FROM POT BROWNIES TO BLACK LIVES MATTER
WITH ART ACTIVIST MERIDY VOLZ
Meridy Volz is an internationally acclaimed artist who’s known for her paintings of figures and use of shockingly innovative electric color to create a mood. In 2020, Meridy’s daughter Alia published the book “Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco,” which chronicled Meridy’s life running Sticky Fingers Brownies, an underground bakery that distributed thousands of marijuana brownies per month and helped provide medical marijuana to AIDS patients in San Francisco
IN THIS EPISODE
[00:51] On what she’s most passionate about
[01:10] On art activism
[02:16] On her childhood
[04:56] On moving to California
[07:11] On starting Sticky Fingers Brownies
[10:47] On how her art evolved when she lived in San Francisco
[16:10] On how she would describe her art
[16:38] On where she draws inspiration for her art
[23:15] On teaching art to kids in juvenile hall
[27:37] On the impact of her work with the kids in juvenile hall
[33:24] On the lesson that she’s learned on your journey so far that really sticks with her
Passionistas: Hi, and welcome to The Passionistas Project Podcast, where we talk with women who are following their passions to inspire you to do the same. We're Amy and Nancy Harrington. And today we're talking with Meridy Volz, an internationally acclaimed artist who is known for her paintings of figures and use of shockingly innovative electric color to create a mood.
In 2020 Mary's daughter, Alia published the book. "Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana and the Stoning of San Francisco", which chronicled marriages, life running Sticky Fingers Brownies,an underground bakery that distributed thousands of marijuana brownies per month and helped provide medical marijuana to aids patients in San Francisco.
So please welcome to the show Meridy Volz.
Meridy: Hi and thank you. It's great to be here.
Passionistas: Oh, we're so excited to talk to you today. What is the thing that you're most passionate about?
Meridy: I'm most passionate about my art, about expressing emotion through my art and about our activism in this day and age.
Passionistas: What is art activism?
Meridy: For me, art activism is using my creation of art to contribute to positive movement in the community to express feelings, things that are going on in the world right now in our, in our country right now, and do it through different mediums using color line, text your. And subject matter to express that and to bring change, to kind of shine the light on what is happening and give a very true response to it.
I'm very happy to be part of a movement for change in our time, which really is calling out for it.
Passionistas: Let's take a step back. What was your childhood like? And were there things in your childhood that inspired you to become an activist?
Meridy: It was a mixed bag. I was raised in a middle-class Jewish family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My mother was a school teacher. My dad owned a Tavern. I always had art. I was born with a cran in my hand. And by the time I was three, I was drawing colorful people, which now 70 years later at the age of 73, I'm still doing it. And it was a somewhat difficult household. My mother was very strict and critical and somewhat abusive.
And so for me, that place. Where I was laying on the floor and leaning on my elbows, drawing that place where my cran touched the paper was my sanctum sank, Torian. It was my space and nobody could get into that world was mine alone. And it still is that for me, it's been that for me, man, entire life. And I was.
Recognize very young. I was six when I got a scholarship to go to art school at the Milwaukee art center, which had just opened by a teacher from the, who come around from the Milwaukee school board. And she'd pick up little samples of artwork from young students. To show. And I guess she, she showed them in different places.
Her name was Ms. Yuri, and I'll never forget. I forget her. She had pure white year and as a child Ms. Berry rhymed with flurry, and there was a lot of snow in Milwaukee. So I always associated her with whites. No, I'll never forget that white hair. And she got me my first scholarship. And then from then on, I had great teachers all along all through university.
There were some fabulous teachers who took me under their belt and mentored me. And I was born an artist and I'll die in artists. So I've always known my calling. That's been clear. I've been really lucky that way is I didn't have to search for my calling. It was there.
Passionistas: Was that part of the reason you went out to California?
Meridy: I was illustrating writing and illustrating children's books for the Rockefeller foundation in the seventies. And it was a great gig because I could do it from anywhere I love to draw. And it was the first medium that was bilingual. That was Tran translated into Spanish. It was reproduced on. Really early re reproducing machines.
And so it was cheaply produced, but it was bilingual material. It was the first and I illustrated it and I had gone to Europe because I could, and I could send my work into my boss from any country. And then my dad would pick up my paycheck and wire my money. I'd go to the next country. Well, I ended up going to Morocco and falling in love with a bare bare man that I met at a new year's Eve party.
