Posted by: Kathy Temean | August 22, 2020

Illustrator Saturday: Jennifer Merz

Winner of the Children’s Choice Award, Jennifer J. Merz is back with her third picture book, an engaging and enlightening nonfiction biography on American trailblazer Frances Perkins. With stunning, cut-paper illustrations on every page, STEADFAST: Frances Perkins, Champion of Workers’ Rights will delight and inform children and parents alike.

Jennifer J. Merz is an artist and picture-book writer/illustrator who creates intricate, handcrafted collages.  Inspired by the work of Matisse and Romare Bearden, she builds her pictures using the special papers, fabrics and trims of the textile world that is part of her personal and family history. 

She has been published previously by Dutton (That Dancin’ Dolly) and Clarion (Playground Day!).

Jennifer received an MFA in Illustration from the Fashion Institute of Technology in NY. She holds a BA in Studio Art and Elementary Education, and an MA in Art Education. She enjoys giving author presentations and is a member of SCBWI, CBIG, and the Author’s Guild.

A longtime resident of Allendale, NJ, Jennifer divides her time between the NY-Metro area and the Maine coast. She resides with her husband and their pug. They are the proud parents of two spirited women who, like Frances Perkins, bristle at injustice and walk confidently through open doors. She invites you to learn more at www.jennifermerz.com.

Here is Jennifer discussing her process with the book cover of her new book STEADFAST: Frances Perkins, Champion of Workers’ Rights:

I was keen to create a friendly, yet determined Frances. I studied many photos of her, and made several attempts before settling on the final version. Of course, she needed to look consistent with the previous spreads in the book, too. Here, I am showing how I painted her face in gouache. (All my faces are painted in gouache.) And I attached the textured paper for her hair.

Here, you can see some of my final pencil sketches along with a few of the rejected faces. When I have a final sketch, I go old-school, using artist’s carbon to trace over it in red pencil onto my final collage paper that I will then cut or rip. Sometimes, I work freer than this with collage materials, but not with the characters!

Here are close-ups of Frances for the cover. I discarded the ones on the top, ultimately using the one on display with the hair. You can see her hat cut out, too.

This is a good example of developing the figure from pencil to collage.

In this version, I have the figure finished, but still have to work out the background. I had many ideas, but ultimately decided to make the cover all about Frances’ major accomplishments in government, hence the Capitol Building. I was also mindful of where the type would go. The top red pattern got discarded in the end.

Here is the final layout, but I still need to work out the area behind Frances and the type. I also played with the type on the white of the paper or on a yellow ground.

I decided that the ‘pop’ of yellow was great for behind the blue type. I’d used the yellow previously on other spreads so it coordinates with the overall color palette. And the blue on yellow is so energizing and appealing! And it’s Frances’ wardrobe color as well.

INTERVIEW WITH JENNIFER:

                    .

How long have you been illustrating?

My first book came out in 2004 but I had a long textile background prior to that.

What and when was the first piece of art you created for money?

I created coasters in 6th grade that I sold to a local gift shop and I sold drawings in college, but the first real freelance work I did was not in illustration but in textiles! I was out of college and working in a major textile company in NYC at the time. I did all sorts of art for the Domestics Markets: sheets, towels, pillowcases, comforters, beach towels, pillow shams, kitchen rugs, things like that. It was a fun time!

Did you go to college to study art? If so where?

I was a Studio Arts Major and Elementary Education minor, receiving a B.A. Degree and NYS Teachers’ Certificate in Elem Ed. (K-6) from Marymount College, Tarrytown, NY. I went on to receive a Master’s Degree in Art Education from the College of New Rochelle. But most recently, I received my M.F.A. Degree in Illustration from F.I.T. (Fashion Institute of Technology.) That was a life-changing experience, it was so awesome!

What did you study?

Although I majored in art, I had a liberal arts curriculum during my undergrad years, with courses in English, math, and French, too. And of course, all those elementary education courses for teachers’ certification. In art, I took tons of drawing, and that set me up for illustration, which I have always loved. I took silk screening and ceramics, too. When I was at CNR, besides my Art Ed curriculum, I enjoyed more drawing and print making. At F.I.T., I enjoyed painting, drawing, and plunged into digital art-making for the first time. That was a struggle for me, but I am so grateful I have that background now! It seems like I’m always taking courses: I feel there’s always more to learn.

Did you take any children’s writing courses?

Not in writing specifically, but I took Monica Wellington’s absolutely amazing Continuing Ed. class at School of Visual Arts a few times over. Her class is the go-to for writing and illustrating picture books! I also took many continuing education classes at Parsons and private workshops with Jacquie Hann, another great building block, and a fantastic workshop with Ed Young on picture books.

How do you feel school helped develop your style?

