First published: Fall 1999
"I am living in torment. I am walking in hell. Walking in hell every day."
Living in torment is a fine line between the real and imagined worlds, the cruel and the hopeful worlds of Gene Merritt. Despite the years of adversity, his personality is gentle and giving, his sense of humor remarkable.
Classified as developmentally disabled, Merritt has lived as a ward of the state within an adult foster care system for most of his adult life. For nearly fifteen years his home was a substandard trailer in Rock Hill, South Carolina, which stood in the backyard of a family paid to 'look after' the easily exploited Merritt. Alcohol abuse, physical assault, poor hygiene, and lack of medical care marked his experiences there. However, while still living in that setting, he began to produce thousands of exceptional line drawings on paper. His subjects include stars from old movies and television re-runs, aliens from outer space and personalities from popular music and American wrestling, reflecting a personal visual language not overtly influenced by any aesthetic other than one created out of Merritt's own experiences.
Born in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1936 to working-class parents, Merritt suffered permanent brain damage from an extended fever during a bout of pneumonia as a child. His father Clyde was a postal worker and his mother Erma worked in a department store. Both were alcoholics known in the bars and clubs of the depression era southern town. Merritt's father reportedly beat his wife after periods of heavy drinking, violent episodes that Merritt remembers as well as having to live periodically with his mother's sisters.