Monday, July 30, 2012

Artist Katie Merz and author John D'Agata first met nearly ten years ago when they were at the MacDowell Colony, the famed artists' colony in New Hampshire. More recently, they reconnected when both had residencies in Marfa, Texas. "I was making acetate pieces in which I took text from things I was reading and threw it into old cartoons," says the Brooklyn-based Merz whose style comes in part from comics and New York City street art. It's easy to see the echoes of Keith Haring in her work, which is at once mirthful and points at uneasy truths.

She viewed D’Agata, who is a professor in The University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, as having a similar methodology to her own, albeit in a different medium:  “At that time, John was breaking down language and putting it back together," she says of his book, About a Mountain, that examines a proposed nuclear waste plant at Yucca Mountain in Nevada via different stories. It knits together the seemingly unrelated voices of activists, politicians, geologists, and D'Agata's own mother.

When D'Agata asked her to work with him as an illustrator on a translation he was doing of several works by the Greek historian and essayist Plutarch, Merz was intrigued. The pair received an Obermann Interdisciplinary Research Grant and worked in Iowa City during June and July, 2012. As Merz became more familiar with the texts -- one which includes short sayings attributed to the Spartans, another a letter from Plutarch to his wife, and the third a talk on sexuality -- and received D'Agata's feedback, she started working outside the original cartoonish style she'd initially employed.

"There was a definite point when I knew I needed to take a different tact. I just started trying things and playing with it." She added long scrolls and smaller hieroglyphics to the series. In the latter, she begins with a section of text and erases letters and words and then replaces them with her own imagery.

Merz, who teaches drawing at Cooper Union, was curious how differently she and D'Agata responded to the text: "As a translator, he had a very specific idea of what was happening in each text, whereas I had a much more visceral reaction." 

Both the nature of the texts and the collaborative process pushed Merz to expand stylistically. It also provided her with a stronger sense of how to work with another artist, something she’s already putting into use in a tandem graphic novel that she’s writing about growing up in the 1970s New York with author Amanda Stern.