By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks
Peoria sculptor Cyndi Merrill always loved creating art but she assumed that she’d be involved in engineering of some sort. That all changed when she took a design class at Illinois Central College, and that experience set her on a path for a bachelor of fine arts degree from Illinois State University.
Cyndi is a native of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin but landed in Peoria when her husband’s last military post was at the Navy Marine Corps Duty Station. “We like the area and the city is just the right size,” she said. “It’s not so large that it’s scary and it’s not so small that you can’t find what you want.”
Cyndi remembers loving to sculpt her whole life. “I made forts as a child, but then made mud doll sculptures or carved faces into apples. I’ve always been a 3-D artist, but I can’t draw for anything. I can think better in all three dimensions.”
Her breakthrough piece came during her design class at ICC. For a covered object assignment, she created a sperm bank by covering a piggy bank with hundreds of tiny hand-made sperm. “It was fun and conceptual,” she said, “and I got it into the collegiate art competition for two-year schools. That was kind of a big deal since I was the first person from ICC to get into the competition.” With that validation, she turned her focus from engineering to art. Her BFA is in fine art ceramics and she has a second degree in studio arts.
One of Cyndi’s recent works is “Miss Sugar Pink Liquor Lips” (pictured above) which was created in 2013 during Cyndi’s senior year at ISU. “It was hard being my age and being in college with all these 19 year old fetuses,” she laughed. “I noticed that the girls in college were all wearing UGG boots and yoga pants, and they looked ridiculous. I was kind of making fun of them, but I remember myself at 19 and it was kind of funny.”
Cyndi specifically chose the figure’s pose and the boots to help convey her message. “The girl is so brazen that she’s not wearing the yoga pants,” Cyndi explained, “but she still has just enough modesty that she has a tentacle in front. She was trying to conform, but she went overboard. She’s wearing pink UGGs instead of tan, and she’s throwing off the yoga pants and saying, “Fine, look at it.” It’s really bipolar.”
The octopus portion of the figure is a recurring theme in much of Cyndi’s work. Cyndi suffers from nerve damage, possibly caused by Lyme disease. “I choose the octopus while I was doing water therapy,” she explained. “It’s something that feels as free and awesome as I do when I get into the water. The octopus doesn’t have the restriction of bone and sinew to keep it from moving, so it has the ultimate freedom of movement. Then, I combine it with a sublime body (sublime meaning “perfected body”) as the idealized female form combined with the idealized figure of free movement.
“I put them together so that you have the desire to look, but we’re puzzled to make a connection,” she continued. “The connection is important to understand; you may start to wonder what it is that makes you want to look.
“The position of the octopus is showing emotion. The girl doesn’t realize that she’s undergoing octopussification, and she’s just now realizing it. The girl is now a woman who knows, but she doesn’t have the whole story yet. You’re never happy to find out that people are paying attention to you not for the reasons you thought, but.eventually you work it to your own advantage.”
Cyndi explained that octopussification represents the shock that people aren’t seeing her the way she thought she was. “It’s a metaphor for the day I was handed the handicap placard and it said “permanent” or the first time I threw my back out and the doctor saying “this is going to happen more.””
“Miss Sugar Pink Liquor Lips” is ceramic with guilder’s paste as a surface treatment to give it the look of bronze. “For me, the process starts out when I grab a ball of clay,” Cyndi said. “With her, I started with the torso and had a lot of clay in the middle, so I folded her and in that bend I could see that she was going to be seated. I was trying to think of something bold and brazen so I went with the particular pose that she’s in. I sculpted her from there using reference photos.”
“When you look at it, be happy and lustful and whimsical,” Cyndi concluded. “Appreciate the work, appreciate the skill and appreciate the humor. Humor is fuel for me. I prefer to live a happy life and not a contemplative and dark life.”
You can find more information about Cyndi and her other works at thecrabbyrabbit.com. You can meet Cyndi in person and see her work in person at The Atelier, 1000 S.W. Adams St. in Peoria during most of the CIAO First Friday Studio Tours. However, this Friday, November 7, 2014, she’ll be part of the “Peoria After Dark” exhibit at Studios on Sheridan in Peoria.