By exposure to many different styles and techniques, I was able to explore in different directions, finding the right path for me. I remember my FIT Prof and great illustrator Rudy Gutierriez saying to bring the assignment over into our own arena, allowing your own truth to shine, and that was key.

When did you start using cut paper to illustrate? 

I took a workshop with Master Illustrator Ed Young and it was truly life-changing in terms of my style. Up to then, I’d been mostly drawing and painting, and he encouraged the students to create compositions using ripped brown paper – just regular brown bags from the grocery store! It was so incredibly freeing! It allowed me to see my compositions as a whole before getting bogged down in tiny details. Left to my own devices, I’d probably be drawing eyelashes on a figure before working out spacial arrangements. From there, it was a short hop to using collage materials for my final illustrations – AND it felt natural to incorporate the fabrics and trimmings of my previous textile days into my pictures.

Do you collect fabrics and paper for future use?

Oh, yes! I love to collect interesting textures and special colored papers, even if I can’t use them right away.

What type of work did you do when you started your career?

Well, there was the textile work that I’ve already described; I was in that industry for roughly a decade.

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate children’s books?

I’d always wanted to do it, but the real moment came in the 90’s. I was a stay-at-home mom and was desperate to get back to work, to do creative work, and I didn’t want to return to the textile world, as much as I’d loved it before. I knew I was ready for something new. It was time to embrace a new path and do what I’d dreamed about for so long. That’s when I started taking the numerous workshops in children’s books – with Ed Young, Monica Wellington, Jacquie Hann.

Was Playground Day your first published picture book?

No, That Dancin’ Dolly was my first book. I knew I wanted to do Dolly first: it has such special meaning for me. It’s based upon a verse in the old-time song ‘Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come Out Tonight’ and my mom used to sing it to me when I was really little.

How did you connect with Clarion to sell them your book? Did they see a book dummy?

I am very proud that Playground Day made it through the slush pile to publication at Clarion!  They held it for a year – a YEAR! – and one day, I received an email asking me if it was still available!  Yes, it was!  And yes, I’d sent them a very developed manuscript and dummy that somehow made it to the top of the slush.

How did Dutton discover Dancin’ Dolly and publish the book?

Again, it was a very fortuitous and serendipitous route! I’d approached an editor there, and she had the dummy. Around the same time, I attended an SCBWI illustrators’ conference at the Society of Illustrators. Back then, the opportunity existed to leave your portfolio upstairs with the editors and art directors while you were listening to the presentations in the main gallery. At the end of the day, I received a card in my portfolio from Stephanie Owens Lurie, head of Dutton at the time, that she liked my work. I was ecstatic!  The coincidence came into play when I got home and found out that the editor from Dutton had called, also interested in my work! I was able to tell her that her boss had already seen and liked my work. How cool is that?!?

How did you discover Frances Perkins and decide to write and illustrate her story?

The seeds of Steadfast were planted when I was doing my MFA in Illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC. It was 2011 and F.I.T., with its long connection to textiles, was commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, a tragic workplace disaster that Frances Perkins happened to witness as a young social worker.

I created handcrafted collages for that Triangle Anniversary, works that spoke to the 1911 narrative and that incorporated the fabrics and trimmings of my own textile background. I used cut and torn papers, laces and trims, to make a shirtwaist collage to honor the workers, mostly girls and young women, who lost their lives in that fire.

Little did I know then, that my participation in this event would lead to my book on Frances Perkins! As I researched, who did I find – who found me – but Frances! She was everywhere: in the arena of workers’ rights, women’s rights, safety, government, politics, immigration, later becoming the first woman in a Presidential Cabinet and the force behind the New Deal and Social Security. Why had I never heard about this woman?

I was bitten by the Frances bug and she wouldn’t let go. I needed to create a picture book on this American hero and role model. I had to get the word out to children. Children, girls in particular, needed to know the empowering, inspiring story that is Frances Perkins. Her strength of character, her integrity, her determined nature – all beckoned me to create this book.

What made you decide to self-publish the book?

STEADFAST had a long and circuitous route to publication! My first dummy in 2014 was centered primarily on the Triangle fire. I had a great response to it but no one picked it up because it wasn’t character-driven. When I discovered Frances and all her incredible achievements, and that she’d witnessed the fire and it had galvanized her to action, it was an easy jump to transition to a biography to a great American trailblazer. In between, some editors requested a longer book; some a shorter book; after trying out many different ideas and many iterations, but not finding a traditional publisher, I decided to bring this book to market on my own. The time is right for a picture book on this strong woman trailblazer, and I just didn’t want to wait any longer.

How long did it take you to do the book?

As I mentioned, the seeds were planted back in 2011 with my participation in the Triangle Fire exhibit at F.I.T., but work on this last version didn’t start until roughly 2016. It was a very long process!

Do you think your will do another non-fiction book?

Oh, I’d like to, but there are so many other things I’d like to do, too! And the publishing process is so lengthy…

Have you tried to create a wordless picture book?

