Thoughts on Impermanence: A conversation with artist Armin Mersmann

After 29 years with Midland Center for the Arts, Armin Mersmann has seen almost every aspect of the place. He has been a museum coordinator, a studio school manager, an artist in residence, head of installation, curator of the museum, and much more. Three things have always been a constant during that time though — Mersmann has always been a teacher, a student and an artist. Armin Mersmann, artist, teacher and student.

If you’ve ever met Armin, you’re keenly aware that he is a deeply interesting individual — even though he may not agree. He is artistically brilliant, notably humble, visibly contemplative, and readily admits his OCD – all of which contribute equally to his craft. 

Known for his sizable, striking and drastically detailed artwork, Mersmann has been a fundamental influencer of programming, learning and experience at Midland Center for the Arts and well as within the artistic community.

Mersmann comes from an artist’s stock. His father, Fritz Mersmann, was an oil painter who owned and operated Riverside Gallery in Sanford. The Mersmann family immigrated to the U.S. when Armin was seven years old after Fritz was commissioned to do 20 oil paintings in Frankenmuth.

Fritz showed Mersmann how to do different things in his studio from a young age and the two worked together until Fritz’s passing in 2011. Though they worked in different mediums, Mersmann had the touch and desire from a young age.

Through the Iris III, by Armin Mersmann.
“Why don’t you take a picture?”

Mersmann is often asked this question since his work is in realism, which sometimes draws questions about the idea that the same result can be achieved in a much easier way with the use of a camera.

It seems to be a perplexing thing for him to answer, given that his larger works can take 2,000+ hours to complete. The work takes into consideration the subject, the light, the context, his inspiration and often, the path or circle of life – something that has always been a major focus. Gabriella, by Armin Mersmann.

“It has always been about the process for me, especially of understanding the complexity and detail of my subject,” says Mersmann. “After spending hundreds of hours with a piece of art, it becomes very personal and something that cannot be captured by a lens. It involves the person or subject, feelings and the transformation of what I am observing.” 

His previous portrait-centered realist work speaks for itself. The piece titled Gabriella after the girl of the same name with distinctively curly hair received international acclaim — both professionally and serendipitously. The girl in the piece — Gabriella — was recognized on a train as the infamous subject of his work when traveling through Europe years later.

At the point in his career where he has been featured multiple times at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, his work on Gabriella that was nicknamed the ‘Mona Lisa of Michigan’ and an extensive list of other accolades, Mersmann began to consider what was next.

“It’s like having a hit song, you have to move past it,” he says.

Aggregate, Mersmann's lead piece from Impermanence and his year-long residency in Cincinnati.

Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center
Not planning to retire from Midland Center for the Arts just yet, Mersmann came across what happened to be the right opportunity at the right time – the famed Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center in Cincinnati.

His wife, fellow artist Valerie Allen, was actually the one who encouraged him to apply for the Manifest Artist in Residence Program.

He claims it’s often an honor people get to take part in after graduate school, those ripe for inspiration and fresh out of intensive programming. With that context, he applied, but didn’t expect to get in.

The opportunity became a bit more real when he got the call he had made the short list of seven finalists from a group of more than 150 applicants. In the end, Mersmann was selected as one of the two artists for the program, along with artist Katelyn Wolary, an adventure that led to a year earlier retirement than he expected from the Center in 2018.

Mersmann’s work from his residency at Manifest Gallery will be featured for the next six weeks. His time from the year-long stint in the studio resulted in 13 pieces of work, ultimately narrowed down to five that will be shown at Manifest’s Gallery, titled Impermanence

Impermanence is centered in realism and the anchor piece of the show is titled Aggregate, an in-depth examination of broken cement pieces. Aggregate took Mersmann over 2,000 hours to complete and is made up of a half million pebbles in its entirety.

“The Impermanence exhibit is about mortality and understanding mortality in our lives,” says Mersmann. “The residency gave me the opportunity to complete three pieces (Adrift, Swansong EDI and Aggregate), that I would have never had the chance to do otherwise.

