Making a Big Splash in a Little Studio

Buddha wouldn’t be bothered by a lack of square footage, and neither are Shirley and Merle Braley.
Portrait by Rimas Zailskas

For the first time in his artistic career, Merle Braley has a dedicated space to paint. Oddly enough, it took moving into a tiny home in Flat Rock to make it happen.

“We downsized from a big house to this tiny house — paradoxically, I didn’t have room for a dedicated space for my art in my big house,” he explains. “Strange as it may seem, in reevaluating life and downsizing and getting rid of the stuff I didn’t need, when I discovered I could have a shed that I didn’t have to share with my cars and everything else, that tipped the scales [for moving].”

Things have certainly changed for Merle and his wife Shirley, a software engineer-turned-photographer, since they moved to the Simple Life community in Flat Rock from their 1,900-square-foot home in Chapel Hill. The couple had watched shows about the tiny-home movement, which typically involves living in structures ranging from 100 to 400 square feet. They were drawn to the idea of streamlining and simplifying their lives.

Still, while on vacation in the mountains last year, the Braleys hadn’t planned to buy a tiny home when they visited Simple Life, a community that offers various styles of tiny homes in themed settings (Creekside, The Grove, The Meadows, etc.). But they left with a contract and now live in a house with 300 square feet on the first floor and a 99-square-foot loft. 

Life is good — so good Braley says he’s surprised. “I don’t miss all the stuff I gave away and sold. I’ve got what I need.”

That includes an additional 100-square-foot shed that he uses for his passions — painting and transcendental meditation. Braley’s been into TM since the 1970s; he now co-facilitates a 17-week-long meditation course that teaches 26 different techniques — all via videoconference from the shed.

Reclining Buddha

His art supplies are there, too, meticulously sorted and ready for the work day.  Such organization, says Braley, “makes a huge difference.” All he has to do is “come out here in the morning, turn the heat on, and start working.” 

Some days he’ll spend just a few hours painting and other days he’ll work for eight or more. He works with acrylic and mixed media and his paintings are reminiscent of the splash-and-drip stylings of Jackson Pollock. (He donated some in this style to benefit the Carolina Tiger Rescue wildlife sanctuary.)

Prajna

Braley also enjoys using impasto, where paint is troweled or brushed on the surface in thick layers. This lets him “create an image that reaches out beyond the flat surface, embedding stones in the paintings” such as the amethyst that became the third eye in his impressionistic “Prajna” Buddha painting.

His piece “Resurrection,” says Braley, “represents the mysteries of life, the unknowable.” It’s also the first piece that he made with a Dremel tool, in a technique he developed in his small shop. “Resurrection is a perfect example of my use of drip, splash, and impasto [on acrylics]. The painting evolved over several months as I applied layer over layer of paint to create the three-dimensional sculpture on canvas. After the paint had adequately dried, I used a Dremel to expose the many colors within the very thick and contorted paint sculpture.”

Resurrection

Braley sketched fish and other animals as a child, but became a software engineer, and worked for IBM for 15 years. As a software development manager, he collaborated with developers in Punta, India; Beijing, China; and the United States.

Now, though, visits to museums and time in nature are his biggest inspirations. One perk to his tiny home’s location, he says, is its close proximity to the Green River Game Lands — and that area’s vast acres of hiking trails.

For more information on Merle Braley, see artist.merlebraley.com or look on Facebook. “Resurrection” is on display at Framed on 4th (135 4th Ave. West, Hendersonville, 404-285-4839). For more information about Simple Life: Cottage & Tiny Homes in Flat Rock, call 828-707-0969 or see simple-life.com.

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