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