Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Photographing Thomas Merton, installed at Institute 193


Installation view of Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Photographing Thomas Merton at Institute 193. All of Meatyard’s prints were provided courtesy of Christopher Meatyard.

Before the exhibition comes to a close, we would like to share some installation shots from Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Photographing Thomas Merton. The exhibition features photographs of Merton taken by Meatyard between 1967 and late 1968 during their brief friendship, which was tragically cut short by Merton’s untimely death. The remarkable story of these two men and the friendship that they shared sits palpably just below the surface of these pictures.

We were given access to a selection of 29 prints for the exhibition and from those we selected 16 to include in the show. The photographs were organized according to their content. Images of Merton posing outdoors in his Cistercian habit and baseball cap were hung together. On the opposite wall, we installed a group of four images taken of Merton inside the Hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani. By grouping the images in this way, continuity is created, inviting the viewer to imagine a narrative from one photograph to the next.

Kentucky-based publisher Fons Vitae produced a publication titled Meatyard/Merton, Merton/Meatyard which was released in conjunction with an exhibition of this work that took place at the Louisville Visual Art Association in Louisville, KY in May 2013. The book contains reproductions of all 29 photographs as well as essays by Stephen Reily, Roger Lipsey, and Christopher Meatyard. It is available through our online shop.

The exhibition was presented in collaboration with the Center for Interfaith Relations and sponsored in part by Lexington’s Good Shepherd Episcopal Church.


Merton poses with a variety of notable people from the time including writers Guy Davenport, Wendell Berry, and Denise Levertov as well as Meatyard’s wife, Madelyn.


A collection of images of Merton posing in his Cistercian habit.


Merton posing with his camera.


Merton posing with a thyrsus at Gethsemani.


Merton in looking contemplative in his Hermitage.


A grouping of images of Merton which characterize Meatyard’s fondness for slow shutter speeds and double exposures. The famous image of Merton posing with a set of bongos can be seen on the far right.


A view of the photographs installed on the north wall of the gallery.

Meatyard’s Photos of Merton, at Institute 193 in Lexington

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, untitled, 1967-68. (All photos courtesy Christopher Meatyard)

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, untitled, 1967-68. (All photos courtesy Christopher Meatyard)

Our friend Eileen Yanoviak, Exhibitions and Collections Manager at Louisville’s Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, wrote this nice review of our current exhibition Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Photographing Thomas Merton for BURNAWAY. You can find the original posting here.

In the mid-20th century, central Kentucky experienced a renaissance when a prominent milieu of artists, writers, and thinkers contemplated philosophical, social, and political issues ranging from spirituality to the environment. The photographs in the exhibition “Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Photographing Thomas Merton,”on view through July 26 at Institute 193 in Lexington, were taken during this fervent period of Kentucky’s intellectual history.

The selection of images is a testament to the brief but poignant relationship between photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Thomas Merton, the theologian, writer, and monk who served as his subject. Meatyard was an optician by trade and spent most of his life in Lexington. His interest in photography began as a hobby, and he soon developed a national reputation. He met Merton in 1967 at the Abbey of Gethsemani, where Merton was a monk, and they shared a productive friendship for two years before Merton met his untimely death while traveling abroad.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, untitled photo of Thomas Merton, 1967-68.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, untitled photo of Thomas Merton, 1967-68.

Because Meatyard is perhaps best known for his unsettling and haunting images of children and masked figures, the relative portraitlike quality of the Merton series initially seems like an anomaly. However, the photographs maintain some quintessential Meatyard elements. For instance, Meatyard has a penchant for costumed figures whose external appearances obscure interpretation and hide truth. Merton also appears in varied clothes, wearing either his habit, his pedestrian clothes, or, curiously, the attire of a farmer (a reference to Jonathan Williams). Because Merton, like many of Meatyard’s characters, is variously costumed, his true nature is simply unattainable or perhaps unfathomable.

Meatyard’s portfolio of Merton portraits numbers more than 100 images. The photographs in this exhibition have been culled from a larger 2013 exhibition of 29 photographs previously on view at Public, the Louisville Visual Art Association Gallery. While the Institute 193 iteration could benefit from readily accessible labeling and interpretation (though the previously published catalogue with insightful essays was available), the carefully edited selection of images and their thoughtful arrangement are both deftly succinct and touchingly trenchant.

