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Spaces of In-Betweens: An Interview with Kristina Paabus

Artist Kristina Paabus' studio at 'The Butcher Shop'

When I first saw some works of Kristina Paabus at Hinge Gallery a few months back, I was immediately drawn to the precision of line and the delicacy of detail in her work. In her pieces she utilizes varied forms of mediums, she reflects ‘in-betweens’, and delves in the limits that exists between the real and the illusionary. I was fortunate enough to get in contact with Kristina and set up an interview. We met in her studio space, appropriately named the ‘Butcher Shop’, across the street from Peoria’s Packing Butcher Shop and next to the El train green line. The ‘Butcher Shop’ building had been transformed into work spaces for artists and musicians alike, an oasis for creativity. In her brick and white-walled studio with works ranging from pencil drawings, to layered prints, to wooden sculptures, to an incredible hand-made sloth costume that watched over us during the interview, Kristina spoke to the influence of working abroad and in the city she now calls home.

AM: So where are you from?

KP: I’m from Massachusetts, near the Northeast coast. However, my parents are both from Estonia, so Estonian is my first language. I grew up in a sort of microcosm or a mini Estonia, going to Estonian school every Saturday and American school during the week.

AM: How did you get into art making?

KP: I’ve been making art for as long as I remember. When I first went to college, I tried other avenues to see if there was something else I wanted to do. During high school I had  surgery on my hand and wasn’t sure how it would fare in the future.  I started college at UMass Amherst, didn’t make art work for a while, and focused my energies on religious studies. But it wasn’t long until I realized that I had to return to a creative practice.

AM: In you mission statement on your website, you have three different forms – drawings, prints, installations – you talk about objects, in-betweens. I was wondering if you could talk a little about the mediums you use and why you utilize them to make certain points.

A corner of Kristina Paabus' studio.

KP: Drawing is kind of an illusionary space.  We understand how to read a drawing in a way that one can suspend reality looking at a drawing, and believe that it is real. With an object, it’s physicality always gets in the way, it has to be that object, it can’t transcend reality in certain ways. As a representation it can, but you still see the object as this kind of fake item. My installations are environments or conversations between drawings/objects that bring the viewer into a space where they can relate both the illusionary, 2 dimensional, and the physical space, 3 dimensional.

AM: You work at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago? Could you tell me a little about your work there?

KP: I teach at SAIC in the Department of Printmedia. Currently, I am teaching Beginning Lithography and Beginning Screenprinting, but I’m also well versed in other printmaking techniques. I’m also the graduate coordinator for the department, a new position at the school this year. I work closely with graduate students and organize events as well as the Visiting Artist Program for the Printmedia Department.

AM: How’s it going?

KP: Really well, I love it.

AM: How long have you worked there?

KP: I graduated from SAIC in 2009 with my MFA. After that I moved to Estonia on a Fulbright scholarship for a year. While I was overseas I was offered the opportunity to return to SAIC to teach.  I jumped at the chance and moved back to Chicago in 2010.  Now I have been teaching for over a year, and really enjoy it.

AM: In Estonia was that a residency? I noticed you’ve done some residencies abroad and also at ACRE and Lillstreet?

KP: I guess I should go back a little bit first. During the summer between my first two years of undergrad at UMass, I went to Estonia to take part in a summer program that The Estonian Academy of Arts (EAA) was offering.  Estonia has over 1,500 islands off its coast, and this 2-week program took place on the third largest island called Muhumaa. After, I returned to UMASS and decided that I had to pursue art – I could not, not pursue it. People say if you have a choice to do something else besides art, do something else, but if you don’t have a choice, be an artist. Later during my undergraduate study I went back to Estonia for a full year, and that is when I became familiar with printmaking techniques. After studying in Estonia, I returned to the US and finished my BFA degree at the Rhode Island School of Design. These experiences, as well as my cultural background, laid the groundwork for why I went back to Estonia again on Fulbright. Before returning in 2009 I hadn’t even been there to visit for ten years, even though all of my extended family lives there. I went there specifically to work with two well-known Estonian animators, Priit Pärn and Ülo Pikkov, who both teach at the EAA. Priit Pärn has been a huge influence on my artistic practice since I was a child because I grew up reading his children’s books. I knew for a long time I wanted to work with him, but he had been teaching in Finland, and I didn’t necessarily want to go to Finland to study, I wanted to go to Estonia. While I was in grad school I noticed that Pärn had just started a MFA program in animation at EAA. It seemed that everything was coming together. My Fulbright in Estonia was under the umbrella of installation art, but I was studying animation to incorporate narrative, time, and movement into my work. This is something I plan to put into practice in the future. While I was there I also took part in a residency at Culture Factory Polymer, which is an artist run warehouse space. It was an amazing experience and I met some great people through it. Polymer is an old toy factory where many of the toys that I grew up playing with were actually made. Estonia is a fairly small country, about twice the size of Massachusetts, so coincidences like that are not all that rare. Estonia has gone through a lot of turmoil and changes since gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. While I was there during my undergrad, it still had this sort of post-soviet feel. Going back 10 years later I saw how much it had changed into its current role as an EU member country.

