Eyob Mergia: An Ethiopian artist rising in America
By Jay Kirschenmann, ArgusLeader | December 27, 2009



Eyob Mergia at work
Artist Eyob Mergia experiments with a mixed media piece at his studio in Perspective Inc. in Sioux Falls. (Elisha Page/Argus Leader)
The creation of the heavens and earth will be Eyob Mergia's largest project so far.

The 35-year-old Sioux Falls artist's design for "The Seven Days of Creation" now is being made into thousands of translucent glass tiles in Italy. This spring, the mosaic will be installed on the outside of Our Savior's Lutheran Church, in eight 22-foot-tall panels.

Part of the new $12 million addition to the church, blank spots now await Mergia's modernistic-styled designs at the 909 W. 33rd St. church.

"With this project, I'll be leaving something here for the next generations to see and enjoy," Mergia says. "And seeing that mural, maybe the next generation will find and enjoy my other paintings around the city."

Broad-winged birds are silhouetted in shades of blue, flying across a red-orange sky in his design for Day 7, depicted into main panels that face the morning light.

Six other panels are vertically terraced along the church walls, representing other familiar Biblical references in Genesis from creation of day and night, the sun and moon, sea creatures and livestock and more. The piece was commissioned by the church.

It's the latest work by the native of Ethiopia who moved to Sioux Falls in 1997.

Since then, Mergia has produced a wide body of work, including paintings and sculptures. And what sold for less than $20 apiece then goes for thousands today.

His work hangs in galleries and is for sale in shops across the nation and in some foreign countries, too. Mergia also has helped hospitals and schools with art projects, had his work acquired by the Washington Pavilion of Arts and Science Visual Arts Center's permanent art collection, and participated in collaborative art-and-music events.

The church project is the kind of artwork that will secure Mergia's place in regional art history, says David Merhib, director of the Pavilion's Visual Arts Center.

"I think his work will stand the test of time, I really do, especially if he's starting to do mural work around the city, things that are going to be mainstays," Merhib says.

His latest work for for the church mosaics appears to borrow trends found in modernist abstract painting from the early to mid-20th century, says Lindsay Twa, gallery director and art professor at Augustana.

It also reflects a later generation of cubist styles, with a blended harmony of colors, still retaining some naturalistic representation amid his lyrical patterning, Twa says.

"And, of course, there is also the history of Christian stained-glass forms and contemporary liturgical art traditions, most locally embodied in the work of Robert Aldern with his stained wood panels that include expressionistic abstraction and changing planes of intersecting colors but still retain recognizable subject matter," Twa says.

A huge work by Aldern is in the original Our Savior's Lutheran Church sanctuary.

The church started talking about an addition 20 years ago, and more seriously about six and a half years ago, says Leslie Svendsen, senior pastor. Artwork always has been a part of the church, he says, so a committee was assembled to commission an artist for the new sanctuary.

Church member and artist Don Hooper headed the group and stressed the importance of an appropriate design for the city's first pixilated glass tile work. A few artists answered the call for proposals, with Mergia winning the committee's blessing.

"Artists each came in with a plan - all had the same specs and all were asked to do their own imaginative artistic design," Hooper says. "It is a complex project, but Eyob has great skill. We just love his work."

Merhib agrees.

"He's got a lot of talent, and he's constantly trying to push himself and branch out," Merhib says.

His latest project and current work show the evolution of Mergia's style since many fans first took notice of his work in 2001, when he painted the "Blue Musicians" mural on the exterior west wall of Black Sheep Coffee. It's a playful, modernistic-abstract fading work that remains today at 1007 W. 11th St.

But the artist says it's not a good representation of his work today.

The church mural and current projects stretch his style into much more detail and beyond the paint medium itself.

Mergia's evolution of work

Sioux Falls artist Carl Grupp remembers teaching a figure-drawing class at Augustana when Mergia first arrived in Sioux Falls.

"He's an exciting and energetic young artist," Grupp says. "It was just fun to walk behind him and see what he was doing because he draws beautifully. I didn't feel any need to say anything to him, except just walk behind him and be excited for him and happy for him."

Born in east Africa, in the small Ethiopian town of Debre Berhan in 1974, Mergia studied art in the university at nearby Addis Ababa. He showed works in galleries, including the German Cultural Institute and the National Museum.

He moved to Sioux Falls 12 years ago because his cousin lived here.

"He arrived here well-trained from his years in Ethiopia," Grupp says. "I like him personally and like his work."

Grupp remembers some of Mergia's first shows, where he sold his work for $18. Grupp took him aside and helped him increase his asking price.

Today, his paintings sell from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, says Jon Piper, owner of Piper Custom Framing and Fine Art Gallery in Sioux Falls.

"I've sold pieces of his work for $8,000 and $10,000," Piper says. "But I can understand those early prices because if you go overseas, in Africa or Germany or Russia and other countries, you literally have starving artists selling pieces for $100 that are worth very much more than that."

Mergia had his studio on the second floor of Piper's gallery for a few years, but a year ago moved to Perspective Inc., an architectural and interior-design studio in the 100-year-old Harvester Building at Sixth Street and Railroad Avenue.

"Usually, as a person gets better at a skill, he or she earns more money at that type of work," Mergia says. "People recognize that his or her work is more valuable."

Mergia says that early in his career, he thought that some patrons bought his art just as a favor to help support him. While he appreciates that, he says that today, he hopes people are attracted to and buy the painting itself for what the artwork communicates to the buyer.

"These paintings - the subjects and elements, the composition, the style and ideas contained in them - are rich and have many levels, but that is not something that a painter develops overnight," Mergia says. "It's the product of years of work and study and experience. I'm giving myself to, and in, the work that I do."

This year, while sketching and researching for the huge Our Savior's mosaic project, he created something that surprised him. A 29-foot-long charcoal drawing called "Genesis" has many elements that ended up in the mural. It can be seen during his February solo exhibit at Augustana College.

"While it was preparation for the church project, it is a work of art in and of itself," Mergia says. "I consider it one of the best works of my life."

Theresa Spencer of Sioux Falls bought a wood carving by Mergia about four years ago.

"This carving is so different, kind of primitive," Spencer says. "It's actually built like a three-leg stool, a religious carving that includes a dove that I really love."

His style is unique, Twa says.

"Eyob's work also seems to reflect the interest in blending the color patterning of textiles with images that can be found in many examples of contemporary African paintings," Twa says.

Reach reporter Jay Kirschenmann at 331-2321.

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