Jeffrey Meris: Care as a Creative Gesture
Artist Jeffrey Meris’s work proclaims the abundant possibilities that spawn from care. He transforms found, quotidian materials into works that invite, haunt, resist, and embrace viewers. As he confronts a potential art object, he asks, “Do I dispose, or do I embrace?” The latter’s answer, which is perhaps the only answer for Meris, embraces a politics of care, which characterizes his works as reincarnations of materials previously deemed "waste."
He deliberately positions himself as an interlocutor between the material object and the viewer, clarifying the covert histories tied to material culture and labor embedded in the object itself. Meris centers a reimagining of materials and iterations of care rooted in process, exemplified in the bending and twisting of metals or in the superimposition of magazine clippings. Meris proposes that objects, like bodies, are vessels that can rebirth and reorient themselves time and time again.
Meris and I met one afternoon in Harlem for one of his “plant walks,” an extension of his artistic practice that blurs the lines between performance, self-care, and environmental consciousness. These plant walks began when the artist was working in New Haven, Connecticut, in 2020. During the height of publicized police brutality, with the murders of Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, George Floyd, and countless others, and grappling with the emotional instability that came about as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Meris began to incorporate meditative rituals into his personal practice. The conceptualization of the “plant walks” began soon after, where the artist now walks his plants around Harlem in a stroller. As he bathes his plants’ leaves in sunlight, he greets passersby, infusing a social and collaborative element into the walks.
“I’m the guy that walks the plants!” Meris exclaims as he approaches me for an embrace. Peering into his stroller, I am greeted by the luscious leaves of a handful of orchids, Monstera deliciosa, Christmas cactus, and aloe vera plants. “These are my babies.”
A current resident of Harlem, Meris was born in Haiti and raised in the Bahamas. He approaches the concept of “origin” as fluid and transient. “I have always had to consider the question of place,” he says. “The older I get, the more I’m wondering, ‘what’s the value of nativity or naissance?’ I realize my privilege in saying this, but this idea of being born somewhere, it seems to legitimize you more, which I disagree with.” Meris’s reflections on community laid the ethical foundation for his artistic practice. His early love of caring for others translated into his childhood dream of becoming a pediatrician. He is an avid reader, another early passion of his, of writers such as Lorraine Hansberry, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Octavia Butler. Supported by a beloved English teacher, Meris had been immediately attracted to the power of articulation and the visual conjuring that reading and writing allows. In the tenth grade, Meris visited an art exhibition for the first time: a survey exhibition at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas. The visual arts thus connect early memories to an artistic practice and shape the rhizomatic thinking with which he approaches his body of work.
Moreover, his engagement in visual articulation through various mediums reflects a core facet of his work: a citational practice that responds to the ebb and flow of geography and climate and that critically engages with the various histories contributing to what we call “place.” His practice is now shaped by Harlem’s cultural and historical impact. “I appreciate so many things about Harlem,” he says. “I don’t feel like my relationship to space is being questioned. There is a deep history of Black intellectual thought and culture that is steeped in Harlem.” He signals to the end of the block, “I mean, Lorraine Hansberry lived right down the street!”
The artist came to New York when he was nineteen through a junior residency program at Popopstudios in Nassau. During this trip he encountered the Studio Museum in Harlem for the first time. Meris graduated from the University of Bahamas in 2012, where he developed a strong background in foundational art practices and techniques, ceramics, and painting. He graduated from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in 2015, where he met artist Karyn Olivier, a Studio Museum artist in residence from 2005 to 2006 who became an early mentor. “I will never forget her,” Meris says. “We had one assignment during my senior thesis where we had to apply to two residency programs, and I did a mock application to two programs. I asked for her feedback, and she said to me, ‘this is nice, this is cute, but I need you to aim for the stars.’” He looks back at the street behind us. “She was talking about the Studio Museum.”