And he turned out to be gay in the end, but he did end up coming to Milwaukee. And my dad said him back to get his act together before we got married. And he never came because he was clearly gay. He was living at that time with a hairdresser in Switzerland. So I was heartbroken and needed a change. And I had a friend who was in San Francisco and she was like, come on out.
And so I did, I packed everything up and I arrived in San Francisco to find that at that time, San Francisco was quite a wonderful place, a Haven for artists and. Gay and lesbian people where they could be more free and very open-minded. And so I coming from rather conservative Milwaukee there, I was, I was in San Francisco and that's how I got there and fell in love with the city, which was quite beautiful.
Passionistas: [00:07:06] Then how did that lead to you making pot brownies?
Meridy: [00:07:11] Well, I've always been spiritual. My spirituality is, is a smorgasbord of things. Even now, everything from Zen to Zen Buddhism, to Judaism, to Christianity, to Santa Maria. And part of that was I was into the Ching and into consulting the Ching. And I had a friend who had a little business on fishermen's work, she would go and she'd make all these wonderful baked goodies.
And she had a basket put the goodies in a basket to sell to the street artists who were on the Wharf. And she also had a bag where she carried one dozen pot brownies. And also, so those, and she called me, she had made enough money to move herself to Findhorn in Scotland, which was a commune at the time.
And she asked me if I wanted her business and I was like, Hmm. And I had been still illustrating children's books. I did a book for Filipinos, a book for the Chinese of book for the Jewish academy and was still working for the Rockefeller foundation. And I thought, well, that's interesting. And I tossed a hexagram and it surprisingly to me, it was very, very positive and I went, oh, wow.
But I'm not a baker. I can't cook, but I love seeing people and working and interacting and perhaps selling. And I had a girlfriend who loved to bake and still does. And so I took her on in the business and long story short. That's how it started. And we were stoners. I won't lie. We were, and we got the secret of how to do a good pop brownie back to grade five by only, and pretty soon the brownies caught on in the bakery at a go.
And that's how Sticky Fingers was born. And it started off recreationally and ended up with the, with the aids epidemic being the only thing which gave the people who were dying. And there were so many, it was stunning. I lost many, many, many, many friends during that time during the epidemic, it was the only thing which gave them relief.
And so it became something else. It was the birth of medical marijuana, and there was always art involved because we designed our own bags every time we went out. And so people collected those. So that was sticky fingers. When I look back on it now and having read Alia's book, my daughter's book five times now, it looks like somebody else's life to me.
Like I look at it. I was like, wow, that was really me doing that. Wow. So that's, that was then, and I never told people about it. Even my closest friends, it stayed secret until we were outed in Alia's book, which it was certainly time to do.
Passionistas: Certainly San Francisco evolved significantly during the time that you were there and you were doing that. How did your art evolve during that time?
Meridy: I've always been figurative. All my art, all of it has the figure in it, except one painting that was a commission in which I did on Anza-Borrego in the spring, which is a place in the desert. And I did flowers and flowers and cacti, and I kept wanting to sneak a figure in there, like where's Waldo, but I've always been figurative.
Even my designs and the brownie bags were very often, most often figures, always a figure in there. And it's because the figure is a great vehicle for emotions. You can express your personal feelings or an idea, but for me, it's always very emotional. From the time I was little, it was that you can express that through a figure what the figure is doing or what's in their eyes.
That was the same. I was always colorful, always love color. I love pushing color to the maximum. I love using combinations of color that are revolutionary, that people wouldn't think of that where I take a lot of risks. With my color. And, you know, I always tell my students, especially my life drawing students, that if you, if you don't take risks, you can't be great.
You have to like be willing to fail in order for, to really, really be extraordinary. So those risks. I was, I've never been a safe artist. Never not in subject matter. Not I've always been right up on the edge. And that's where an artist needs to be an artist who just settles in to something is not on their edge and artists need to be on the edge.
And if you're not on your edge, you need to push yourself to the edge. And sometimes up and over the edge, may I add. So that's it. So my work back at that time, I've always gotten a lot of awards and things like that from the artwork, uh, you know, all through high school and then college. And then as an adult entering shows, you know, I've won many, many awards.
