Kris Engman received her B.F.A. from the Portland School of Art (now the Maine College of Art), and a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Pennsylvania. She founded and worked as director of Project Kalocsa, arranging for the international exchange between Kalocsa, Hungary and Belfast, Maine of more than 150 students and young adults and families. Ms. Engman has taught painting, drawing and design at various colleges in Maine and visited numerous campuses in New England as a visiting lecturer. Currently, she is an assistant professor of art at the University of Maine at Orono. Kris has traveled extensively throughout Europe and taught English in the Hungarian public schools. She now resides in Liberty, Maine.
When did you first realize that you were going to be an artist and when did you first start making art?
When I was very young....It wasn’t as though I had any plan to become an artist, or anything else for that matter, as a child; I was surrounded by artists and so I imitated them. My father was a sculptor and taught at a university—my parents' friends and colleagues were in the arts and they were always around. We lived out in the country and our home was something of a gathering place. I used to go with him on Saturday mornings into “school” (the university), where we would work together, making sculpture. At least that’s how I saw it. At home, my father helped me build a studio for myself which I settled into, right off his workspace, in our barn. I remember going there to draw and make things (hammering nails into boards and things like that), while he was nearby, also “working”. I related to all of it. I must have been around 7 or 8.
(Image: "Nexus" by Kris Engman)
Who or what inspires you?
For many years, I’ve been interested in the imagery produced by people far from my own roots—I guess most people call it “folk” art or “indigenous” art. To me, it’s more about what comes right out of the soul of a culture—its ethnicity. No pretenses, no affectation. For years, the attraction has been magnetic, initially with African sculpture and patterned textiles and raffia weaving. This influence has been instrumental in how I’ve approached making sculpture because, from my position as an outsider, the appeal of the forms is free of prescription or tradition—it's important that this work is not about my origins. I can then dissect, reform and incorporate what I find so compelling into an allegorical statement of who I am in the world I live in, in my time. It is a little enchanting in that I don’t really understand the draw and yet, I completely give in to it. These images feel unadulterated and give me what I need to create, based on my sense of things. Sounds bizarre, I know.
Recently, I’ve been painting more than making sculpture. Even working with pigment, the investigation seems to be following the same course—texture, rhythms, repetition, pattern—not with figures as in the sculpture, but in mapping the color of Maine. I think I moved away from sculpting about 10 years ago because I had exhausted my interest in the figure and was gradually paying attention to the behaviors I was seeing in the landscape—in terms of color, pattern and season. Contemporary Australian Aboriginal art is hugely influential at the moment; not that I understand or even identify with the depth or specific meaning of their traditions, but I do relate to their connection to the territory and that patterns tie them to their dreams and ancestry. It’s like a religion, sort of, without the devout aspect... hard to put into words.
Is (was) anyone else in your family in the arts?
Yes, it seems like everybody—both parents, an uncle and grandfather; I have 3 sisters in the arts....it has always been there.
Are you self-trained or did you go to art school?
Lots of training - beginning with Interlochen Arts Academy in high school, then Maine College of Art as an undergrad, on to RISD and then finally to the University of Pennsylvania for my Masters.
Is the process of creating your art long or short?
I don’t know what that means. It just is the process. It’s effortless. It’s daily and urgent, now that I’m getting older. The distractions are fewer since I’ve raised my children and found my mate(s). There were years involved with the Belfast community and I’ve done some traveling. Now, each day, when I don’t have to teach (at the University of Maine), I’m in the studio; a stretch of twelve hours is not unusual. This is what I mean by it feeling “urgent”. I guess there’s a gut sense that I can’t be casual about wasting time—I feel differently about time than I did when I was younger—there isn’t as much of it left.
(Image: "Five, Ten, Fifteen, Twenty" by Kris Engman)
Tell us something about your work.
