Artist Katie Merz at the top of her mural on the Ursinus College smokestack

Brooklyn artist Katie Merz transformed the Ursinus College smokestack—located outside of the facilities building—into a dynamic mural that tells Ursinus students’ stories through unique iconography. Painted in October 2020, it will become a permanent fixture on the Ursinus campus and serve as an enduring tribute to the Ursinus experience.

The project began in recognition of the Class of 2020, which—like the rest of the Ursinus community—transitioned to online learning in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The class did not get to experience an in-person commencement in May, but its members submitted memories to Merz, who is translating them into the visual elements that now adorn the smokestack.

Detail of mural on the Ursinus College smokestack

“This process was really organic because I didn’t know a lot about Ursinus,” Merz says. “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.”

She also is incorporating powerful symbols of social change brought upon by racial injustices, and is including a memorial to Aidan Inteso ’24, a first-year student and Abele Scholar who passed away September 13.

Merz’s art is distinctive in that she uses various symbols, shapes, iconography and rebus—which combines the use of illustrated pictures with individual letters to depict words—to tell stories. The daughter of architects, she says she has been painting in this style for four years and says it “exploded by accident” during a residency in Nebraska when she translated a favorite poem into hieroglyphs.

“I would start breaking down a word into rebus,” she says. “Lewis Carroll would write to Alice Little in rebus. And I thought, ‘This is the way I read.’”

Artist Katie Merz makes notes to create her mural

She began using the style and has since created murals on the interior and exterior of buildings.

“I always thought there was more to a word than just the letters,” she says.

At Ursinus, 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 says. “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 different than what anyone else sees.”

Artist Katie Merz paints a mural on the Ursinus College smokestack


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