Arranged in snug groupings, the relationships formed between photographs reveals the tendentious dialogue between Merton’s intense introspection and his public persona. The first grouping features Merton in the company of the writers that formed his social network. He wears his habit, but casually sips a beer with Meatyard’s wife and writer Guy Davenport. This curious juxtaposition reminds us of the tension between the monk’s meditative solitude and his desire to participate in a shared life experience.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, untitled, 1967-68.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, untitled, 1967-68.

The second grouping, perhaps the most enigmatic, is a series of five photographs that feature Merton dressed in habit, staticly posed in a variety of outdoor scenes. He appears mostly in solitude, befitting of his station, but each visage, posture, and setting changes how Merton is perceived. In one image, Merton looks upward and is drenched in sunlight like a modern-day Saint Francis awaiting his stigmata. In another, his back is turned to the camera, only his ominous habit forming the silhouette of his body. These photographs, hung closely in succession, imply the passage of time with changing light and tone, and perhaps foreshadow Merton’s imminent death. They are the most quiet but subtly moving images in the exhibition.

The serene narrative formed by that grouping is counterbalanced by another group of images that feature Merton in the company of his intellectual peers. Like many other Meatyard photographs, they are taken without clear focus and with long exposures that blur motion. So while Merton is the subject, he can never clearly be perceived. Perhaps that is the strength of the portraits as a collection. They reveal the complexities of the man behind the habit, the man behind the written words. There is exuberant joy and focused contemplation, there is friendship and utter solitude, and finally there is the spiritual and the earthly.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, untitled, 1967-68.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, untitled, 1967-68.



The artist in his backyard photo studio.

Our friend Louis Zoellar Bickett has been hard at work (as usual) on his THE FOURTH OF JULY PORTRAIT PROJECT and we’re excited to share some of what he has been working on with you.

Says Bickett: “The giant American Flag used in my current work THE FOURTH OF JULY PORTRAIT PROJECT was a gift from my former studio assistant G. Haviland Argo III. It originally flew on top of a multistory bank building in NC that is being transformed into a 21C Museum Hotel. It is one of those art projects that just grew and grew. I stretched the flag between two trees in my Archive back garden with the intention of producing an auto-portrait in front of it. Eighty-seven models later I hope there is an end in sight.”

Many of Louis’ models for this project are artists that we’ve show at Institute 193. Here’s a sampling of a few familiar faces…


LINA THARSING, June 23, 2014.


R CLINT COLBURN, June 22, 2014.





GUY MENDES, June 19, 2014.

Both Louis Zoellar Bickett and Lina Tharsing (pictured above) are featured in our new book Institute 193: Volume One. You can purchase your copy here.

Review of Volume One on Under-Main


Daniel Brown from Under-Main wrote this thoughtful review of Institute 193: Volume One. You can find the original post here.

Book Review by Daniel Brown -

Institute 193 is an important non-profit exhibition and performance space in Lexington, Kentucky. Founder Phillip March Jones saw an empty space in a less developed part of the city in 2009, and understood that the kind of gallery he had in mind could make a huge impact on Lexington’s burgeoning contemporary arts scene. He hired Chase Martin to be director (Martin has since moved to Chicago), but some of the best exhibitions, with excellent accompanying text, were recently made into a book, Institute193: Volume One. The book, over-scaled but not quite “coffee table” in dimension, is a superior look at the Institute’s history to date, and also a piece of the general philosophy of the gallery, which emphasizes documentation and enhances the gallery’s presence in the Lexington community. The book also allows non-Lexingtonians a wonderful look at the so-called New South’s visual artists.

