TROUBLED CHILDHOOD TURNED AROUND BY ART
THURSDAY JANUARY 26th, 2012
John Merigian‘s life had a bumpy start, and it would have been next to impossible to predict the path that would eventually bring him to the place he is at today. As the youngest of three kids, divorce was harder on him than his siblings. In the ’60s shared custody or sole custody for dads was rare. Though she had custody of the children, John’s mother was not equipped to care for them. The Merigian children ended up in the foster care system and were on their third foster home before their dad was able to get custody. Moving from Lansing, Merigian’s re-united family ended up in Highland Park where John’s dad and grandmother took on the task of creating a safe and stable life for the Merigian children, close to their family’s Armenian roots and church.
“It was a bad situation in Lansing with lots of serious problems for us kids, but it was also tough adjusting to and growing up in [Detroit's] inner city during the ’60s,” explained Merigian. Merigian recalls that by the time he was 8 years old he was in trouble all the time and had started running with a gang. “We protected each other,” confided Merigian. But that didn’t stop him from experiencing the terror and helplessness of losing one of his childhood buddies who was shot and killed by a neighbor; and there would be other losses of friends to violence.
The label “trouble” extended into his school life, until a frustrated teacher decided to try something different with Merigian. “When I was in 4th grade they did some tests on me and discovered that I was smart, even though my grades didn’t match that test result. They concluded that I must be bored. It turned out that I was really good at math and by the time I was in 5th and 6th grade I was tutoring kids in the 3rd grade,” shared Merigian. “One of my teachers noticed that I had talent in art and allowed me to regularly go work independently in the art room.”
Hanging on the wall of his studio today is a piece created by Merigian while in the 6th grade during those independent art sessions in school. It is a framed relief figure of a cheetah, made with sawdust and paste. Merigian recounts the circumstance of submitting this piece, two years later, to the Michigan State Fair art competition when he was in the 8th grade. After the judging he was stunned to find out that his piece had not received an award – no first prize, no second prize, no honorable mention – nothing. “I looked around at the pieces that received awards and felt like my work was better than some of them. I was a bit teary, but I went to a judge and asked why my work did not get a ribbon. The judge let me know that several of the judges felt that the work was so good that it could not possibly have been done by an 8th grader without help from an adult,” recounts Merigian. He could have gotten mad about these assumptions, but instead chose to see this as a true compliment of his work.
Merigian had an uncle that went to Cranbrook Art Academy so there was some family support and encouragement to pursue art. By the time Merigian was in 7th grade he knew he wanted to “do art” and applied for a scholarship to Cranbrook. He received a full ride scholarship beginning with 9th grade. “It was art and sports in school that saved me and put me on a different path for my life,” said Merigian. While he excelled at both art and sports, the budding artist made the tough decision going into his senior year at Cranbrook to drop sports and focus solely on art.
John graduated from Cranbrook with one of their highest honors, the Thistle Award – again important recognition of his gifts. He was recruited by several high-profile colleges including Harvard and Amherst. While he was accepted to every school he applied to, his family simply could not afford the costs associated with going to an Ivy League college and insisted that John agree to go to the University of Michigan (U-M) instead. After settling in at the U-M School of Art & Design, Merigian enjoyed the assets available to him to explore doing large scale works in the university studio facilities.
While Merigian was accepted at Pratt for its Masters of Fine Arts program, he put the pursuit of the MFA on hold, deciding to get practical and pursue an MBA in Human Resources at the Ross School of Business, again at U-M. His practical decision was also fueled by his interest in getting married and starting a family. And so began what would be a 25 year career in human resources for major companies like General Motors, Nissan, and Masco. Merigian did go back to pursue his MFA at Wayne State University, but found the challenges of balancing his family life, HR work life, and his sculptural works too demanding to complete the MFA. He did, however, add an MA to his professional arts resume.
The creativity that Merigian brought to his work in human resources was no surprise to him, and apparently served him well in his chosen professional career as he achieved great success. “We moved to several different places in the country for my work, and wherever we lived I always had a place in my home and in my heart for my art,” emphasized Merigian. Eventually, his corporate work would bring him back to Michigan and his path would take a new turn.
It was his faith and an unwavering commitment to his art that would lead Merigian to his first monumental sculpture for his church, St. John Armenian Church of Detroit. The sculptural grouping of figures called “Let Us Rejoice”, installed over 30 years ago, would lead him to a lifetime body of signature work.
In 2009 Merigian, like so many others, felt the crushing effects of the economic crash. His position was eliminated, his division experiencing significant staff reductions. “I worked really hard to find a new job, but even my contacts in the industry were losing their jobs,” he confided. As a stress reducer John was spending more and more time in his sculpture studio. Later the same year, he had the good fortune to have an opportunity to participate in the 2009 ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids, placing a grouping of seven of his signature sculptural pieces in a spot next to Calder Plaza. As a result he was able to sell some of his pieces to a prominent Grand Rapids family.
Before he knew it, Merigian began to realize that he was, at last, a full-time sculptor, with new commissions coming, including two of his largest pieces ever (32ft and 37ft), installed last year, and representation of his work in several galleries across the country. “Right now, my life is very much a work in progress, but so many of my friends are saying things like ‘… at last you are doing what you were meant to do…’ and I am taking that as confirmation that everything that I have learned from grade school to my career in HR, and my advanced degree in art has brought me to this place with all the tools I need.”
Given Merigian’s lifetime accomplishments in both the corporate world and the creative arts, we are left with a question. Where would he be if he had not had access to the arts in elementary school? And, what about kids labeled as “troublemakers” in today’s public school classrooms – will they have the same good fortune?