By Greg Klein The Cooperstown Crier
The Daily Star
---- — Although his dad may be a Cooperstown insider, when it comes to art, Nate Katz is a fitting outsider.
Katz, whose “Obsessive Construction” show debuts at the Smithy Center for the Arts on Monday, has turned his fascination with strip malls into works of art.
“This is pure folk art or outsider art,” said his father, Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz. “I love them. To a small degree, I am sad when he sells them, but then again, good for him.”
Nate, who will turn 23 on Aug. 30, has hyperlexia, a form of autism marked by precocious reading skills but limited comprehension. Unlike some on the autism spectrum, he has never had a problem with speaking. He talks, but not always coherently.
In some ways, he is like a child. He loves Cartoon Network, for instance, and another of his obsessions is the television show Johnny Test. But his intelligence is on an adult level, and he has a 2012 degree from The State University College at Cobleskill in graphic design. He also graduated from Cooperstown Central School in 2009.
His strip mall artwork began in 2009 too, a product of homesickness for his family’s Chicago roots. It was 2003 when they left the suburban town of Lincolnshire, northwest of the city, to move to Cooperstown. A few years later, Nate began to obsessively draw retail outlets from his youth.
The drawings are outlined in ink and filled in with colored pencil. Sometimes they are based on real strip malls, usually from the Chicago suburbs, and drawn with amazing accuracy from memory. When his family visits their old home, he is consumed with new inspirations, based on what stores have been added to what shopping centers. Locations of bathrooms are very high on his list of concerns and often pop up in his drawings.
Other times, the work he produces is based on his imagination.
“Most of what he does is Chicago strip malls,” Jeff said. “Then I was going through them one time, and I found one that was labeled ‘Richfield Springs.’ That was surprising. Except it was a drawing of the Richfield Springs Walmart, which doesn’t exist.”
“I’ve been doing this for years,” Nate said, in one of his few enunciations about his work, “but some of it is new.” Later he admits that his show, which will take up the entire third flood of the Smithy Pioneer Gallery is “very exciting.”
Next week’s show is not his first art installation. In June of 2012, he had a New York City show in the Leonard Tourne Gallery in SoHo. Several drawings were sold at that show. A few were to friends of the family, but several more were to strangers.
“That’s always very gratifying, when it is a stranger,” Jeff said.
The first show was arranged when a family friend, Doug Miller of Fly Creek, saw the drawings. Miller, who owns Green River Stone Co., often sells his fossils at the gallery.
“A lot of times, when Nate redraws something he would throw the old one away,” Jeff said, “because in his mind, he is done with the old one. Doug has a background in art. I think his degree is in art history. He was over at the house, and he saw a pile that was going to be thrown away. He said to Nate, ‘don’t throw these away, I’d like to do something with them.’”
Since the first show, sales have been steady. Priced by size, a small drawing goes for $60. Larger ones cost $120. Several that are four feet long or more, are priced at $600.
The drawings are also for sale online on the website Etsy, under the store logo Strip Mall Art. The page has had hundreds of views and four sales. It has been featured by other artists in the Etsy community.
This spring, a woman saw the website and commissioned a work for her boyfriend to remind him of his hometown, Lake Zurich, Ill.
When Smithy director Danielle Newell saw some of the pieces, she asked if she could set up a Cooperstown show.
“The thing that excites me about Nate’s work is his devotion to his subject matter,” Newell said. “So often, artists wait for inspiration to strike, but in Nate’s case, he has a methodical, almost scientific, approach to the creative process.”
“Strip malls are not traditionally considered ‘beautiful.’ However, through Nate’s eyes, we see another point of view,” she continued. “For me, it has re-framed my perspective and caused me to consider what is worth exploring as an artist and as a human being. The answer, I think, is everything.”
This week, the Katz family is busy setting up for the show. Pieces have to be moved and set up. Some of the bigger drawings will be carried by Nate’s younger brothers, who will walk them from the family’s Chestnut Street home over to the gallery.
The opening reception is Monday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. The exhibit will run through Sept. 15, but Nate’s obsession will likely continue even after the show. So too will his father’s desire to help Nate transition to an adult life.
Through Arc of Otsego they are looking for a part-time job that utilizes his computer skills and can downplay his limitations.
Jeff also blogs about the challenges and joys of having an autistic son – though the blogging has been light lately while he works on his baseball book about the 1982 baseball strike – at missionofcomplex.wordpress.com.
Nate also has a second web store, Alpha Folks, which sells T-shirts. That site is more of a work in progress, but the work will continue.
“I am happy to have him get recognition for this,” Jeff said. “As long as he is willing to produce the work, I am more than happy to do the other work (to sell them) for him.”