The Artist, Her Vision and Her Legacy

Mervil Paylor, Maker of Art and Friends, Knows All About Leaving a Lasting Impact

Artist Mervil Paylor’s back yard is humming with activity. And not the usual kind involving wildlife.

On this sunny October morning, two handymen are at work clearing wood on her property just outside Davidson’s city limits. When Hurricane Ian passed through recently, winds uprooted a giant white oak, which narrowly missed her studio.

(Featured photo) Mervil holding her namesake — Mervil, client and friend Ann Browning’s Rhode Island Red chicken. (Above) Lulu, Mervil and Inky sit for a family portrait in the reception trailer of Carolina Poodle Rescue in Pacolet, SC, on the morning of Oct. 30, 2021, moments after signing Lulu’s adoption papers.

Mervil – a Foundation For The Carolinas collaborator AND client – demonstrates to one of her helpers how to use her electric log splitter. She grabs him a stool so he’ll be comfortable. She’d do the work herself, but she’s got too much else going on.

Inside her house – a mid-century marvel – her two dogs, Inky and Lulu, serve as a greeting committee. Mervil, a legendary hostess, offers her guest something to drink as they take in the art that fills the house. It’s everywhere – including nature’s art on view outside her big picture window overlooking her turquoise pond.

This is a house meant for an artist. Before it became Mervil’s, the five-acre property had been the home of Tom Clark – Davidson’s beloved maker of gnomes. A long, treelined driveway leads you to the home, and just beyond the main residence, to a separate house-size art studio.

For more than 30 years, Mervil Paylor Design has been a sought-after graphic design firm whose client list includes Davidson College, The Duke Endowment, the Arts & Science Council, the Mint Museums, ImaginOn, Johnson & Wales, Foundation For The Carolinas and many others. You’ll notice a lot of nonprofits on that list. Mervil’s favorite work is “helping people who help people.”

Mervil can’t remember when her relationship with Foundation For The Carolinas began. It’s been that long. Over the decades, she’s designed everything from the Foundation’s logo to its brand identity strategy, annual reports and other collateral pieces, as well as designing the invitations, programs and other key visual elements for FFTC’s Annual Meetings. She even crafted the Inspiring the Art of Philanthropy tagline to blend together the Foundation’s core work with the beautiful donor art on display in its headquarters.

“Part of Mervil’s magic is that she has a rare combination of deep creativity and artistic talent along with keen business acumen. She takes the time to understand our business needs, and then finds highly creative ways to achieve our goals,” said Tara Keener, senior vice president of marketing and communications for FFTC. “Her work isn’t just beautiful – there is substance and strategy behind every piece she creates for us.”

Leaving a Legacy

Mervil’s impact on the Foundation has been immeasurable, but the Foundation has impacted Mervil, too.

Lulu’s predecessor, a poodle terrier mix named Lucy, showed some subtle signs of separation anxiety that luckily Mervil was able to see the humor in and redefine as art.

“Through my work with Foundation For The Carolinas, I’ve come to understand more about planned giving,” she said. “When I was doing my estate planning, I decided to leave a gift through the Foundation. I knew I could trust them and they were great about not pressuring me to decide everything right now.”

A planned gift is a donor’s intention to leave a contribution to an organization or cause after they pass. For Mervil’s gift, she chose two broad focus areas – animal welfare and the environment – but is getting closer to narrowing the focus. She wants to steer the environmental funds to the Carolina Thread Trail – she’s worked with them since their founding – and the animal welfare funds to rescue dogs. Both causes are close to Mervil’s heart.

“I found Lulu after COVID,” she explained. “I had another dog that died before COVID, and I took time to grieve that loss. Once we began coming out of the pandemic, I decided to look for a second dog. I like to have two; I like them to have canine companionship.”

A previous rescue – a poodle-mix named Lucy – destroyed the upholstery on a sofa and the window blinds. Mervil didn’t get mad when she came home to the mess. Once she got over the initial shock, she declared the wreckage a work of art, photographed it and turned it into a poster titled “Lucy, Mixed Media Sculpture, 2006.”

Mervil finds beauty in the unlikeliest places.

Her friend, Ann Browning – whom she met in 2006 when Browning was project manager for the Carolina Thread Trail and Mervil was hired to name the trail and create the burgeoning organization’s brand identity – said Mervil’s love for animals runs deep.

“I’ve known all of Mervil’s pets since we met, and they’ve all been rescues,” Browning said. “She cares for them in such a tender way. Animals have a big place in her heart.”

So do people. Mervil makes friends easily. Her clients often become part of her inner circle.

“Mervil loves her people,” Browning said. “I think about the ways she has memorialized people when they pass. She has this amazing way of capturing the essence of someone in these beautiful tributes through images and words. It’s a real gift.”

Memento mori

Browning is referring, in part, to memorial books Mervil has produced for some family members and dear friends who’ve died. They’ve been used as programs at funerals, but – unlike many programs destined for the trash bin – these are meant to be kept, treasured.

