On Oct. 27, 2004, while New Yorkers mourned the Red Sox’ World Series victory, Robert Merton was at St. Vincent’s Hospital, waiting while doctors performed an emergency C-section on his wife. Archer Merton was born a month premature.
“It was one of those moments where it was very surreal and he was very small and he had a cord wrapped around his neck,” says Merton, a Chestnut Hill native. He and his wife, Heather, saw their premature son for less than a minute before doctors rushed the newborn into the intensive care unit.
Little Archer had apnea. He would inexplicably stop breathing for periods of time. But with the help of a breathing machine and two weeks’ care in the ICU, Archer recovered and went home.
“When you’re in that situation, the perception of time changes,” says Merton. “And the perception of what is important changes.”
Merton and his wife quit their jobs and left Manhattan for Cohasset. His wife took a two-year sabbatical from her job in public relations. Merton, however, didn’t go back to finance. He stayed home to care for Archer. And he painted.
‘We’d just turn music on and put canvas on the floor and just layer stuff all over these canvases.’
“I found it relaxing to just paint,“ he says. “It allowed me to explore my life and the world around me.”
It became apparent as Archer grew that he wasn’t progressing at the same rate as other children his age. He was diagnosed with verbal dyspraxia, a neurological disorder that occurs when brain messages are not accurately communicated to the rest of the body.
Throughout the first three years of Archer’s life, verbalizing most sounds was nearly impossible, and even basic sign language was extremely difficult. Merton and his wife struggled to communicate with their son. Archer started speech therapy before he was 2 years old, but it was not clear that he would ever be able to talk.
When he was 3½, Archer started making sounds, and within a few months, he was talking. “All the thoughts and ideas he had as a child just came pouring out,” says Merton. Though Archer overcame his condition, it’s not something that can be cured. “Speaking is something that now comes all the time to him,” says Merton. “But it’s a much more conscious for him than it is for other people.”
Merton and Archer spent much of Archer’s childhood together in their art studio. “We’d just turn music on and put canvas on the floor and just layer stuff all over these canvases,” says Merton. Painting his canvases, which can reach up to 100 square feet, is very physical, and it was an opportunity for the two to bond.
In 2008, Merton’s paintings were discovered by an art collector, and he had shows in Miami, Washington D.C., and Boston. Merton also started making custom artwork for commercial properties in the Boston area.
In 2011, Merton and his wife had a second son, Alistair. And just as he changed course when Archer was born, Merton decided to take on a new challenge.
“I was trying to figure out ways to reproduce the very large canvases that I make,” he says. A month after Alistair was born, Merton came up with the idea of shrinking down the artwork so people could take it with them. “I decided the best way to do that was to take the art and make clothing out of it.”
Merton founded Alistair Archer, an “American luxury” fashion company, producing high-end silk scarves. The scarves come in a variety of colors, and the designs originate from Merton’s contemporary art pieces. Some are patterned and tiled, and some are accurate representations of the original art pieces.
The scarves, which range in price from $175-$275, are designed and produced in the US. Merton says he is committed to keeping as much of the manufacturing in the US as possible, and has personal relationships with the mills, manufacturers, and laborers that contribute to the process.
“From very step one, it’s important as a small designer to be involved in that part of the process,” he says. “But I’m convinced that in the longer term, making the investment in high quality people and high quality materials will be paid in dividends to our customers.”
Merton will soon have scarves available in a wholesale showroom in New York’s Fashion District. He’s also expanding the product line: In spring 2013, Alistair Archer will launch a line of purses and handbags.
Merton’s sons still play an active role in inspiring his art. Alistair is 1 year old, and healthy.
“One of the most amazing things about having a second child is babbling,” says Merton. “I hear things that I’ve never heard before [with Archer].”
Archer is almost 8, and just finished the first grade. He’s excelling in school and enjoys reading and math.
“He’s very precocious, and I think a lot of that has to do with listening,” says Merton. “He spent his whole childhood listening.”