City Life

Portrait and silhouette artist uses collage to capture her subjects' multiform meanings

Natalie Ergas creates pieces with meaning

Using varying textures, jagged edges or bright colors in a collage, Madison artist Natalie Ergas strives to capture the meaning, purpose and story of her subjects — their "native essence." After long and deep research, she spends hours cutting photos and images out of magazines and gluing layers upon layers together to create silhouettes and portraits. She's created collages of familiar faces and places, including Frida Kahlo, John Lennon, the state Capitol building and the state of Wisconsin. She is observant of her surroundings and the details surrounding people and their experiences, which is also what influenced her to become an artist. When not working in her studio, she teaches art at Sandhill Elementary School in Stoughton. Here is an edited Q&A with Ergas, who has a show at the Overture Center from Dec. 10 to March 1. 

You've said that the goal of your upcoming show at the Overture Center is to encapsulate the essence and stories of powerful women. How do you do that? 
All of my work focuses on the personalized nature of the subject. When I create a collage, there is actually quite a bit of research that I need to do in order to feel ready to start making the collage. I start from learning about the subject, writing adjectives and notes on the subject — favorite places, life experiences, memories, etc. From there, this research helps guide my choices for textures and magazine clippings, therefore making all of the imagery within my collages full of meaning, purpose and story.

Can you describe one of your pieces?
Through my research of Frida Kahlo, it became salient to me she was a person in pain — emotional pain and physical pain. Therefore, I chose to represent this pain with her face texture being a wilting rose. Her necklace is made out of tiny papel Picado — Mexican cut paper — to represent her love for her home country. The gold skull represents the story of her drastic injury in a bus accident — a painter with gold flecks was on the bus when it was hit and his gold flecks were floating in the air.

What did you discover on your recent trip to Malaga, Spain? 
I strongly identify with my own personal geography and heritage. My dad is Latino-Mexican, Spanish and Filipino and my mom is French and German. Each culture interests me and drives me to learn more. My great-grandmother came to the U.S. from Malaga with her family to work in the sugar cane fields in Hawaii. She ultimately settled in San Francisco where my dad was born and raised. These stories continue to fuel my inspiration and artwork. 

The majority of your work is portraiture. Why is that?
I am drawn to portraits and always have been. Collage added the tactile method I was always craving. Portraits by their nature are so personal, as no two people have the same profile silhouette. I am drawn to silhouette portraiture, as traditionally that was always an accessible form of personalization.

How do you translate your mission statement and values to your students? 
I believe my passion for being an artist translates to my students in that I truly strive to foster an environment that allows for personal growth and personalized learning to be supported. My idea for creating my collages in fact came from a lesson plan I made for my summer school students when I first moved to Madison in 2015. I wanted to teach them how to create a self-portrait that had personalized meaning, but I knew I wanted high engagement. I decided to do a silhouetted collage, using materials that may foster their interests — hence where the magazines came in. I created a sample so that I could teach the lesson, and it was a true connection from there on.

See more of Natalie Ergas' work by clicking here.

Mackenzie Krumme is a Madison writer and a former intern at Madison Magazine.


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