“Look at Becky’s book,” she said, referring to what she created for her best friend, Becky Johnston, an artist and designer who died in 2007. “I wanted to celebrate Becky’s life and the legacy of love, art and beauty she left behind. It was a way for me to work through my grief. This book was the last, good thing I got to do for her.”

Tribute books Mervil designed for friends and family.

Paylor crafted a similar book to memorialize her friend, the late writer/poet Charleen Swansea, a Southern literary legend who counted Ezra Pound, Jack Kerouac and filmmaker Ross McElwee among her friends.

Swansea wrote her own obituary, and Paylor included the first line on the first page of the book: “Charleen Swansea – An action figure.” Paylor, a force of nature herself, attracts other larger-than-life characters into her circle.

“I lost my mother to leukemia when I was eight, so I’m very familiar with grief,” Mervil said. “I know over time, loss can shift from a dagger in your heart into a more bearable, even sweet, companion.

Mervil, who grew up in Charlotte, was the youngest of three. She used to come home from school and have her mom, Norma, all to herself before her older brother and sister got home. With her mom gone, those solo afternoons at home hit especially hard.

Fate intervened a year later when Mervil’s dad, Bob, married Pat Freeman, a widow with three children of her own. They were Charlotte’s version of The Brady Bunch, with Bill, Ann, Marty, Flynn, Barbara and Mervil subbing for the Brady kids. Later, Pat and Bob had a child together, Tom, so there were seven kids in the Paylor home. Mervil said people are amazed at how seamlessly the two families integrated and how close they became – and remain.

Mervil adored her stepmom, who lived to be 86. In tribute to her, all Pat’s children threw a “Thank You Pat Farewell Tour” bash at Mervil’s Davidson property. There were food trucks, holes of putt-putt golf, bridge tables, custom Pat-themed jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles – even an ice cream truck – all things Pat loved. Mervil also created an art installment about her upstairs in the studio. Mervil calls this art show a physical memoir about her family, but Browning gets closer to the truth when she calls it “a museum to her mom.”

A sense of place

Coinkydink, an assemblage from Mervil’s family show featuring prints both of her mothers had hanging in their respective dining rooms in the ’60s. And as if that wasn’t isn’t enough of a coincidence, both mothers were born on September 24.

Pat Paylor’s living room has been lovingly reimagined in the front room of Mervil’s studio. Pat’s dining table, sofa, side tables, lamps – they’re all here. The Paylor siblings can go home again, even though the Beverly Woods East house where they grew up has been sold. Their living room – and their mother’s spirit – are alive and well in Davidson.

It’s not an exact duplication; there’d be no artistry in that. Mervil has added her own creative touches. For instance – in a crazy coincidence – both of Mervil’s mothers had identical still life prints hanging in their respective dining rooms long before Pat and Bob met. One’s a smaller version of the other and Mervil combined them both to create a 3-D work of modern art.

The rest of the gallery continues this homage to family. A bedroom has open suitcases on display with artfully arranged photos, yearbooks and other memorabilia to honor each of the four parents in the combined family.

These memorials have been so meaningful for Mervil to create for friends and family, she’s begun offering them to other people. In addition to her design and branding work, she hopes to work with individuals and organizations that want to honor people, places and things – past present and future.

Mervil’s still at work on developing this new facet of her business.

“There’s no limit to what a client and I can create together,” she said. “It might be designing a logo or modern coat of arms for newlyweds to celebrate their union with a design they could hang on the wall or use on stationery and cocktail napkins. It could be a book. It could be something interactive, an installation, a jigsaw puzzle, an assemblage. Each project would be custom designed to honor each individual subject.”

Living with art

Mervil surrounds herself with visual memories and mementos of lost loved ones. But it isn’t maudlin. It’s joyful.

And everywhere you turn in her home, there’s art. It’s as essential to her as nature and dogs.

“Art is a real friend to me,” Mervil said over the lunch she prepared – a salad with preserved lemon dressing and DIY pizza slices. (She places gourmet ingredients like roasted garlic and homemade vegan Parmesan in Mason jars so you can top your own.) “I have a daily relationship with art, minute by minute. I’m always seeing beauty everywhere I look.”

Her current artistic experiments involve orange peels, which she deftly removes in one unbroken piece before drying out the peels and mounting them on black velvet and framing them. Like Rorschach ink blots, there’s something different to be seen in each one.

To Mervil – everything is art, including the legacy she will leave behind through her estate gift.

“Mervil points out the beauty in everyday objects you may have missed,” Ann Browning said. “She sees beauty everywhere and can organize it in a way that makes you see it, too. Art is inextricable from Mervil’s life. Art is how she moves through the world.”

Want to know more? You can contact Mervil at

Page Leggett is a nearly lifelong Charlottean whose writing appears regularly in The Charlotte Observer, SouthPark Magazine, Business North Carolina, among other publications.