Teaching and the creative process  Mersmann with Gabriella the subject of his piece at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids.
His influence? Mersmann credits his students as sources of inspiration. “Along the way, different instructors and students have influenced me tremendously,” he says.

“You get more from students than you give out. I learn from their questions, struggles and their path. I don’t look at students as empty boxes, they have their own language, their own perspective. If you are a good teacher, you listen to that perspective and you partner with them in that journey. I don’t think I’d be an artist today if I wasn’t also a teacher,” says Mersmann.

Around 2010, Mersmann shifted into more non-narrative work, focusing on the beauty in everyday things. “The quiet word is much more powerful than the big scream,” he notes.

The subjects that catch his eye are not always considered conventionally pretty. Mersmann admits he has always gravitated towards subjects of decay and the act of something returning on a path to nature and how that all relates to mortality.

“The prettier your work is, the more people will connect with it. Studying something that is not explicitly appealing and taking the time to capture it, means you are seeing beauty in the everyday thing,” says Mersmann.

Humble and unassuming, he doesn’t take all the credit. “It takes two people to make art,” he says. “The artist, and the person who appreciates the work.”

Aside from straying from most things that are pretty, Mersmann also takes a strong stance on something he won’t draw – his dog, Jasper. He claims he could never do ‘a good enough job’ to capture Jasper’s cuteness and smile to do the four-legged friend justice.

His inspiration? Music. “My inspiration 90 percent of the time comes from music, other times it’s something I read or the people who are important in my life,” he says.

His favorite thing to listen to while working in his studio is music by The Beatles and Metallica. “They seem to be wildly different bands, but in reality, they really aren’t that far apart,” he notes.

His taste in music doesn’t end there though, Mersmann has an appreciation for just about everything.

“I listen to everything from James Taylor to rap. It amazes me the talent that artists like Eminem have for example, he has the ability to put words together so brilliantly,” says Mersmann. “When I listen to music, my mind starts wandering. It has the ability to put you in a mood that you can’t shake for the rest of the day. With my work, I want to make people feel how music makes me feel.”

With art, Mersmann describes that sometimes it is difficult to separate himself from the subject matter, always putting himself into the work and looking at the work of other artists from the viewpoint of how he would express it. “With art, I pick it apart and put myself into the mix, but with music, I can just enjoy it for what it is. I really like when musicians take a completely different look at a genre or song and make it their own.”  Swansong EDI, one of the five pieces to be shown in Impermanence starting May 31.

His artistic gifts don’t end there. While he claims not to be a photographer, he is also wildly skilled with images, something he credits picking up when he got an iPhone years ago.

“With my art, sometimes I am wrapped up in a piece for months on end, which makes for creative apathy. You need another creative outlet to get away from it. So, when I got an iPhone years ago, I took at least one photo a day for 1,000 days,” says Mersmann.

He immersed himself so much in iPhone photography, Mersmann began teaching classes and lead an iPhone group at Midland Center for the Arts around a process called app stacking, or using as many as ten apps to create your final piece. The class still runs today at the Center, though another teacher has now taken it over.

While his professional title with the Center may have changed, some things will always be a constant. For one, Mersmann notes he will always consider Midland Center for the Arts to be a very special place.

“When I was 18, I was living in Saginaw and I remember driving by the Center and thinking to myself: I want to work there some day,” recalls Mersmann. “There is a wonderful artistic energy here and a community of people that are passionate about the arts.”

“So, I don’t consider it retirement, I’m merely changing my employment status to self-employed,” he says. “I hope to keep my toe in the door at Midland Center for the Arts and teach from time to time.”

Impermanence, Armin Mersmann’s work from his year-long residency at Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center, will be on display for six weeks at Manifest Gallery in Cincinnati.

For more information about Armin’s work, see his website, Deviant Art, or follow him on Instagram at @arminmersmann.

All pictures for this article are complements of Armin Mersmann.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.