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Walking through the Akron home of Robert E. and Marilyn Merchant is somewhat like walking through a museum. Folk art game boards, handcrafted and painted by Robert on reclaimed lumber, provide much of the décor, hanging on walls and resting on tables and shelves throughout the home.
Robert’s game boards started to take shape in 2000 when he began making checkerboards and chessboards from vintage, reclaimed wood. The boards come in various shapes and sizes, including miniature versions used to test how the paint would settle in the wood before making the larger boards. In all, Robert has made nearly 60 or more of these types of game boards. Because Marilyn enjoys abstract and geometric art, she began hanging the boards in the house, rotating the displays throughout the year.
In 2004, Robert began to experiment with an old checkerboard he’d constructed, and instead designed it into a baseball game aptly titled Play Ball. “I got an idea and went ahead with it,” Robert explains. “Why? Because I can — for the challenge of coming up with a new idea and a new way.”
For the first board, the end wells that held the checker pieces were transformed into dugouts, and Robert painted ballplayer faces on the checkered discs. Players would spin an arrow, centered in the baseball diamond, that pointed to runs, outs or strikes. That simple method of play now seems primitive to Robert, but he says the game was well received and gave him the incentive to produce a new, even better board. “As I progressed with more and more baseball game boards, they kept getting more sophisticated, and I had to keep devising new ways for scoring, so each board would have a new, fresh and different look,” Robert explains. “But my first board, as simple as it was, is just as important as the last one, because it was the first,” Robert says.
To date, Robert has completed 15 different baseball game boards, each of which features a different method of play. “It’s all angles and gravity,” he says. “I calibrate the boards so they score a little higher. I want them to load the bases and score grand slams because that’s where the excitement is.”
Whenever he begins a new creation, Robert spends time contemplating his latest design before making a scale drawing of the board he plans to build. Each drawing is about 18 by 20 inches, a size Robert says is both comfortable to play and also reasonable to hang. (After all, these boards aren’t just toys, they’re pieces of art.) In the end, the size depends on the wood being used. “Half the fun is really finding the wood,” says Marilyn, who often searches for materials at local garage sales. “He’s got the ability to visualize it and make it happen.”
Once Robert begins physically working on a board, it takes about three months to complete. During that time, he configures the board’s play and scoring, and lovingly paints on the final touches. All work is performed by hand, using no mechanical tools, and the wood is hand worn to look old but well kept. Halfway through construction, Robert begins testing the board to work out any glitches, and no one else plays until he is sure he has reached perfection. On the back of each finished board, Robert burns a logo of his initials.
Robert’s baseball game boards have progressed in such a way that the once faceless, miniature players now have uniforms, numbers, names and facial expressions. Play has gone from simply spinning an arrow to “hitting” the ball by propelling a marble from a spring-loaded chute or whacking it with a swinging bat.
Many of the boards were on display throughout Akron, including at Lock 3 Park last summer and during Holiday Fest, and at the Akron-Summit County Public Library during the reading festival. At First Night Akron, Robert says Mayor Don Plusquellic took time out to play a game, scoring a homerun on his first try and giving him a high-five when he was done. Deputy Mayor Dave Lieberth wasn’t so lucky. He immediately got three outs in his first inning, Robert says, but rallied back in the second to score five runs.
Although none of Robert’s game boards are available for sale, they can be played at various events. An interactive display is on exhibit at the American Toy Marble Museum at Lock 3 Park in downtown Akron, every Saturday through the spring season, from 10 a.m.-1 p.m., and at the Northwest Library and Community Center on April 12, from 10 a.m.-Noon. For more information about these folk art game boards or future displays, contact the Merchants by e-mail at