Featuring the work of 18 artists, all of whom have exhibited at the space, several themes emerge and dominate both the exhibition history itself, and the underlying philosophies of founder and director. The philosophies mesh with what one reads in most contemporary art magazines, and text surrounding international art fairs, and art mainly shown in non-profits, as opposed to commercial galleries, which represent a completely different world from that of Institute 193. The Institute seems very keen on showing what used to be known as “outsider art”, which they dismiss as an irrelevant and self-limiting category, in favor of a more holistic, inclusive group of artists, some of whom once would have been marginalized as schizophrenic, unprofessional, outside the mainstream. While this goal is a noble one,the selection of artists occasionally slips into the celebration of victimhood, the art veering towards urban anthropology and sociology as well as the aesthetic. Another major strain that runs through these exhibitions is an emphasis on non-traditional materials that most of the artists use, particularly materials from daily life, from the throwaway to the forgotten. Much of contemporary art celebrates the use of such non-traditional materials and media, and Institute 193 represents an outstanding example of this strain in the art of today. Concurrently, I think that the use of such materials links these contemporary artists with the long tradition of Kentucky crafts, thus allowing visitors and viewers to these exhibitions an ability to see contemporary art in the context of much of Kentucky visual history.

As in much contemporary art most of the artists in the book are dealing with, and/or interpreting, individual identity in a period of rapid change, new technological tools, and a rather surprisingly, nearly non-existent sense of sexuality or of the erotic. There’s a heavy emphasis on the influence of comic books, photography, and, most intriguingly an aesthetic delight in what we might call the Neo-Baroque, as in the work of Charles Williams, Marvin Francis and the wildly gifted Robert Morgan. Morgan “who began his career as a scavenger” borrows the iconography of Hindu gods and goddesses to symbolize the young men who have died of AIDS, and when his symbols become metaphors, his mixed media sculptures are some of the strongest art around.


Robert Morgan, Pangenia Youth, 2010, Mixed media, 42.5x16x14 inches. Image courtesy the artist.

Work by Mare Vaccaro, which are digital prints, manifest an artist who has whole body alopecia, is also among the strongest, not only in the book, but of contemporary art in general. Using herself as a model, she borrows materials from classic western art history, adding just dollops of makeup in what become boldly iconic, and nearly religious icons. Because of her condition, a quick look at the work might indicate that the model could be either male or female, making her work a brilliant part of the analysis of gender.


Mare Vaccaro, Smoke, 2010, Digital c-print, 20×20 inches. Image courtesy the artist.

Although the use of photography is common and almost pandemic, I found some of the photographic work the least effective, perhaps because of its ubiquity. If there is one critique to make in general, it would be the use of so much work by people of similar age, and thus of similar sensibility, that the range of work seems limited by its own philosophies, and by attempting to place the Institute itself within the context of cutting edge contemporary art. The introductory essay by Lilly Lampe may do more harm than good to the real vision of the curator/director of the institute. But, to quote Lampe’s last line, this book does prove that “Institute 193 proves that groundbreaking contemporary art can be created and sustained anywhere”.


Our friends over at Kentucky For Kentucky just gave us a nice writeup about Institute 193: Volume One. You can find the original blog post here.

“This week, we’re excited to announce our partnership with Institute 193, a non-profit art gallery space that generates collaborations between artists, musicians, and writers to produce exhibitions, publications, and projects that document the cultural landscape of the modern South. Founded in 2009, Institute 193 “embraces the notion that groundbreaking contemporary art can and does emerge outside of large metropolitan centers,” and seeks to expose the world to the work done in lesser-recognized regions of the United States.

Ultimately, their goal is to increase media exposure for artists while fostering connections in art markets across the globe. As the curator of Institute 193, Phillip March Jones attests that, in the South, “you don’t have to dig very deep to find things of immense value and beauty. Those things are all around us.” We couldn’t agree more.

Featuring 14 Kentucky artists, Institute 193 Volume One holds an impressive compilation of images culled from the first three years, during which time the space has housed 28 exhibits and countless cultural events. A large coffeetable book, Institute 193 Volume Onecontains 159 full-color pages that include images from 18 Southern artists and biographical descriptions of the circumstances of their lives and careers.”


Meatyard/Merton and Institute 193 on SUNDAY







Institute 193 Volume One has arrived!




Passers-by: Meatyard/Merton fans.


193 publications make people happy.


