Instagram: @merjensenarts

1. What’s your story? Where are you from?

I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and currently live in Philadelphia with a dog, my husband and our son. We’re expecting a second kid in November. I’ve always loved art, but when I was younger I wasn’t sure I had the talent to pursue it, so in college I studied Cultural Anthropology and minored in Art. After graduation I worked for an English language school in Japan and spent lots of time designing teaching tools — flashcards, little books for the kids, interactive props — and just thought, I have to figure out how to do this for the rest of my life. So when I came back to the US, I applied to art school and worked in print design for a few years before becoming a freelancer.

2. Tell us about your aesthetic.

Colorful, bright, graphic, and comical. I’m a little socially anxious, and I think that I end up conveying that in my images — I draw a lot of animals that look a little embarrassed of themselves.

3. What is your favourite medium and why?

I do most things digitally these days. I didn’t always like to, but when I started doing print design for apparel I came to love being able to alter the layout and color story post-fact. I keep lots of media on hand to work in different ways, but nearly always end up bringing it into the digital space for final touches.

4. What is your artistic process like?

I sketch in pencil on paper until I have something that looks roughly workable. I try not to get too precious about it, because I struggle a bit with getting too tight too early. Then I get it on my computer and try to create a tiny palette. Working in print design where you want to limit costs by working with as few screens as you can manage influenced me to be more economical with my color choices. I aim to begin with 3-5 colors, and I usually separate them into different layers so I can tweak them or play with the opacity as needed, adding more color as it feels necessary. I always ask my husband to have a look as well, because he’s got pretty good taste.

5. Who and/or what inspires your work? 

I grew up in the Brandywine Valley, so I had all this great exposure to Golden Age illustrators — Howard Pyle, the Wyeths, Maxfield Parrish. In my teens, I fell big time for Edward Gorey and Aubrey Beardsley. These days, I love Christian Robinson, Lisa Congdon, Ping Zhu, Ellen Van Dusen, Carson Ellis, Miroslav Sasek, Mark Conlan, and Lorien Stern.

6. What role does art play in your life? How does it change the way you view the world?

For me, art can be so satisfying. I love to see something expressed visually better than I ever could with words.

7. Where did you study?

I have a BA in Cultural Anthropology from Haverford College and a BFA in Illustration from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

8. Where do you see yourself in five years?

I hope to be in the same house with bigger kids and a smaller dog. I would love to illustrate children’s books if the opportunity arises.

9. What about in ten?

More of the same, but with a more sophisticated haircut and better time-management skills.

10. What do you hope to achieve with your art?

I want to tell a story that’s mostly funny and just a tiny bit sad.

11. Now, tell us a little more about you as a person: what is your favourite food?

Ice cream! The more add-ins (swirls, chunks, sprinkles) the better. 

12. Favourite book?

The Ghost With Trembling Wings, by Scott Weidensaul. It’s a beautiful but sad book about species going extinct and the ways that humans continue to look for them, even after they’re probably gone. I wanted to be a naturalist of some kind when I was a teenager, but I think I was afraid of loving something that is disappearing. This book really speaks to that. Plus, the writing is gorgeous.

13. Favourite genre of music? 

Overall, I think I’d call it New Wave/Dream Pop, and then, separately, 70s folk. When I’m stuck in my head and need to jolt out of it, I play “Are You ready for the Sex Girls” by Gleaming Spires, which I consider to be the perfect song.

14. What are your hobbies? 

I do hand embroidery and I’ve been teaching myself to sew with a sewing machine. Since the pandemic hit, I’ve had time to make some very basic garments with very crooked seams.

15. If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?

An ornithologist (in my dreams!). I absolutely love birds.