Meris has resided and worked in numerous locations, and his work is consistently in conversation with his immediate environments. As we enter his studio at Studio Museum 127, we hear police sirens. I am reminded of Meris’s series Now You See Me, Now You Don’t (2020), which was Meris’s reaction to an incident involving the police as the artist was graduating from his MFA at Columbia University, in 2019. After swiping his MetroCard at a turnstile numerous times and getting overcharged, Meris jumped the turnstile; he was stopped by a cop and issued a ticket that recorded his height as six-foot-seven and his weight at 250 pounds. Meris is neither of these things. “Just thinking about that moment of interpolation, I thought how I have no control over the way my body is read in space. There is violence that happens when the body is read,” he says.
In works such as Tet Chaje (2022) and The Block is Hot (2020), the artist creates casts of his own body, which he disembodies, suspends, and fragments. Each cast is kinetic, grinding across a perforated sheet of metal. As the work disintegrates, a high-pitched screech penetrates the viewer’s ears. As such, Meris replicates the deeply embedded, reflexive, and residual effects of trauma that reside in the body through incorporations of sound. Meris’s works, then, offer more questions than answers on what it means to inhabit a body, or more precisely, a Black body. “How do I use my work to reflect on the narrow operations, and at times, impossibilities, of sight and legibility when it comes to seeing?”
A collection of drawings made during his residency at the Studio Museum expands off of such queries. Traces of plaster from previous casts are adhered to speckled roofing paper. Archival magazine images fill the perforations in the paper—images of galaxies, fragmented figures, and organic landscapes, which disrupt a cohesive reading of the singular plane. The deliberate obstruction, and disjunctive mélange of materials collected across time thus exemplifies one of Meris’s demands, “We have come to look at Black people not as humans but as these collective hieroglyphs. There is a violent approach to Black people present in this idea of what is legible and what is not.”
As Saidiya Hartman asks, “Why is pain the conduit of identification?” 1 Although Meris is invested in addressing racial violence, the artist is equally interested in highlighting the reparative power of art. In his studio, the floors and walls are decorated with chalk, collected metals, scraps, and stacks of Jet and XXL magazines. Through deliberate sourcing of various materials, Meris’s objects take on new forms of legibility. The artist goes so far as naming “care” as a material in some of his works, as he does in Catch a Stick of Fire IV (2022) and Catch a Stick of Fire III (2022). These hanging, anthropomorphic sculptures display a collection of spider-leaf plants supported by bending aluminum rods. Alongside care, water, light, and oxygen are listed as materials integral to the manifestation of the art-object. Both humanmade hardware and organic materials thrive within the chandelier-like structures, where loving labor as much as technical production is appropriately recognized.
A photo of the artist is taped onto his studio wall. His arms are crossed and a subtle grin spreads across his face, the radiant blue water of the Bahamas behind him. I ask him about it. “I’ve taken a liking to this photo” he laughs. “I keep that up there to honor and nurture that kid’s tenacity.” In speaking about the questions that guide his practice, Meris explains, “I think about a lot of things, namely, how can my work give humanity to people who look like me? How can I use this work to think deeply about what it means to care for my community? How can I honor my ancestors, past, present, and future?”
The plants in the corner of his studio are blooming— I think of Beauty Is a Method by Christina Sharpe: “If the ceiling was falling down and you couldn’t do anything about it, what you could do was arrange peonies and tulips and zinnias; cut forsythia and mock orange to bring inside.” 2 When and if the ceiling falls, Meris chooses to search for what remains outside. He greets the rubble and brings his body (and plants) to the sun. “I believe that to be Black is to be an artist, just as persistency in the face of subjugation is creativity,” he states. “Freedom itself is a creative gesture, you know?” He smiles.
1 Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, (New York: W. W. Norton, 2022), 20.
2 Christina Sharpe, “Beauty Is a Method,” e-flux Journal #105, www.e-flux.com/journal/105/303916/beauty-is-a-method/.