Pieced together: Products of Nate Katz’s obsessions

This is the final piece I wrote for my summer internship with the Smithy Center for the Arts, and probably my favorite piece from this summer.

Nate Katz photo

Nate Katz, 23, leans over the table, a strip of Scotch tape stretched between his thumbs. He’s focused on a small stack of paper in front of him, an inventory of some kind with thumbnail images of movie covers in the top half and a list in 14-point font in the bottom half. He’d just updated the list, cut it to size, and now had it lined up with the thumbnails, ready to be made one by the power of Scotch.

Nate’s father, Jeff, stands at the side of the table, talking about Nate’s strip mall portraits which hang in clear glass frames on the surrounding walls. Some are long rows of stores from various Chicago-land suburbs. Others are just 8 1/2 by 11, on Nate’s standard—computer paper—featuring before-and-afters of Dunkin Donuts and Burger King renovations, with floor plans of restrooms sketched out below the colored pencil portraits.

“Is this one real, Nate?” Jeff asks, holding one of the before-and-afters. Through the clear glass of the frame, the back side of the portrait’s paper is visible. Two photos: one of a toilet, one of a sink.

“I don’t know,” Nate replies, glancing up as he tears another strip of tape. “It’s in my mind.”

Creativity—putting pen to paper or hand to keyboard—is one of Nate’s main ways of getting what’s in his mind out. At age three and a half, Nate was diagnosed with Hyperlexia, a form of autism characterized by early advanced reading abilities, excellent visual and auditory memories, but a slow learning of language. Because of this, Nate has a hard time communicating to others what’s going on inside of him.

What others tend to see of him are his obsessions: bathroom fixtures and setups (he puts together booklets titled “The Complete Fixtures of” various townships and maps out floor plans of public restrooms); in grade school, The Simpsons, until he decided no more, for reasons still unknown; and since moving to Cooperstown with his parents and younger brothers in 2003, strip malls from familiar Chicago suburbs that he misses.

These strip malls—drawn in pen, filled in with colored pencil, laminated with Scotch tape, and framed front-and-back in clear glass—currently stretch across the Smithy-Pioneer Gallery’s third floor walls. They are simple, in no way claiming to appear realistic. Yet, they are detailed. Look closely at the Dunkin Donut door handles and the KFC Colonel’s face in miniature. Each piece requires thought and precision, which Nate carefully provides.

Jeff now sets a three-dimensional open-topped cardboard house on the table. The second floor fits the first floor, the three sides of the front bay windows lining up perfectly. Nate made this. A scaled-down model of the Katz’s house in Illinois. The only thing missing is the addition made by the new owners. Nate’s seen it, but only from the outside. To do a proper model, he’d need to see it from the inside, so he could know the floor plan.

The detail on the house’s interior is better than any Lego model would allow: from door and window placement to the red, white, and blue stripes on Nate’s bedroom walls. He recently repainted his Cooperstown bedroom to match.

“There’s a true authenticity to what he’s doing,” Jeff says, as Nate presses the final piece of tape onto his inventory and leaves the room.

Jeff opens a cartoon cookbook that’s sitting on the table. Nate designed it from cover to cover and put it together, joining the pages on their left edges and making the cardboard cover. It’s themed around a cartoon character Nate likes. Nate made it because the cartooners hadn’t.

“He makes things he wishes come real,” Jeff explains, flipping through the pages.

The strip malls?

“They’re just something he loves and he wants drawn.”

Nate’s strip mall portraits are currently on display on the third floor of the Smithy-Pioneer Gallery at 55 Pioneer Street.

– Meredith Sell

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