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The Scarlet & Black

True Grinnellian: Merle Zirkle

Professor Emeritus Merle Zirkle, art, has lived in Grinnell for 57 years.

Professor Emeritus Merle Zirkle, art, first visited Grinnell in 1961 with her husband Glenn Zirkle to apply for teaching positions. She has stayed in Grinnell for 57 years.

Born in Mississippi, Zirkle got her B.A from the University of Mississippi. Afterward, she thought about applying for a teaching position in advanced studio art, which she later found out requires a masters degree in fine arts, so Zirkle went to Southern Illinois University (SIU) to get her master’s. 

During graduate work, Zirkle majored in ceramics with minors in metalsmithing and weaving. “I took everything, but on the other hand I didn’t concentrate on anything other than the 3D,” said Zirkle.

It was at Southern Illinois University that Zirkle met her husband, Glenn Zirkle, and they married the day after graduation. Afterwards, Zirkle followed her husband to Louisville. While Glenn worked as an art theater, she became an art therapist in a local hospital.

“That was really an experience,” Zirkle said. “I had not had any kind of training for that, but you just were taught to show them [the patients] how to make little things, and they were all calm and they would be all sedated, and it was sort of busy work for them.”

Soon Glenn Zirkle resigned and they came back to Illinois to open a shop. One year later, in 1961, the Zirkles heard from a professor at SIU that there were teaching positions at Grinnell, and they applied.

“We got an interview and we were hired by the president.” Merle Zirkle recalled. “We didn’t go through all the procedures normally because [we had] been hired as artists in residence, and [college faculty] wanted to try out [a] new program and teach something in the art department that [was] new to the school.”

Soon, Merle Zirkle introduced ceramics and metalsmithing classes to the College. In the beginning, these classes were only regarded as workshops, but later, after Merle Zirkle considered the huge workload and heard some complaints from the students, she negotiated with the College and gave these classes for credit.

In her time at the College, Zirkle grew to love the town of Grinnell.

“This is my home.” Zirkle said. “I don’t want to live in a big city. My husband got a chance to go to the University of Arizona. He went there and had the interview, but he went down and said, ‘I don’t want to live in too [much] sun, I like the change of climate here.’”

Zirkle believed that Grinnell College gave her freedom as an artist and motivated her to produce work. She loves the freedom given to the art department here, saying, “The freedom to do figurative, [nude artwork]. In my school at that time, it was a little bit taboo. You couldn’t have totally nude models. In SIU, in 1959, [you] could not have nude models. We’d have a little secret drawing session, faculty and graduate students together and that was not open to the undergraduates — they couldn’t see this. It was kind of strange and sad. Obviously, things have changed: I had models in my intro class, and they were paid better than other school jobs. We had, at Grinnell, total freedom to have the models and whatever we wanted to do.”

In her spare time, Zirkle would go to some local art workshops to make pottery, until she got her own studio on Summer Street years later. 

In 1971, after seeing her husband, who had the same qualifications as herself, become the chair of the Art Department, Zirkle refused to stay in her lecturer position with less stable salaries from the College, and instead decided to apply for a better position. She was immediately promoted and placed in a tenure track position.

Tragically, Zirkle’s husband died in 1986 due to a heart attack. After her husband passed, Zirkle began to focus on sculpture, a domain that Glenn used to specialize in and teach. She gave up making jewelry, which she did exclusively earlier in her career.

Then, she took over Glenn Zirkle’s sculpture class and continued to use his syllabus. Zirkle said that Glenn’s passing away didn’t influence her art as much as one might think.

“I don’t think it changed the theme really. I had [a] certain series of things going; it could probably happen if I’d been a painter. I think that it would be easier, in a way, to be more affected.”

Zirkle officially retired in 2004, and now she lives in downtown Grinnell, in a room which is decorated with all her husband’s and her artistic works.

Professor Emeritus Merle Zirkle, art, has lived in Grinnell for 57 years.
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