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Katie Merz Makes Her Mark on Brooklyn

On the corner of South 5th and Berry Streets in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a building painted with custom hieroglyphics has been attracting major attention. This application of art on architecture, the work of Cooper Union alumna Katie Merz, actually has a deep connection to the neighborhood.

A Brooklynite born and bred, Katie Merz graduated from the School of Art in 1984. Her work ranges from delicate drawings to cartoon-influenced paintings and even sculpture. As the daughter of architects, she has always been interested in connecting art to the built environment. “This project was the perfect combination of art and architecture,” Merz says. “I could take a blueprint in my mind and draw it on the outside of the building.”

While participating in the Art Farm artist residency in Nebraska, Merz experimented with large-scale hieroglyphs on two rural barns using black roofing paper and white oil sticks. Then in January, she took her new medium into a gallery setting in Lincoln, NE, wrapping a 25-foot room in 12 pages of encoded poetry.

She was connected to the building in Williamsburg through her brother, a minister in Greenpoint, who recently sold a building at his church to developers Chris and Matthew Horrigan. The Horrigans partnered with Pilot Real Estate and Standard Architects on a development project, combining a three-story building at 95 South 5th Street and lot at 347 Berry Street. The team was developing a six-story residential building, incorporating the existing structure into the new building. The historic building, dating to 1910, had previously been an ice cream factory. The building had been in disrepair for about two decades and the adjacent lot was filled with needles and glass vials left behind by drug users over the years.

The area, just one block north of the Williamsburg Bridge, was a popular canvas for graffiti artists. The abandoned former factory sat alone, flanked by two fenced empty lots, prime real estate for tagging. The developers wanted to pay homage to the style of the neighborhood through some sort of treatment on the façade of the historic building. Merz showed them her past work and received the commission.

She painted hieroglyphs on the three-story façade of the original building as well as created graffiti-inspired artwork in the lobby and elevator banks. A hieroglyph is a drawing of an object representing a word, syllable, or sound, typically found in ancient Egyptian writing systems. “I’ve worked with language for a while,” Merz says. “I like that it has structure, similarly to how architecture has structure.”

The glyphs on the top two floors depict Merz’s favorite poems and selections of prose. But while working on the ground floor exterior, Merz spent a lot of time talking to everyone in the neighborhood. “I was working on the ground floor and would initiate or overhear conversations with people passing by,” she says. Those conversations and stories were translated into the glyphs on the ground floor. For Merz, who has credited growing up and living in Brooklyn as an artistic inspiration, it was significant to integrate voices of the neighborhood into this project.

This project is not her first foray into street art. “I prefer street work to traditional galleries,” she says. “Seeing my work on the street is both exciting and fun.” Merz taught Drawing I at The Cooper Union from 2005-2014 and often took her class outside of the classroom for projects. She also recalls many architects took her course over the years. “My course is designed to explore the phenomena of drawing as basic to the visual language of all disciplines.”

Merz considered becoming an architect at one point but, “I didn’t want to have clients,” she says. “Architecture impacts me more than art when I see it. I went down this road by happenstance and from a stubbornness of not wanting to work in a gallery.”

She will soon have another opportunity to work outside. Last month, she read a story in our “5 Things” newsletter about School of Art students participating in a 10-day summer residency in Mexico City. Having always been interested in the contemporary Mexican art world, she wrote to the participating galleries on a whim. The Celaya Brothers Gallery (CBG) responded, intrigued by her experience in exterior artwork. CBG is an art space known for bringing international artists to the country to develop creative concepts. Merz will soon be traveling to Monterrey, Mexico for 10 days to undertake another hieroglyphs project in partnership with CBG. She will translate information about Mexico’s urban planning process and paint it on a long wall in the city.

Back in Williamsburg, the rental units at The Ice Cream Factory building are filling up. Merz’s glyphs show up as the background on the apartment building’s website and in other marketing materials. She does worry about her own work being tagged. But after spending so much time in the area, she befriended some local taggers who have promised to keep her artwork intact.

Photos courtesy of Katie Merz