As she segued from a long career as a chemistry professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts into her retirement in 2002, Margaret V. Merritt, a papermaker since 1998, already had begun melding her twin interests in science and art into her teaching. In some of her last courses at Wellesley, Merritt, now professor emerita of chemistry, had her students make their own pigments and then paint with them.
Now she has traded in her chromatographs and mass spectrometers for papermakers' materials and techniques. The move, she says, reflects "a love for the liberating and creative power of hands-on work" that she learned from her late undergraduate chemistry professor, Ted Williams, at the College of Wooster. Williams, a master teacher, was remembered in September at the American Chemical Society's national meeting in San Francisco in a symposium in his honor.
Commissioned by the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, one of Merritt's more ambitious handiworks, created in collaboration with stone lithographer Anita C. Dillman, now hangs in DHMC's Norris Cotton Research Center in Lebanon, N.H. It's called "Soaring."
Just as scientific research is a collaborative effort, so too was the making of this three-paneled work, whose imagery celebrates the collaboration, intellectual play and creativity, and hope that biomedical researchers muster as they strive to convert ideas about disease and medicine into concrete therapies.
To create the piece, Merritt made translucent paper sheets, somewhat like rice paper, using a pulp of cellulose fibers from the inner bark of the paper mulberry, or kozo, plant. She sent some sheets to Dillman, who used stone lithographic techniques to print onto them hands (based on enlarged photocopies of Merritt's own hands) and drawings of children and branches. Merritt then overlaid these elements onto window-sized paper sheets on which she created landscape features with a technique called "pulp painting" that involves colored paper pulp and a turkey baster.
"Studio art is not so different from laboratory science, because what you are doing is connecting mind with hand," Merritt says.