Artist Kristina Paabus with sculpture piece from ACRE residency.

AM: With the residencies at ACRE and Lillstreet here in Chicago, what did you do with those?

KP: I went to ACRE this past summer, and was there for about 12 days. ACRE has an amazing woodshop so I primarily I focused on sculptural work because I had access to a slew of tools and some materials. For example, the ACRE grounds have a lot of salvage materials lying about, so I asked if I could use a particular piece. It was a wood jacket that I painted the inside of – so it exists with a duality of finished and raw elements. I showed that piece at Midway with Hinge Gallery, and displayed it in a way the viewer would have to really explore the piece to notice that it had another side to it.  When I first got to ACRE I began by working on drawings, but realized that didn’t make sense for me because I could draw anywhere, but I didn’t always have access to a fully equipped workshop. While I was living in Estonia I also drew a lot because of lack of studio space. At Lillstreet I was an artist-in-residence in painting and drawing for about 6 months. That was a great experience because I was able to use their facilities, and even experiment with ceramics. Each residency is quite different, but the most beneficial aspect is usually the luxury of space, time, and dedicated focus.

AM: Being a part of the Chicago art scene, and living in Chicago, how does it influence your art? Because it definitely seems Estonia has a large influence – how do you balance the two?

KP:  The architecture of Chicago and the urban environment have a huge impact on my work. I am really interested in the structures that people create to interact with each other and the world. In the city these systems are constantly evident, even though they are surrounded layered between mass amounts of clutter and noise. A lot of my work is based on these fragments – a cutting up and reinterpretation of bits of information.  Because of my background as an Estonian-American, I learned early on about the distinctions formed by certain spaces. For example with language, Estonian was used at home or with family, while English was reserved for public situations. It is part due to my early experiences of being in between two cultures, histories, and languages that I am particularly interested in duality, balance, and paradox.

AM: And we’re in an urban environment –  as the noise of the train goes by….(train outside studio window). I’d love to escape to the countryside.

KP: This past summer I was lucky enough to spend most of it in the country.  Before going to ACRE, I was at Women’s Studio Workshop (WSW) in Rosendale, New York. At WSW I took part in a six-week NEA studio grant residency in screenprinting.  It was extraordinary because it was fully supported, and that made it easier to leave Chicago for an extended period of time and being single-mindedly focused on making.  I spent almost every waking minute in the studio and created a few new bodies of work. One of these, The Excess Series, in particular differs from my drawings. Instead of diagrammatical studies of singular moments, for this series I capitalized on screenprinting’s ability to layer and redefine, creating thirty unique prints from over 200 hand-drawn and hand-cut stencils.

AM: So you don’t really favor a medium, you more utilize a medium depending on concept?

Kristina Paabus' prints done at Women's Studio Workshop

KP: Yes, the conceptual aspects always come first, and I choose the mediums based on their ability to execute and enhance the idea. For example, it wouldn’t make sense to recreate my graphite drawings in an edition format, because they are about the singular, traces of decision-making, and selective choices.  In comparison, screenprinting is capable of repetition, reinterpretation, and the multiple. In my prints I often liken the stencil to that of a scientific “given” – a basic building block that can be recontextualized in an attempt to discover new answers.  As experiments, I allow a lot of room for exploration and discovery in my work as well.

AM: I saw your work at Hinge Gallery, I think it’s great that we have the ability to see a work, speak with the gallery owner, and get in touch so easily with artists. I think it’s refreshing to know that people who work in art are art majors.

KP: As an artist Chicago is a great place to live and work. There is so much going on in the city artistically, and otherwise. With so many academic institutions, exhibition venues, dedicated individuals, a unique DIY attitude, and a generous community, the art scene is really active.

AM: Do you feel pretty established in Chicago – it seems you’ve worked with a lot of the art scene community – are you looking to expand?

KP: Of course I am constantly looking to expand my practice, but I feel comfortable with where I’m at. I’m really happy with the Chicago art scene. There is a kind of camaraderie that you can’t really find elsewhere. It’s exciting, there is always something happening.

Discover more of Kristina’s work by visiting

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