The work is really nothing more than an extension of what’s going on in the brain. Perhaps I’m just a process-oriented person. I’m driven by the making part: the wondering, the translation, the mechanics, the embodiment of thought. One thing leads to another. I have no idea how the “now” is going to connect with what emerges “later” but somehow, it always does. Here’s an example—about 12 years ago, I was traveling through Italy with my family when the car broke down. We were hauled to the nearest large town for repairs and spent 3 days waiting for the needed car part to arrive. While stranded, we set out to explore that lovely, medieval place (Perugia) and I stumbled into a museum which housed a large collection of 14th-century icons, painted by some of Italy’s greatest masters—Duccio, Simone Martini, Ambruogio and Pietro Lorenzetti, Domenico Veneziano—to name a few. When I was an art student, I “slept” through the lectures about this period of western art—at 23, I found it boring. However, when I actually saw the works “in the flesh” twenty years later, I could hardly believe how stunning they were. As I traveled, I noticed the Orthodox icons in churches in Romania, the Czech Republic, Greece, and Hungary. So beautiful. Whatever it was that made them interesting at that time found it’s way into some profound place before going dormant upon my return home. Then, two years ago, from out of no where, I began to read about and study iconic painting and began to create an Icon Series derived from those observations that had been implanted 10 years earlier. I never foresaw that those days spent in the museum in Perguia would ever be the germination of a facet of my own painting. I blew the dust off old skills left over from my days as a calligrapher decades earlier—gilding with gold, silver, and copper leaf. At the same time, I began to work with encaustic. It’s such a mystery, how you wend your way through a creative process - other artists tell me how it happens with them, too—it is common.
Do you have a subject matter that defines you as an artist?
No, not really.
(Image: "Walking Woman Unveiled" by Kris Engman)
What makes you stay with a particular subject matter? Why are you drawn to it?
It’s whimsical but at the same time concrete. Like I said, I can’t begin to anticipate how one involvement will lead to the next, but I was trained as an undergraduate to try and become comfortable taking chances. Risk taking is the key—being willing to dangle your legs over the precipice...to allow yourself to fail. It’s far easier to stay in the “safe” place, repeating over and over again what you’re comfortable or successful (financially) with. Unfortunately, soon enough. it becomes a formula—you feel like you’ve got it figured out but, then, you can’t understand why you’re not moving forward.
What I mean to say here is that it isn’t about the subject matter, it’s about the process. I feel like I have to keep the process “clean”. I’m drawn to that—the process is subject-less. It’s tempting to allow the success of a sale or a moment’s recognition to affect one’s assessment of the rightness of what one is doing. However, that isn’t really what the making is about (although I have lost sight of that more than once in the past).
How do you stay motivated?
It was hard to make myself go to the studio and work when I was thirty—life was full of distractions back then—kids, community, marriage, friends. My father used to tell me to just go and sit—it will happen once you get there. Sometimes that was true, but the greater truth was that I was easily diverted and lacked discipline and a connection. I was diligent enough but I wish I had been more attuned. Now, I just do it. The motivation is there all the time. I don’t even think about it. There have been some memorable “dry spells” in the past but I haven’t suffered that in a long time.
What have you been working on lately? Are you experimenting with anything new?
There are so many things going on that I can hardly keep track. I’m simultaneously working on several explorations; they are separate but related: There is the Icons Series (encaustic painting and gilding) involving grids and geometries; a Mapping Series (Maine landscapes) based on the Aboriginal method of compiling of dots to build color and value relationships according to interactions observed in the surrounding countryside; the woven series (sculpture) which are hangings, knotted and woven from twine over welded frames incorporating texture, patterns and bones; the digital paintings which use patterns from Central Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa; the digital drawings (a parallel set of preliminary designs that are progressing adjacent to the development of the gilded Icon Series; finally and most recently, the one-a-day paintings (a simple still-life a day for the next 100 days—primarily to produce a large body of small works). All of the work, except for the woven hangings, involve painting, drawing, a computer, and a camera. My laptop has become a real work horse as it gives me a portable studio when I’m away for days teaching in Orono.