And I think it's because of taking the risk now, as far as marketing my work, that's another story is that. I have an enormous body of work here. Enormous. I've worked from the front row almost right from the beginning around me and I'm prolific, which means there's a lot of work here. And during the pandemic on some of the arts sites, I've made friends with digital artists and have viewed their work.
And I got a handed to him, man. They can put everything on a thumb drive. Like that, like as big as yours, um, right. I'm like looking around and I, I have a three bedroom home and every single interval has stacked artwork. Every inch, every closet, every shell, my garage so much work. And I always, like, I never wanted to be an art dealer.
And, you know, I'm a you'll inherit this way. Never wanted to be an art dealer. So she could do a big bonfire. I told her because everything is in the process anyway, you know, it was all in the making of the art for me. So I know that won't happen, but so I've never been great at the marketing of my own work.
And part of that is that it's very. I find it off putting when people are like, my work is great way to you see it. And I find myself in any medium musician or, you know, right. Anybody, I find myself stepping back from that a couple of feet and, and so it's very hard to do that. And so I sell, but I sure have a lot of work here so that I would say the art marketing. I've been weakened, the art making I've been strong in. I dunno if that's evolved much my marketing skills.
Passionistas: You're listening to The Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Meridy Volz. To learn more about Meridy's artwork, visit MeridyVolz.art. And to get a copy of her daughter Alia Volz's book, "Home Baked," go to AlizVolz.com.
If you're enjoying this interview and would like to help us continue creating inspiring content, please consider becoming a patron by visiting ThePassionistasProject.com/podcast and clicking on the patron button. Even $1 a month can help us continue our mission of inspiring women to follow their passions.
Now here's more of our interview with Meridy.
Passionistas: How would you describe your art for someone who hasn't seen it?
Meridy: [00:16:10] I would say my art as expressionists slash impressionist with an extreme palette and texture. I would say my work is extremely emotional, which goes under the category of expressionism. I would say Neo expressionists slash impressionists.
Passionistas: [And where do you draw inspiration from?
Meridy: From what I'm feeling at the moment, my deepest, some of them dark feelings, not, you know, it's not, and in this day and age, somebody said, people came to see my work the other day and they were like, it's so deep. And you can just feel, especially the pandemic artist has a real feeling of sadness to it.
And I'm like, if you're not sad in this. These times then you're not paying attention. The loss of life been integrity and so much loss now. And I don't mean to wallow in our negative emotions. However, as an artist, I feel like I'm almost duty bound to record that like years from now, it'll be. An age in the movement of art that contains very, very deep feelings and you see less and less of figurative art and more and more of abstract art probably for that field for that reason is that I think abstract art comes from a different place in general.
I think it can dip into deep emotions, but you can look at a piece of abstract art and it can be a lot of things. The series that I've done during the pandemic, my black lives matter series was another story. I found that to be very relieving because it comes from a different place. It's not about me, and it's not about my emotions.
It's about a life well lived and recording something about the beauty of that person's soul something, you know, because the face. Is a map to that really in most cases. And so for me, it was coming from a much more objective point of view. So from the time George Floyd was murdered to new years, I did a hundred black lives matter portraits.
And that was starting out with black artists, artists who have passed. Who have contributed greatly to our culture. And that was my point. This is why black lives matter is that look at this image, enormous contribution to, to our culture, into the world's culture, but our culture specifically. And by first one I did was James Baldwin.
And I'm still working on this because it's evolved. But at which I will talk about, um, and I began to sell them all proceeds, going to different black lives matter causes. The first section of them went to the bail fund in Portland, when that was happening, the next section of money, which was raised, went directly.
Two black families in my community who are struggling, really struggling. And it went in, honestly it went through community members. I also work with at-risk teens. And so I worked in a church right here in desert hot Springs, where I taught gang kids off the streets. Art. So I met community activists in that community and they distributed the money for me directly.
Like there was a grandma who is feeding three kids who is being evicted because no stimulus check for so long and money went to them and, and so went directly to the community. And then the last section to Georgia for, uh, the election of Ossoff and Warnock. So I feel great about that. I mean, I personally gleaned a lot out of it.