Henry Detweiler is the new director at 193, yay!



Institute 193

My daughters and I recently drove to Kentucky to see Institute 193’s current exhibition: Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Photographing Thomas Merton. Olivia brought a pink dolphin umbrella, Sofia read the new Institute 193 Volume 1 book and I took pictures. The girls and I loved this show. The photographs look beautiful on freshly painted gallery walls. Ralph Eugene Meatyard took these portraits of Thomas Mertonduring the course of their quick but intimate friendship. The two met in 1967 at the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky and Merton was killed in an accident while traveling just one year later. The show runs until July 26. We also bought a copy of Institute 193 Volume One. The new book features all of the wonderful artists who have shown their work at 193 during the first three years of its existence. 193 is killing it, as always. Before we left I asked the new 193 director Henry Detweiler to babysit, he’s still thinking about it. P.S. The 193 book is now also available through Alabama Chanin’s shopYoung Blood and for a limited time at Burnanway. Reposted from SUNDAY.

Institute 193 Reading Room at BURNAWAY


On June 26, 2014 our friends at BURNAWAY in Atlanta, GA allowed us to transform their offices into the Institute 193 Reading Room. From 6-9pm, the Atlanta public was invited to peruse the various publications we’ve put out over the past few years including Guy Mendes: 40/40, J.T. Dockery’s Despair Vol. 2, 193 SOUND, and our newest release Institute 193: Volume One.

Good times were had.



Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden ca. 1978


We wanted to share these photos taken at Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden in Summerville, GA in 1978. By the time these pictures were made, the site was well established as the four acres of sculptures, small buildings, and artworks which can still be visited today.

In later years, the Garden fell somewhat into disrepair. After Finster’s death in 2001, the Paradise Garden was sold to Chattooga County and has since been renovated to preserve the Garden as it was during Finster’s life. These photos provide a rare glimpse at the Paradise Garden as it was in its prime.







Merton / Meatyard in Herald Leader


Thomas Merton by Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Courtesy of Christopher Meatyard.

A friendship too short, captured in photos to be exhibited at Lexington gallery

by Tom Eblen

They would seem an unlikely pair, the Catholic monk and the optician. But through their shared interests in photography and Zen philosophy, these two creative spirits of mid-20th century Kentucky became close friends and collaborators.

Thomas Merton was a trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County, and much more. He was a best-selling author of more than 70 books, a poet, an artist and a proponent of interfaith understanding who would gain international fame.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard earned his living making eyeglasses in Lexington. But he would later earn fame in the art world for his original, haunting photographs that often depicted masked or blurry models. His much-collected images are still published in books and shown at the nation’s most prestigious art museums.

The all-too-brief friendship between Merton and Meatyard is the subject of a photography exhibit that opens Wednesday at Institute 193, the tiny, non-profit gallery at 193 North Limestone.

The opening reception for the exhibit, Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Photographing Thomas Merton, is 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, during Gallery Hop. The free show runs through July 26. The gallery is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.

This exhibit includes 17 of the 29 Meatyard photographs that were shown in Louisville in May 2013 during the visit of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism who also was a friend of Merton.

The exhibit was originally organized by the Institute for Contemplative Practice and the Center for Interfaith Relations. Fons Vitae, a Louisville-based publisher of academic works about spirituality, produced an accompanying book, Meatyard/Merton, Merton/Meatyard: Photographing Thomas Merton ($20.)

The Institute 193 show is partially sponsored by Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, which has a Thomas Merton study group. The group plans to meet in the gallery while the show is up.

“I think it creates a lot of opportunities for us to engage a different audience,” said Phillip March Jones, the founder of Institute 193. “And it probably does the same for them.”

Jonathan Williams, the late poet and publisher, introduced Meatyard and Merton in 1967. They immediately hit it off and visited together several times with other artistic friends, including Wendell Berry, Kentucky’s elder statesman of literature, and the late Guy Davenport, a writer and University of Kentucky professor who in 1990 received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.

