You’ve heard about the Justice League, but what about OHAC Justice?
The comic book series is the creation of local artist Merlin Strivelli and features superheroes based on staff members at Open Hearts Art Center, where he’s been honing his illustration and storytelling skills since the nonprofit opened in 2005.
An Asheville-area native, Strivelli grew up in an arts-rich family. His mother is a painter and his Charlotte-based uncle Simon, who he says is “covered in tattoos,” loves to draw. Their examples inspired Strivelli to begin making art in kindergarten, but he also had another key influence that set him on his current path.
“I liked painting as a kid because of Bob Ross,” Strivelli says.
Shortly thereafter, he began watching the X-Men animated series when he got home from school and was especially taken with Gambit, who remains his favorite superhero. Comic books’ frequent big city settings appeal to him and provide a means to explore new places — an experience he seeks to provide with his own work.
“My comic books take place in Asheville, and Stan Lee’s take place in New York,” Strivelli says. “I would like to visit New York because that’s where the X-Mansion is.”
Strivelli’s artwork has already taken him to exciting locations. In 2007, at the age of 16, one of his paintings was chosen to be part of Driven, an exhibition spotlighting the works of emerging artists with disabilities, at the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center. Strivelli was among 15 artists chosen from 204 applicants ranging in age from 16-25. That November, he and his father traveled to Washington, D.C., to see the show, as well as other art galleries and, just as memorably, ride in a taxi.
More recently, Strivelli taught a workshop in Alaska on how to draw superheroes. His other creations include Metro Force, Parrot Man, Candle Man, Goat Man, Reprimander, Mighty Man, Wonder Boy, Caterpillar Man and Karaoke Woman. He also has a villain named Sunburn who harnesses the power of the sun to redden people’s skin.
The comics — which feature script assistance, lettering and “final touches” by former OHAC staffer Steven Hooper — are available to purchase at Comic Envy, where Strivelli has made friends with owner Rile Naveen and employee Allison Jenkins; he’s also pals with Morgan’s Comics owner Morgan Albritton. Open Hearts is looking to print more of Strivelli’s comics soon and will also expand into web comics, all of which the artist hopes will one day result in OHAC Justice becoming an animated television series.
His love for comics and cartoon characters are also evident on Strivelli himself. He’s designed many of his tattoos, which feature his own versions of Thor, Scooby-Doo, Gambit, Wonder Woman, Rogue, Wolverine, Batman, Robin and Superman, and looks forward to having Sonic the Hedgehog on his right calf.
When he’s not working on comics — or painting animals and nature scenes, which he’s been doing more of this past year — Strivelli enjoys playing video games and going on walks. He’s also part of WNC Autistic Adults United, a group that organizes field trips, movie nights and game nights. openheartsartcenter.org
This article is part of a new feature, Creatives in the Crowd, which focuses on local artists — both established and new. The feature will spotlight unique stories and innovative artistic approaches within our creative community. Unlike much of our Arts & Culture reporting, these stories are not tied to upcoming events, exhibits or releases. The feature strives to represent a diverse range of voices, experiences and artistic mediums. If you’d like to nominate a community member for consideration, please reach out to email@example.com with the subject line, “Creatives in the Crowd.”