Robert Melançon, Québec author, poet and friend of Merola, once wrote: “Merola’s painting is choreography. In front of it the eye dances.” Having experienced his works firsthand, words could not ring truer.
Versatile artist Mario Merola was born in Montreal in 1931 to an Italian father (from Casacalenda, Molise) and a French Canadian mother. He is best known today for his works integrated into public spaces, especially his murals in such metro stations as Sherbrooke and Charlevoix- which he was approached to do during the mid 1960s.
In 1946 at the young age of fifteen, Merola was admitted to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts de Montréal where he studied under some of the most celebrated Canadian artists like Maurice Raymond and Stanley Cosgrove. Later, in 1952, the French government granted him a scholarship which allowed him to continue his studies at L’École Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris where he would become involved in not only the decorative arts and costuming, but in mural work as well. Upon his arrival home, Merola would enter and take home the first prize in a national competition to paint the mural in the Canadian Pavilion of the 1957 Universal Exhibition in Brussels. This marked a crucial point in Merola’s artistic career because for the next 20 years he would realize over a hundred reliefs, sculptures, murals and stained-glass windows for buildings and public spaces in his native Province of Québec and abroad. In 1959, Merola joined the faculty of Montreal’s Fine Arts school, l’École des Beaux-arts de Montréal, and ten years later, that of l’Université du Québec à Montréal where he taught until the 1990s . He is now a member of the Canadian Royal Academy of the Arts.
Merola, who considers himself to be both a painter and a sculptor, has been inspired by many artists throughout his career but most notably by the Swiss born abstract artist Paul Klee who worked during the early part of the twentieth century. Many would be quick to judge Merola’s work as strictly abstract, but he argues that it would be impossible to call them completely as such. “It is not necessarily abstract what I do. I do not pose any limitations. I do not plan for figures, but sometimes they do appear,” he notes.
At the time that Merola had began to break into the art scene, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Paul-Emile Borduas were well established artists, but Merola believes the naiveté of his youth made him initially dismiss their practices. “I knew these people. I met them, but I didn’t accept their practices. For me when I was young they were doing barbouillage. After some maturity I came to really appreciate their work.”
Throughout his career, although he met many artists like Stanley Cosgrove and Alfred Pellan, now considered two giants in Canadian art history, he did not particularly associate himself with a particular group of artists like les Plasticien or les Automatistes, but considered himself relatively independent.
Reflecting on today’s contemporary art world, Merola’s feelings are scornful to say the least. “In French I would say it is a bordel. You open any art magazine and you have the impression that everything was taken from a dump. For me there is a lack of structure in what they are doing. There are certain things, but it is so timid, fragile, it’s presque rien. Pratiquement vide.” I questioned him as to whether or not his sentiment had something to do with the affixation present artists have with incorporating new media technologies to their work. “I don’t know very much about these artists that use computers. Maybe there will be something to come out of that. You may ask yourself a lot of questions. But, that is not to say there are no good artists.” His feeling towards Montreal’s contemporary art scene, however, seems more promising. “There are so many things! Even for exhibitions; there are just so many that it would be impossible to see them all.”
With a career spanning almost 7 decades, Merola has little to regret. At 80, he still has the spirit of continuing his craft. “I don’t know what I’ll be doing in a year from now, but I do know I am doing what I love to do,” he explains effervescently. As someone who dabbles in photography and painting, I asked in parting if he had any advice for today’s budding artists. He had this to say: “There is no advice. You just have to do things. Poser des gestes.” With that said, we can only hope that the actions taken by the future generation will be as poetic as those presented by Merola. Hopefully, however, he will come to appreciate their work by looking beyond the lines of what might sometimes seem like apparent naïve barbouillages.