No, as much as I’m a visual person, I love words too much to give them up entirely, I think!

Do you have an agent? If so who and how did you make that connection? If not, would you be interested in working with an agent?

I’ve had two agents, and to be frank, neither has worked out well for me. The first time, I had the unlucky break to sign on with the agency in 2008 and no one was buying anything during that recession. The second time, I connected with an agent right out of F.I.T. in 2014. He was excited to try to sell my dummy on the Triangle Fire, but had no luck.

EPSON MFP image

I see you do school visits. Any tips on how to promote yourself to schools?

I’ve done many school, library, and bookstore visits, as well as speaking engagements at conferences. I really enjoy meeting the public and my readers since book-making is so solitary. At present, I’m creating a Virtual presentation. I think we will all need to do that, at least short-term.

Is working with a self-published author to illustrate their book something you would consider?

No. I enjoy the writing side of the work, and would only consider doing someone else’s manuscript if it were traditionally published.

EPSON MFP image

What do you think is your biggest success so far?

The release of STEADFAST: Frances Perkins, Champion of Workers’ Rights is something I’m very proud of. It was a mammoth undertaking: many story and dummy iterations over many years, 40-pages of handcrafted collage illustrations, a fully-annotated back matter, careful research on an important historical figure, establishing a special relationship with the wonderful people at the Frances Perkins Center in Maine and getting their approval for my book, and establishing Jennuine Books and all the business requirements that self-publishing entails.

Have you done any illustrations for children’s magazines? If so, who?

Yes, for Ladybug Magazine, part of Cricket Media.

Do you belong to the SCBWI or active with a critique group?

Absolutely! It’s so important to be active. I’m a longtime member of the SCBWI and I’m active in two critique groups: Scribble, an SCBWI-offshoot; and Springboard, painters and illustrators. Online, I’m an active member of the Author’s Guild, too.

Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet when illustrating?

No, haven’t tried that.

Do you ever use Photoshop o tweak your final art?

Yes, absolutely! I don’t use it too much, but it’s a fantastic tool if/when you need it.

Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?

Not really. I find that when I’m working on a project, the momentum carries me forward. Right now, I’m working long hours, seven days a week, to release STEADFAST.  I kept myself on a strict schedule when I was creating all the art for it, also. Without those deadlines, I can flounder…then it’s time to take a class to help impose those deadlines!

Do you take pictures or research a project before you start?

Yes! I do tons of research and enjoy that process. To start, I research if a book has been done on my subject before. Before I do illustrations, I take tons of reference photos. For STEADFAST, I visited the Asch Building in NYC (site of the Triangle Fire), and I visited Frances Perkins’ homestead in Maine.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Yes, I do. I never would have tried self-publishing without the internet. I have built a good website and am now promoting my work on social media.

Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?

With the advent of my Bookshop on my website, I’m thinking more and more of creating art prints and going direct to the customer, online.

What are you working on now?

I’m working to successfully launch STEADFAST. Next, I am going to create cards and art prints related to my book that will be available in the gift shop of the Frances Perkins Center.

Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.

I’d just say, buy the best materials you can afford: treat yourself as a professional…your work will reflect that care.

Any words of wisdom for new illustrators?

For children’s illustrators, join the SCBWI. Join a critique group. Those serendipitous moments are out there, waiting to be collected, if you keep at it. Be Steadfast! 😉

Thank you, Jennifer for answering the interview questions and sharing your expertise with us. Please let me know your future successes so I can share it with everyone.

To see more of Jennifer’s work, you can visit her at:

Website: https://www.jennifermerz.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jennifermerzillustration/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jenniferjmerz/

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. Wonderful, Kathy! I am so pleased to be highlighted on Illustrator Saturday! You’ve shown a wealth of my illustrations from current stuff to long-ago and in between! It’s a lovely post. Thanks for having me. All the best! Jenn

    Like

  2. Beautiful work! And so many different styles! Thanks for a peek at your work.

    Like

  3. Terrific artwork. It’s an amazing variety. Thanks for the lovely post.

    Like

  4. You have quite an array of artwork. Enjoyed reading about all of it. Thanks for showing so much of what you have accomplished. Great job!

    Like

    • Thanks, Virginia! I’m delighted you enjoyed it.

      Like

  5. Kathy and Jenn, Wonderful interview!! Great learning more about you, Jenn and seeing your awesome work! I’m fortunate to have seen some of the “Steadfast” spreads in person as Jenn was working on them… Magnificent!

    Like

    • Thank you for your lovely comments, Kathy! I’m delighted you enjoyed the interview –and am also so happy to see your own work develop! Thanks again, Kathy T. for the opportunity to display my work!

      Like

  6. Great interview! I really enjoy the mixed media style of illustrations. Lots of fun. Congrats and best wishes!

    Like


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