff as much as he. It was almost perplexing at times. I didn’t know how to take it in, but I recognized that it was that concentration on the big picture that supported the adventurousness that we needed. It was an exciting time for art in Oakland and it was wonderful for me to spread my wings as an exhibit developer and curator, and overall art person.

I’m a self-directed creative, so I can innovate and execute, but there are always obstacles in the creative process. And how Merritt operated and navigated that process was truly artful.

Every conversation was “grist for the mill". He’d say things like “keep doing what you’re doing” and “trust your gut.” His relationship to me was multi-nuanced—he was a partner, but also a facilitator, but also completely hands-off, but also completely available. He was a backer, a mentor, a friend, a champion. He didn’t seem to care a ton about what I was doing, but seemed to really trust me and like where I was going. I couldn’t deny just how much he cared about me. He gave me permission to imagine, and to build, and not just grow, but to flourish in the ways that only I could. He factored me into the equation of the Ironworks "math problem" and the larger Merritt-ecosystem and I got to feel like I was part of an exciting evolution.

His eyes would actually twinkle when he talked about people he loved. His people - especially Pam and his children - were like they were stars in the sky to him. His stars.

Our conversations were about expanding possibilities, not just for the space, but for the building, and not just the building, but the neighborhood, and so on. These were the conversations that made Merritt tick. He would light up when we discussed concepts of synergy, cooperation, a feeling of thriving, connecting dots, big picture, beautiful human stuff.

Merritt was most happy when all the pieces fit, even if there were pieces missing, he wanted the pieces that were there to move together, with a feeling and an efficiency that made sense. He taught me how to move through the world by-feel, and it was a challenge, but it was on that edge that I grew, and from all those lessons that I continue to grow.

I wanted to share a quote that I read recently that made me think of Merritt, by Howard Thurman, author, philosopher, educator, and civil rights activist. He said “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

I am eternally grateful for these gifts from Merritt, the ones that supported the life inside me, and so happy we were on the planet at the same time, and so lucky to have been one of his stars. I love Merritt and will always cherish his memory.

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