The Fort Lauderdale Riverwalk isn't exactly known as a mecca for high art. "It just goes to this weird lowest common denominator," says artist Robin Merrill. "Really beautiful, intrinsically valuable work has never had a great history on Las Olas."
But with the Upper Room Art Gallery & Mission Gifts Fair Trade Store, Merrill is hoping to change that. The space, tucked into the riverfront near Art Bar, is adding bona fide culture to the tourist-heavy strip, with pieces of work from halfway around the world that sell for $1,000 and more.
But the Upper Room, Merrill says, isn't about making money. "[The artists] are all represented by existing galleries. But commercial galleries weren't really allowing us to speak spiritually."
In the Philippines, where Merrill spent 15 years as an artist and Christian missionary, the art scene welcomed religious expression, she says. But when she moved to South Florida in 2001, "it was as if people were constantly trying to sanitize that or as if it wasn't politically correct," she remembers. "People would say, 'Oh, don't mention that.' It was getting stripped from my bio.
"But it's such a strong part of my identity. I'm like, 'No, that's too much about who I am and why I make art.' "
Tired of fighting the system, Merrill launched her own space in 2006, filling it with the work of artists she worked with in Manila and elsewhere. In October, the space moved to its new home on the Riverwalk. But the purpose is the same: to provide artists a place to freely express themselves, regardless of its impact on sales.
The result is an art space filled with beautiful and intricate works that often deal in difficult subject matter. Merrill's own work references her missionary experience working with prostitutes. Benji Reyes creates furniture using recycled wood, making a statement about deforestation. Emmanuel Garibay's paintings show scenes of poverty. Upper Room, Merrill says, is "a space where we are free to talk about these very intense issues that we're all facing in the world as a global community."
That vision extends to Mission Gifts, where you'll find a series of portraits by artist Freedom Rodriguez, painted on discarded library books. "He works in refugee camps and AIDS orphanage camps, with children whose parents have died of AIDS, doing art therapy in Africa," Merrill says. "To subsidize his work... he takes their pictures on an iPhone and then he comes home and paints these portraits on top of discarded library books. Each book is a completely different story, but it's a book that might have a big stamp on the inside pages -- discard, discard, discard -- because it's been soiled or ruined in some way. But there's still a story in there.
"The kids have been discarded too, but there's still a story. There's still hope. There's still life. There's still a purpose. It's very poignant."
Inspiring, intense, and sometimes dark, the work at Upper Room might not be the most commercially viable. "[People say,] 'Oh, you're a missionary to prostitutes' or, 'Oh, you're working in garbage dumps?' That's not always the most pleasant conversation to close a sale," Merrill laughs. She recalls a couple who stopped in to browse and were "very thrown off" by the work.
"[The man] said, 'You know, we really like what you have, but you're trying to feed us spinach, and we're used to eating junk food.' I thought that was the best," Merrill says. "It's like a completely different nutrient value."
Luckily, Upper Room has other sources of income; as a nonprofit organization, it survives on donations from supporters and grants for cultural activities, including the Knight Foundation-funded Paddle Up project. Naples-based Seminole traditional artist Pedro O. Zepeda will carve a traditional dug-out canoe out of a cypress tree that fell during Hurricane Wilma. Zepeda is working on the project in Naples for now -- the massive log is too big to transport just yet -- but starting in January, Upper Room visitors can witness his progress, meet the artist, or take a tour led by Merrill herself.
It's yet another example of Upper Room's mission of finding inspiration from life's castoffs.
" 'Discards' is actually a good word," Merrill says. "All of us have been working among the less fortunate with our art. Discards are seen a lot throughout our gallery... We're bridging that gap where it's beautiful work, but also it's made from waste."
Upper Room Art Gallery & Mission Gifts Fair Trade Store. 300 SW First Ave., Suite 123, Fort Lauderdale. Open Friday noon to 6 p.m. and by appointment. Call 954-592-6021, or visit upperroomartgallery.com.