(Image: "Tamarack" by Kris Engman)
Has your medium changed from when you first started out?
Yes, indeed. I started casting figures in bronze back when I was an undergraduate at MECA, which continued for 25 years. I devised a way to build the figures directly in wax to minimize foundry costs. Now I use beeswax in my paintings. I don’t cast bronze anymore—instead, I work with all manner of materials—plastics, fibers, wood, metals, natural objects and synthetic, too. I try to stay away from toxic stuff and I’m committed to being environmentally considerate. I love the beauty I find in the materials and handling those materials is part of a guiding aesthetic. I like good tools, especially old ones, and would prefer to work with tools that were once owned by other craftsmen. I feel there is a heritage in that.
What advice would you give to an artist just starting out?
I would suggest that for anyone just embarking to deliberately pay no mind to what the commercial art world has to say about anything—it's too much about feeding an ego and making a name for oneself. It’s about business, not art. It has an allure but it’s really a trap. Just go about your own business and be steadfast.
What kind of comment do you despise the most when overheard at one of your openings?
None really comes to mind...anything that is said with sincerity and thought goes over well enough with me.
What kind of comment pleases you the most when overheard at one of your openings?
Once, a woman I didn’t know stood in front of a piece of sculpture that I had made and cried. That moved me. I cry myself when I’m affected by things too, and I was humbled that my work had made an impact.
How have you handled the business side of being an artist?
So badly. I don’t know anything about selling my work and I feel false when I try. I’ve been fortunate that the galleries who have represented me have been fair and honest. I never get anywhere on my own. The business end of art eludes me.
Do you have any outside interests other than art?
I used to but, lately, not so much. I do love to travel but it’s really to drink in the new place and then paint or draw or take pictures. I hope to live in another country again before it all comes to the end. I’m very curious and interested in the lives of my daughters—how they’re making their way as young adults, who they love, what shape their various adventures are taking. I have a few good friends who interest me. Generally I would have to say that I’m interested in humanity, but from a distance. Sometimes I’m ashamed to be a human. I love the natural world too, what’s left of it.
(Image: "Urban Landscape" by Kris Engman)
Are you disciplined about your creative process (in other words, do you treat the process like a job, where you keep particular hours in the studio), or are you more spontaneous?
Yes, very disciplined. I work all the time and being unproductive bothers me. It does sound single-minded but it’s also purposeful and that gives meaning to the day.
How would your life change if you were no longer allowed to create art?
Geez.....in every conceivable way. I had a friend who, near the end of her life when she was dying of cancer, came to my house to have lunch. I asked her what, in the final analysis, had been the most important thread that had held her life together. Without reservation she said that it was her aesthetic—her search for beauty. That made an impression on me. I rely on art to search for beauty too, and I’m governed by my aesthetic. It would be hard to fathom a life without that.
What's the best part of being a full time, working artist?
My time is my own and the lifestyle is rich and rewarding.
What's the worst part of being a full time, working artist?
I can’t make enough money to support myself, even though I have modest needs. I supplement my income by teaching. Actually, I should really say the teaching supports me most years. I’m grateful for that.
Do you have any upcoming shows?
A few possibilities in the works, but no specific dates yet. I’m cautious about working for a show –it redirects my energy in ways that aren’t always good. Right now, I’m happy to just work. Down the road, I will probably want to “put it all out there”, so to speak.
Where can we find your work?
The Arden Gallery in Boston has consistently supported me and exhibited my sculpture for more than 15 years. I used to exhibit regularly around the eastern US, showing in various commercial and university spaces. I’m not seeking that kind of representation at the moment. Currently, the Courthouse Gallery in Ellsworth has a few of my older bronzes. I do have a website (www.kerstinengman.com), which is fairly up-to-date. I also have a blog site which features the new painting-a-day series.
- Brenda Bonneville, editor
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