“Jonathan Williams, Guy Davenport and Gene Meatyard were here yesterday,” Merton wrote in his journal on June 18, 1967. “The one who made the greatest impression on me was Gene Meatyard, the photographer — does marvelous arresting visionary things, most haunting and suggestive, mythical photography I ever saw. I felt that here was someone really going somewhere.”

Some photos taken during their visits are classic Meatyard: dark and sometimes blurry images that include props and old buildings. Merton appears to be an eager subject, posing symbolically in various costumes, from work clothes to his Cistercian monk’s robe. In one set of pictures, he goofs around with a thyrsus, a decorated stick that was an ancient symbol of pleasure.

But some of the photos are just snapshots of friends enjoying each other’s company, much like we would take today with our smartphones and post to Facebook. Merton sips beer at a picnic, or poses outdoors with the late poet Denise Levertov and Berry, who holds a coffee cup. Merton also is photographed using his own camera.

In addition to writing and photography, Merton expressed himself with drawings and hand-inked prints he called calligraphies. Meatyard exhibited them in the lobby of his Lexington optical shop, Eyeglasses of Kentucky, and bought some to help finance Merton’s trip to Asia in 1968.

While on that trip, in Bangkok, Thailand, Merton was accidently electrocuted by a fan while stepping out of his bath. He was 53. Within four years, Meatyard also would be dead, a victim of cancer eight days before his 47th birthday.

“A lot of people don’t realize that they had this relationship, which unfortunately lasted slightly less than two years,” Jones said. “For me these are really portraits of friendship and of a time and a place that no longer exists in the same way.”

Meatyard: Photographing Thomas Merton

Eugene_Meatyard_Neg1967_Print1990_17_Spotted_CMYK_FLAT_150dpiHigh Resolutions Meatyard Merton cover

Thomas Merton, Courtesy of Christopher Meatyard.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Photographing Thomas Merton
June 17 – July 26, 2014
Opening reception: June 20, 5 – 8 PM (Lexington Gallery Hop)

Ralph Eugene Meatyard was first introduced to Thomas Merton at the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky, in 1967. The two men clearly made an impression on one another and quickly embarked on a friendship and creative dialogue that would last two years, cut short only by Merton’s untimely death. In that brief amount of time, they held intense conversations, exchanged letters, and Merton became the subject for a series of photographs by Meatyard, the focus of our exhibition.

Thomas Merton, a willing and complicit model, appears in a variety of costumes throughout the photographs. He wears blue jeans and a t-shirt, the work clothes of a tobacco farmer, or the complete habit of a Cistercian monk. Meatyard takes full advantage of the various outfits and their social ramifications to cast his model as spirit, common man, or saint. Merton was, undoubtedly, all of these things at various moments throughout his life.

These portrait sessions grew out of picnics, dinners, and casual meetings among friends. Jonathan Williams, Guy Davenport, Wendell Berry, and others make appearances in the photographs – witnesses and participants in a vibrant cultural scene that existed in Kentucky at that time. With our now omniscient knowledge of the past we cannot help but look at these photographs with a sense of foreboding and inevitable death. They are, after all, some of the last images of Merton who died traveling abroad in the winter of 1968.

As an optician in Lexington, Meatyard spent his life helping people see. His shop, Eyeglasses of Kentucky, provided people with the physical means to better envision the world but also the opportunity to view photographs and other works of art that opened their eyes to a larger world of visual possibility. Just before his final trip to Asia, Merton exhibited a series of his calligraphies at Meatyard’s shop. The photographer bought the eight works in the exhibition from his friend and sent him on his way. Meatyard wrote about Merton after his death, but their connection was perhaps best captured in these portraits of a famous man, of friendship, and of vision itself.


Thomas Merton and Guy Davenport, Courtesy of Christopher Meatyard


Thomas Merton, Courtesy of Christopher Meatyard

This exhibition is presented in collaboration with the Center for Interfaith Relations and sponsored in part by Lexington’s Good Shepherd Episcopal Church. A publication titled Meatyard/Merton, Merton/Meatyard: Photographing Thomas Merton has been produced in conjunction with the exhibition by Fons Vitae and is available through Institute 193. It features essays by Stephen Reily, Roger Lipsey, and Christopher Meatyard.