Jennifer Merz's STEADFAST

I've been developing quite a fascination with collage, especially since it's something I don't consider myself to be very good at. Here, it's used to remind us of an important moment in history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that was integral to establishing worker's rights. The book is called STEADFAST by Jennifer Merz. She dropped by to talk about it.
e: Hi Jennifer. Glad to have you on. What inspired you to create Steadfast?
The seeds of Steadfast were planted when I was doing my MFA in Illustration at the Fash-ion 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 dis-aster 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 be-coming 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 and steadfast nature – all beckoned me to create this book.
e: It’s a horrific event in history - how did you get it to work in a story for children?
Yes, the Triangle fire was a horribly tragic event! I was mindful to tell it in a sensi-tive and age-appropriate way. I feel that children can handle difficult subjects if the in-formation is presented carefully and in a historical context, and this event took place over a hundred years ago. I think that makes it feel less threatening than a current event. And, it’s my hope that readers can see beyond the tragedy and will be inspired to get involved when wrongs need to be addressed, as Frances did. That’s the message I hope they take from this book.

e: What was your creative process/medium, can you walk us through it?
I love to work in cut and torn-paper collage, and like to incorporate yarns, laces, and fabrics of the textile world, too. At this point, I have a great collection of special papers, textures, fabrics, and trimmings. I’m inspired by the work of Romare Bearden and Henri Matisse; and in children’s books, I love the wonderful use of texture in illustrations by Ed Young and Bryan Collier. Once I have my outline and basic thumbnails worked out, I ‘sketch’ the compositions by tearing brown paper – I use brown paper bags from the grocery store! I rip the brown paper into the shapes I need. This silhouetted method helps me from getting too tight too quickly, and keeps me focused on the overall composition. I can also work very freely in the early stages since the bags are readily available, and it’s a good way to recycle, too! I learned this way of working from Ed Young, by the way. He’s an incredible master.

e: What was your path to publication?
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 ideas, I settled on 40-pages – just right!

e: Is there a unique story behind the creation of Steadfast?
Yes! One of complete serendipity! I was in the midst of deciding which direction to go in with my Triangle fire book, and had recently discovered Frances in my research. I happened to be on vacation on the coast of Maine, sitting on a little bench outside a general store, having an ice cream. I picked up one of those free, local magazines on the newsstand and flipped through it. There, before my eyes, was a full-page article about the Frances Perkins Center in Maine – not far from where I was sitting. Seriously?!? At that point, I hadn’t even known that Frances was from Maine! I decided right then that my book would be focused on Frances Perkins!

I reached out to the Center and, soon afterwards, had the chance to meet Tomlin Coggeshall, Frances’ only grandchild and last direct descendant.
I now know several of the won-derful people who run the nonprofit Frances Perkins Center. I’m delighted they are offering Stead-fast in their bookshop.

e: What do you think makes an illustration magical, what I call "Heart Art” - the sort that makes a reader want to come back to look again and again?
To me, ‘Heart Art’ captures a moment in time that dares the viewer to step into the picture. Maybe it’s about a dynamic composition, or the expression of the character(s), or the emotional mood that the piece creates. It can certainly be any medium but it invites the viewer to feel and to somehow relate. It seems to be effortless. And, yes, indeed, it is magic. I’d be pleased if you would like to quote me on any of that!
e: How do you advertise yourself (or do you)?
I’ve gotten better at social media! I have a Facebook Illustrator page and I’m now on Twitter and Instagram, too. I’m trying my hand at Mailchimp to do some email blasts now and then. I create postcards and give them out at book conferences and events. For Steadfast, I had fun creating stickers and address labels. And I’m excited that the Frances Perkins Center has asked me to do art prints and cards for them, too!

e: What is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator?
I think these answers are two sides of the same coin! My most favorite part of being a creative is being able to set my own schedule and the most challenging part is the discipline that comes along with that!
e: Is there something in particular about Steadfast you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious?
Like Frances, I hope that readers will become inspired to make things better for others around them; if they see injustice, I hope they try to fix it. We are currently living in a time when this attitude is more important than ever. We need people who are motivated to make a positive dif-ference.
e: What are you working on next or what would be your dream project?
I’m looking forward to taking some time to explore my creativity, something I haven’t done for awhile. I’d like to oil paint, something I haven’t had time for, and try some new collage-techniques and print-making ideas, too. Thank you so much, Elizabeth, for giving me this opportunity!

e: Thanks for stopping by, Jennifer!

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Jennifer Merz said...

Thank you for this wonderful interview, e! I'm delighted to bring my book on Frances Perkins to your audience. If readers have questions, they can contact me through my website Thanks again and Happy Reading! All the best and stay safe, Jenn

amalia hoffman said...

Great interview and looks like an amazing book