November 09, 2020
Brooklyn muralist Katie Merz has transformed our smokestack into a work of art—a mural that tells the Ursinus story through unique iconography.
Katie Merz had a pretty unique view of the Ursinus College campus. From her perch—set about 120 feet in the air— she looked out across campus to see Bomberger Hall’s famed tower, students strolling in and out of Wismer Center, and the unique architecture of the Kaleidoscope Performing Arts Center.
It wasn’t the first time the Brooklyn muralist climbed to new heights to paint the side of a structure, but it certainly was the highest she’d ever gone.
Merz’s art is distinctive in that she uses iconography and rebus—which combines the use of illustrated pictures with individual letters to depict words— to translate stories. In September, she served as an artist-in-residence at Ursinus and transformed the otherwise nondescript smokestack into a canvas of symbols, shapes and riddles to bring the Ursinus experience to life.
The project is a tribute to the class of 2020, which had to transition to online learning in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic and did not get to experience an in-person commencement in May. Members of the class submitted memories to Merz, who translated them into the visual elements that now adorn the smokestack. She also incorporated powerful symbols of social change brought upon by racial injustices, and even included a memorial to Aidan Inteso ’24, a first-year student and Abele Scholar who passed away in September.
“This process was really organic because I didn’t know a lot about Ursinus,” Merz said. “I have pages and pages of interviews [with students] that I have broken down into symbols. But the more I’m actually here, the more I get it. I love this place. Everyone is gentle and genuine. It amazes me.”
Merz, the daughter of architects, has been painting in this style for four years and said it “exploded by accident” during a residency in Nebraska when she translated a favorite poem into hieroglyphs.
“I always thought there was more to a word than just the letters,” she said.
At Urisnus, Merz is inspired by the inquiry-driven approach to the Quest core curriculum and the search for knowledge through questions. She also said the smokestack is unlike any other surface she’s painted.
“There’s no one point to look at,” she said. “Wherever you are is where you see it. It reminds me of Trajan’s Column in Rome because it tells a story. It’s a spectacle of storytelling.”
“I want people to stop and want to get closer; to put together a meaning for themselves that is different than what anyone else sees.”