UAB Alumna Merrilee Challiss, Art Professor Derek Cracco Featured in New American Paintings

Artists Merrilee Challiss and UAB professor of art Derek Cracco examine spirituality and religion through their featured work in New American Paintings.

Though their techniques and pathways are different, both artists are on exploratory journeys

Artists Merrilee Challiss and UAB professor of art Derek Cracco examine spirituality and religion through their featured work in New American Paintings.

Merrilee Challiss, "The Reverie of Inner Realms"  15" x 15" Gouache and watercolor on paper 2014Merrilee Challiss, The Reverie of Inner Realms, 2014; Gouache and watercolor on paper, 15" x 15" Image courtesy the artist. © the artist Challiss, UAB Alumna and former owner of Bottletree, is back home after spending some time with the Apache. She was on a journey in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico to find her spiritual center.

Challiss is now a full time visual artist, and three of her paintings were recently featured in the South edition of New American Paintings (NAP), a juried exhibition in print, issue #118. Her new hobbies--reading about shamanism, ancient beliefs, and early human civilizations--she says have been informing her work.

Challiss says she’s trying to paint energy. She’s translating nature into the imaginary, the abstract into the concrete.

“[The pieces in NAP] are directly taken from my experiences working with the shamans,” she says. The Apache shamans use herbal medicines to assist people on their journey inward to find guidance.

Along with Challiss, Cracco’s paintings also appear in NAP issue #118. While in his printmaking classroom, he described his work as dealing with fields of light and color. His work expresses an appreciation for the ephemeral and modern science, according to Cracco.

“Beauty that just is there and gone in a moment like fireworks,” he says. “Like little stars.” In his work, astronomy and particle physics combine to create “pointillist-style paintings.”

“I feel that a lot of the images that I’m working on now of astronomy and particle physics are actually information that science is gathering that is kind of whittling away at what I see as the high power,” he says.

In Etude 3, one of Cracco’s submissions to NAP, radiant specks of red and white light seem to stream through a light blue void, like falling stars reflected across a body of water.

Derek Cracco, Etude 3, 2013, Acrylic on panel, 12" X 12"Derek Cracco, Etude 3, 2013; Acrylic on panel, 12" X 12" Image courtesy the artist. © the artist “As we gain more knowledge, God keeps getting relegated to our ignorance in these spaces that we don’t know,” he says. “And the more we know, the less space God has to exist. So, these images are basically proof of that in a beautiful way.”

In contrast, Challiss has been embracing what she sees in her “inner world” and expressing it on canvas.

“[My art has] things you can latch onto--an eye, hand or branch--but the rest of it is very subjective,” she says. “An interpretation of what I’m seeing in my inner realm.”

When Challiss begins working, she uses a mixture of watercolor and acrylic, called wash, to create layers and blobs of color.

”That’s like the gestation period for a piece,” she says. “It’s developing like a fetus would. It’s growing features and the layers start having more meaning.”

With Cracco’s art, he has to understand how colors blend from a distance as he paints pigment by pigment.

“The brush never actually touches the canvas,” he says. “The paint is carried by the brush, and it’s dripped onto the surface of the canvas. Almost like little castles or little cones that begin to build up. They’re rough and bumpy like stingray skin.”

As artists, Challiss and Cracco have both struggled to transform their income-sustaining jobs into their ideal careers, but both encourage young artists to do what they love. According to Cracco, everything will fall into place if you do.

“If you make one piece out of ten [attempts] then that’s good. That’s success,” Challiss says, quoting her old UAB art professor John Millan. “I always keep that in the back of my brain.”

To learn more about the UAB Department of Art and Art History, see the department's website. To see more of Derek Cracco’s and Merrilee Challiss’s art, visit their websites at and

Kayla McLaughlin is a 2015-2016 UAB Digital Media fellow and an English and Communications student with a concentration in creative writing. She works mostly with writing, photography, and videography.