One being able to come out of the deep emotions and just, it was soothing. It was like taking a nice girl shower after being in the heat and also to be active because I couldn't get out and protest. I'm too old to bang the streets anymore. And, and I could be a contributor. And that made me feel very much alive while in lockdown alone for 13 years.
So after that hundred I've been approached by, and this is current happening right now, I was approached by the democratic party of Riverside county. Did I want to do anything with them? So, yes, indeed. I do. And so I had the chair of the party. I had five women all. Meet here last Friday. In fact, everybody vaccinated.
Yay. And we met and they looked at my work. And so we're going to do merchandise using some of the portraits that I've done. For example, we're going to be doing posters, probably a calendar for 2022. And we're going to be starting with t-shirts or we're going to be starting with a John Lewis, onesie for newborn babies that says good trouble.
And I think that's just, as my boys in juvie hall would say, that's dope. So that's what we're working on now. And we're going to do a Stacey Abrams and Amanda Gorman and, uh, uh, Kamala, etcetera. And so that's happening and then a big fundraiser in the fall where I'll take some of these paintings and I'll split the proceeds with the party.
And I feel great about that because yay for the good guys. Anything I can contribute? I glean, I mean, it's not like, oh, Meridy you're so selfless. It's not, honestly, it's not, I gleaned so much out of it. It makes me feel productive. As does teaching my boys are in juvenile hall.
Passionistas: Tell us how that started and tell us a little bit more about it.
Meridy: It actually started in 2006 when we started to have the economic collapse, right. And in the recession and all of that. And I thought, how am I going to make money to survive during this. And people were not able to afford classes at that time. It was so bad. And I thought, Hmm. And I walked into juvenile hall and I said, do you have anybody teaching art here?
I had in the past done workshops at San Quentin, may I add that? I painting workshops that, and that was like in the, it might've been the nineties. And I really liked that. It touched on touch something of the rebel inside of me, maybe the outline side of me a little. So I've walked into juvenile hall and they said we don't have money for that.
And I said, how about a five, five the money? So I wrote a grant first grant I ever wrote, and I was awarded the grant and that's where my program started in juvenile hall, where it was for a few years. And then it moved to the church. All on grants. I'm a 16 time recipient of grants from the Anderson children's foundation.
Then it was working with kids on the streets, out of the church here in desert hot Springs, which by the way, has no air conditioning in the summer. And it's 120 degrees here in the summer. That was a real sweat box. I have to say. And then there was gunfire at the church. There was some hassled between the rival gangs.
And there was a shooter who is shooting at my kids coming into class. And that was an eye opener for me. At that time, what I did was I took the boys into the sanctuary and we kind of hovered there. And I was like, if any of you are carrying anything, get rid of it because the police are on their way. And I said to myself, I don't want to get shot to do this, you know, bullet through my head.
So I then started going into alternative schools and bringing the art there. And in addition to teaching the art, we did the fair and they won awards. We did different shows where the boys were able and girls in the schools as boys and girls. Now it's just only boys are housed in India. The girls are in another facility.
I think it Riverside. And so I started going into schools and I have been in schools since and virtual now with the pandemic. Now I'm sent into juvie by Riverside county office of education, and it's a pilot program it's not done anywhere else. And it's very effective. You cannot reform kids. You can't change them without giving them some positive juice and our bins around corners.
That's what I have found is that as an artist, I mingle with what you might consider incarcerated people. You might judge them and say that's lower, lower end. And then very high-end with the adults that I teach artists can run the whole spectrum. And you just are the same. I'm married the artists no matter where I am, nothing changes about that.
And so that's where it's at now. That's where our heart is now. I find that schlepping art supplies with my back right now becomes more difficult. The physicality of it all is just a little harder than it was before, but I'm still in there. I'm still in the game and doing it.
Passionistas: What is the impact on the kids that you're working with, but also on that community that they live in?
Meridy: That's huge in juvie. That's why I find out their first names and address them by their first names and not just the last names I try and get personal with them. I never asked them what they're in for, what was their crime or anything like that. That's not my concern. What my concern is, is my interaction with them, right at that point.
