Merhia Wiese is an artist, creative, mother, partner, connector, disabilities advocate and Denver native. Displaying her versatility and positivity, she quickly went to bat for artists in limbo by launching the Denver Metro Area Artist Relief Fund after the COVID-19 quarantine shut down their livelihoods — and now she's one of them, since she lost her job as Community Engagement Coordinator for Meow Wolf Denver when the Santa Fe-based-DIY-collective-turned-arts-and-entertainment company shed half its staff. Still, Wiese and the fund continue to help and advocate for artists.
What spawned Wiese's expertise in bringing people together? Personal adversity — and the will to rise above it. Wiese explains as she answers the Colorado creatives questionnaire.
Westword: What (or who) is your creative muse?
Merhia Wiese: That is a loaded question, because it implies that I am inspired by a particular thing. Like most artists — and I use that term loosely when referring to myself — we take inspiration from things that impact us emotionally.
The stereotype "tortured artist" is a stereotype for a reason, and when I was younger I was inspired by my trauma. I guess I still am. I was inspired to live. I have experienced an extraordinarily bizarre life, which most of us probably have — we just assume that everybody else lives a normal life or that our abusive lives are normal. My inspiration comes from my survival. I’m a survivor of the foster-care system, a survivor of child rape, a survivor of child abuse, a survivor of religious trauma, a surviver from a family with a raging alcoholic, a survivor of domestic violence, and a widow due to suicide, so I am a survivor of traumatic loss. I can pinpoint a specific moment in each of these instances that inspires me. The trauma we are currently in right now is what inspired me to start the Denver Metro Area Artist Relief Fund.
Most people see me as happy and filled with light and positivity, and most days I definitely am those things, but I also have this desire to embrace the macabre and the parts of life that people don’t want to talk about — death, sex, pain, guilt and grief. I’ve always loved speaking freely about these things and watching as someone is forced out of their comfort zone. I don’t want to ever forget that happiness, sadness, excitement, etc. — those are emotions, and they are fleeting. I embrace my grief and my contentment.
Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?
Dora Maar: I have always found her so intriguing. I feel as though we were similar in so many ways, and that we would have a lot to talk about at a party. I’ve heard enough about old white male artists. The women/fems in the surrealist movement are the ones who fascinate me. I would much rather talk to her than to Man Ray. Although Salvador Dalí would be a must at any party!
Leigh Bowery: His flamboyant and outlandish persona is why I adore him. Even as a young child, I loved to shock people out of their comfort zones. I'm envious of his bravery to do just that on such a grand scale. He was a living, breathing work of art!! The way he expressed the ridiculousness of our world was so delightful and sad. The ex-club kid in me would love for him to liven up my parties!
Salvador Dalí: Now, this man can throw a party!! I try to include a little of his aesthetic in all of my parties.
It’s a challenging time for artists and creatives in the metro area, who are being priced out of the city by gentrification and rising rents — and now the coronavirus threat, which is wreaking havoc with creative livelihoods. What can people do about it?
I've never lived through anything like this. Honestly, I'm scared. I am out of work, like so many other Denver creatives, and I can't even begin to predict how to prepare for what's ahead. I will be thankful when this is all over, just to see that all of my community members are still alive! I worry about suicide and domestic violence in stressful times like this. The artists of this city have been through the wringer before, and the jealousy, pettiness and contempt that emerged was heartbreaking.
What we can do collectively is be kind to our community members. Lift them up! Encourage them. Collaborate with them. I know not everyone can support others monetarily because they are trying to support themselves and their families — I get it, that's what I am doing, but there are other ways. I started Colorado's first relief fund for artists and performers impacted by the pandemic closures because I had to do something, and I saw a need. I put together an extensive list of support systems and gave it to everyone who said they needed help. There are so many ways we can support each other right now. Pass on knowledge you think might be useful to others. Listen. Be kind. Be kind. Be kind. I keep hearing "We are in this together,” and I really hope people mean it.
What's the one thing Denver (or Colorado) could do to help the arts?
The "arts" will be fine. It's the artists who need support! Suspend rent/mortgages. Allocate more funds to creatives who have lost their "day jobs" due to this dumpster fire of a mess. Be more inclusive! Hire more artists with disabilities! Hire more artists who identify as BIPOC. There are so many untapped creative people in this town, but they don't get invited to the party! Stop giving large amounts of money to artists from other states. Tap into our homegrown artists. It's the circle of life: Give the artists who live here the opportunity to make a living wage and provide for their families so they can spend that money here and support the small businesses that are the backbone of our economy. It's really not that complicated.
Denver (or Colorado), love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?
Love it! This is where my people are! I was born here, I will be successful here, I will fail here (many more times), I will raise my children here and I will probably die here. There are little pieces of my heart and soul scattered all over this town. I can count on my community.
What’s your dream project?
I was working on my dream project. Now I need to take a moment to breathe and examine what other dreams I have. I know for sure I want to change the world, even if it's just one person's world.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
I'm so biased, but my partner, Andrew Novick, will always be my favorite Colorado creative! He has the most amazing mind! I get to be privy to the thoughts and ideas that no one else ever gets to see. He inspires me every day to be a better human, to be fearless with my ideas, to believe in myself. He is the most generous, kind-hearted, supportive person I have ever known, and he thinks the same of me. How could he not be my favorite? Now, if you were to ask me what local art have I been collecting lately? Currently, I am obsessed with Akemi Tsutsui-Kunitake, Mallory Hart and Cal Duran.
What's on your agenda in the coming year?
Well, I need to find a job. I have twenty-plus years of experience in the arts and the art community, but I’m not sure what I want to do next. I know I want to do something that makes a positive impact. I’m taking a class through Coursera on contemporary art right now.
I’m also currently volunteering as the external engagement coordinator/social media manager for the organization Make4covid.co, and I'm also in a supporting role for some of their filmed interviews and doing producer-type duties that I find interesting. I worked with my partner on his movie back in 2016 in several different capacities, from director’s assistant, researcher, stylist, wardrobe and whatever else needed to be done. I also worked on another friend’s movie in 2018 as a stylist. Now I have an IMDB, so maybe I’ll look into the film industry.
I am very passionate about advocating for access and working with the disability community. I've been advocating for the rights of people I have a personal connection with in the disability community for decades. Access was one of the areas I was working on in my last job. I would love to expand that advocacy. I will probably take some more online courses and job-training classes. I have a compromised immune system, so I don’t plan on rushing to take just any job before it’s safe.
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Even though I no longer work for Meow Wolf — because like 100,000-plus other people in Colorado, I was laid off due to the pandemic — I’m still a contracted Meow Wolf Denver Artist. I will be working with my collaborators, EunSeo Kim, Dan Griner and my two teenagers, Annabelle Wiese and Margarete Wiese, who are both amazing artists, on sculptures that will be in that exhibit. I plan on hugging a lot of people (masks on, of course) and getting my body and spirit healthy again.
Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
Look to the people who are helping others right now. Look to the artists that are lifting up other artists during this time of need: Quana Madison, Jen Starling and Sadie Young are a few people who should get recognition, but are probably not looking for it!
Learn more about the Denver Metro Area Artist Relief Fund online.