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In Greenpoint, A Cartoonist's Tiny Studio Is Also a Cabinet of Curiosities

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Julia Wertz (and her cat Jack) at her Greenpoint studio. All photos by Max Touhey for Curbed

"This apartment is the most me that anything can be," says Julia Wertz of her small Greenpoint studio, which functions as both a living space and makeshift cabinet of curiosities. For about two years, Wertz traveled with friends to abandoned sites (hospitals, theaters, and the like) throughout New York City and the surrounding areas, searching for different items—medical equipment, glass bottles, door knobs, the list goes on—which she then brought back to her 300-square-foot apartment. What's grown from that hobby is a highly curated collection of oddities, tailored specifically to Wertz's interests. "It's a museum of things that are just for me," she explains.

Wertz is a cartoonist whose work has appeared in Harper's and The New Yorker, among other publications; much of what she does focuses on New York City's neighborhoods (she's currently working on a book about Greenpoint) and history. It's no surprise, then, that many of the treasures—by her estimate, about 90 percent of her collection—are sourced from her adventures throughout the five boroughs. Exploring is something Wertz has done since she was a child—her father used to take her on trips in her native California—and she began doing it in New York because "it's the opposite of what I do everyday," she explains. "It's outdoors, it's dangerous, it's much more physical than sitting here and drawing comics."

But after a while, Wertz realized that she'd run out of space in her apartment to stash any more stuff. "Every weekend I would go out and acquire a bit more, but a year ago I was like, 'I have to stop, I can't fit anymore.'" Her living situation is something she likens to a "golden prison": she moved into her apartment a decade ago, intending to stay for only a year or two, but since her rent has never been raised, she's remained in the same spot, along with her six-year-old cat, Jack. The apartment also functions as Wertz's studio, with her workspace—a drawing bench, desktop computer, and an archive of her drawings—occupying one corner of the room. "This has always been my aesthetic, but this [apartment] is the craziest," Wertz explains. "I don't think my aesthetic will ever be what people would consider normal."

Wertz likens the process of figuring out how to arrange her apartment to "a perpetual Tetris game." Though she's inclined to move things around more frequently—"When I was a kid I was constantly rearranging my room because it's so fun," she explains—after a period, she decided to keep things in the same position. "I try and leave the collections alone and not put stuff on [it] to make it messier," she says. To an outsider, the space seems slightly chaotic; but to Wertz, it's very much an organized sort of chaos, and her items are arranged to her particular specifications (antique doorknobs are on one shelf, vintage subway tokens on another, and so on). Wertz can also tell you the specific story behind every item, whether it's a bottle salvaged from Dead Horse Bay or a enormous piece of lab glass from a hospital on Staten Island. "I like when people come over and ask a lot of questions," she says.

Though eventually she'd like to move to a larger home (one that might have, say, another room), she's happy with her current arrangement, particularly because it provides plenty of inspiration for her work. "I'm waiting for the big historian guy to contact me and like, give me the keys to the city," she says with a laugh.

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