And art is very individual. Because it's you and the paper and the medium you're working on and your individual expression. So there's no right and wrong. Sometimes the kids are like, ah, this doesn't look like anything. And I'm like, it's great abstraction. And then I'll hunt up a picture of like a Pollock or a Kandinsky.
And I look at this, this guy is paintings are worth billions. Look at that, there's our room for everybody in art, everybody. And so I try and make it like that for them where it's very individual, I always deliver good news. So they're very anxious at the end of class to show me their work. I get to play music for them, which they don't get music.
So I'm their disc jockey. And I like to say that I know more about rap than any 74 year old should, but I find clean rap for them and a play it. They can request songs. Sometimes we do all these because they get nostalgic for home, like Otis Redding or the temptations, or like that. And even the rolling stones are considered oldies.
You know, it's like, oh God. So it becomes pleasurable for them. They put their head down and they do their work in the hour and then they come up and they show me and I'm like, that's great because you did that. That's fantastic. And I'll dress them. If I can do it by their first name, they're all dressed in the same uniform.
Same sweat pants and ma wearing masks. And so it's very hard to tell one from the next, but it means a lot if I can remember their names and I start to get it by seeing their artwork like us to see a style emerging and they're like, oh, that's Jonathan or that's Luis, or, you know, I'm getting it in my head.
And so the impacted them, number one, I look at them and I don't see a criminal. I look at them and I see the goodness and them, and that's huge when you're in a punitive, terrible lockdown situation. I've been in person there. I've taught in person many times and it smells like fear. There's a terrible rafting smell in there.
A recycled fear. It's not like any other smell and kind of teen boy BO mixed in with it. Smelly socks and gym shoes and sweat. And then it's got a really, because there's no open air, no open windows. So the energy recycled, if you look at it on an energy level, there's so many pictures, psychic pictures of destroyed vibes, fractured lives, broken, broken people, sadness.
Abandonment. I mean, it's all of that. So in that little hour, when I'm the weird grandma artists, because they get to see the art, it's special for them. If I sell something, I'll tell them, oh, I saw that. How much did you get miss? Would you do one for me? That's meaningful. I believe that I will be that experience will be something that they will remember in their lives.
It's a takeaway, whereas probably almost everything else in juvie. You want to forget because it's hard and horrible and they're just horrible. I certainly bring color in there too. Another wise, very doll situation. And I think I bring a little joy and I bring acceptance. You know, I don't judge them. I only have to say it once.
If you're requesting a song, say, please, so they always can I please listen to this? Thank you, miss. You know, they're all was pleased and tech and that's a good skill to learn. That's a life skill. And I always ended by saying, be kind to each other and be safe and I love you. And they're always like, we love you more, you know, and that's a counter herself that I think it's a small contribution, but I think it contributes to the positive for those boys.
I think if it was in every juvenile hall, we'd see less people in juvie. Factor. They had the art class before they committed the crime, which is why I took it to the streets and out of juvie. I thought if I could head this off before it gets in there before the kid does the deed. And so that one is hard to judge how effective versus I know I'm being effective here.
Passionistas: Is there one lesson that you've learned on your journey so far that really sticks with you?
Meridy: You gotta take risks. You gotta just, if you fail, you fail. If you crash and burn you crash and burn, but if you succeed, you can be extraordinary. That would be one thing. And the other thing is just open your heart.
If you get it, be loving and accepting of people. Uh, frankly, it's a struggle for me right now with certain demographic of people. And I struggle with that because you gotta be loving, you gotta be open. And I feel so pissed off at 7 million people right now in this country. I just feel like, but you just gotta try, you know, be kind, be loving if you can, and contribute, take risks who contribute.
Get out on a whim. If you get bad feedback from somebody, that's their problem. People always say, follow your heart, but it's true. Find something you're passionate about. Passionistas and follow it. Do it, do it for the good, the greater good.
Passionistas:Thanks for listening to our interview with Meridy Volz. To learn more about Meridy's artwork, visit MeridyVolz.art.
And to get a copy of her daughter, Alia Volz's book, "Home Baked," go to AliaVolz.com. Please visit ThePassionistasProject.Com to learn more about our podcast and subscription box filled with products made by women owned businesses and female artisans to inspire you to follow your passions. Get a free mystery box with a one-year subscription using the code SUMMERMYSTERY.
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Until next time stay well and stay passionate.