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For Doris Merrifield, an envelope is her canvas
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Few, if any, would dispute that Doris Merrifield, 94, sends out some of the prettiest mail in Yuma. Even her local postman has said so.
Displeased with the generic envelopes available at stores, she started painting her own 16 years ago. She thought they should be personalized and “made pretty” on the outside, where everyone can see.
She made a few for herself and showed them to friends.
“They went crazy over them,” Merrifield recalled.
Her friends wanted to buy them, and one offered to buy them for $1.50 each.
“Sixteen years later I still charge $1.50. I'm not a starving artist. If I don't get a cent out of them, so what, as long as other people enjoy them.”
Her friend even ordered more. She was a farmer, so Merrifield painted farm scenery such as tractors, barns, cows and horses.
She soon had more customers wanting to see her envelopes and making requests. In one year, the only year she's kept track, she painted and sold 2,000 envelopes.
She paints landscapes and humorous scenes, such as a get well message showing a man in a hospital gown saying, “Now I know why they call it the ICU.”
Merrifield even customizes envelopes according to people's wishes. “If someone says, ‘I wish that was purple,' I make it purple.”
She spends about three to four hours on each envelope, giving special attention to the tiniest details. A recent look through her collection showed Arizona sunsets, singing birds, flying airplanes, horses, an amorous skunk, colorful flowers and caricatures, including her favorite, Betty Boop.
She comes up with ideas for the mini paintings at night. “I can't sleep. If I slept at night, I wouldn't have so many.”
People express amazement when they see her collection. Many times they ask, “How can you paint so tiny?” Her reply: “I can't hear very well, but I can see very well.”
Her envelopes have been sent all around the world. “You have the prettiest mail in Yuma,” her postman has been known to say.
Painting envelopes might be easier than painting on a canvas for Merrifield these days. She's in pretty good health for someone who's almost lived a century, but she suffers from fibromyalgia, constantly making her hurt and feel fatigued.
Nevertheless, through the years she's painted hundreds of full-size canvases. Today her home has been transformed into an art gallery with more than 120 paintings gracing her walls.
Some paintings are so special — like her very first painting, a gift to her mother — that she doesn't want to part with them.
“But I'm 94. I'm selling everything. I can't live too much longer,” she said, laughing.
She was born in Howard Lake, Minn., during a blizzard in a farmhouse her father built in 1895. “Dad had to go eight miles to get a midwife.”
She has preserved the 120-acre farmhouse in a painting that she gave to her mother as a Christmas gift.
“I mowed down that lawn when I was a teenager,” she said, pointing to the painted farmhouse surrounded by red barns, cows and the expansive lawn.
This was her very first painting, and she didn't paint again for years. She married Bob Sanderson, a mechanic, in 1935 after meeting him at a friend's house, and they raised a daughter.
They moved to Sacramento, Calif., in 1961 when Sanderson was offered a job. He died after 46 years of marriage.
Two years later, Merrifield met her second husband, Harry Stock, at a senior dance. She spotted him and joked, “Now that's a man I could have.” Her friend said, “And you'll have him.”
Sure enough, that night they danced for only two or three minutes before someone “stole” him away. She thought she would never ever see him again, but he found her phone number and courted her.
They first came to Yuma in the early 1980s to stay with Harry's brother and his wife. “We packed enough clothes for two weeks and ended up staying a month,” she said.
Every night they had dinner with other winter visitors. “I thought Yuma was a dusty, dirty old town, but we had such a good time. Come fall, Harry said, ‘Let's go to Yuma to see what all those old crazy people are doing.'”
They had such a good time, they kept coming back and stayed longer with each visit. “And then we were licked. That was it. We bought a house here.”
It was during a visit to Yuma that Merrifield picked up a paintbrush again. Sitting in her motel room, she turned on the TV and watched artist Bill Alexander giving a lesson.
“When he finished, he said, ‘YOU can paint too.' He pointed right into my eyes.”
So she went out and bought cheap paints and paper plates to try it out. It turned out she had natural talent. “I just didn't' know it,” she quipped.
When Alexander offered a week of lessons in Silver Falls, Ore., she packed her bags and headed to Oregon. She participated in the annual program for seven years.
She is proficient in so many styles that she's been accused of taking credit for other artists. “At first I was insulted, now I feel it's a compliment.”
Merrifield makes up a story for every painting. In her head, she knows exactly what every person or animal in her painting is doing and thinking. She continues that method with her envelopes.
She lives part of the time at her home in a local park, where her niece and husband join her for the winter season, and the other part at Desert Rose, a retirement community.
“It's lonely at the park when it's off season,” she said.
Merrifield has outlived three husbands. “I've had wonderful husbands. I know how to pick them.”
Her second husband died after 18 years of marriage. The couple had been friends with Al Merrifield and his wife. When both of their spouses died within four months of each other, “he insisted we get married,” she said.
Doris and Al spent 11 years together until he died three years ago.
If interested in viewing and/or purchasing Merrifield's envelopes or paintings, call 329-0822.
Mara Knaub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6856. Find her on Facebook at Facebook.com/YSMaraKnaub or on Twitter at @YSMaraKnaub.