We had the good fortune of connecting with Krista Svalbonas and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Krista, can you tell us more about your background and the role it’s played in shaping who you are today?
I was born in the US in a small suburb outside of Philadelphia to parents who came to this country as refugees. That family history has made a significant impact on my life and my career as an artist. In 1941 under Soviet occupation, Stalin gave the order for an initial 132,000 mass deportations of the Baltic countries citizens to be sent to Siberia. These deportations were planned to continue, but they were halted when the German army gained control of the Baltic countries in 1942. Once in Siberia there was little food, little shelter and extreme climate conditions that in most cases lead to death. In 1944, The Soviet army was at the doorstep once more of the Baltic countries, forcing the German army to retreat. Knowing that the Soviet army would soon take over, and having lived through the mass deportations of 1941, thousands of Baltic citizens decided to flee their homeland amidst the falling bombs. My family was part of this forced migration. Born in Latvia and Lithuania, my parents spent many years after the end of World War II in displaced-person camps(refugee camps) in Germany before they were allowed to emigrate to the United States. This personal history, has played and integral part in shaping who I am today and the artwork I produce. Ideas of home and dislocation have always been compelling to me. My family’s displacement is part of a long history of uprooted peoples for whom the idea of “home” is undermined by political agendas beyond their control. I have actively produced work that brings awareness to these historical events and also investigates our notions of how we define home and a sense of place.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I have a longstanding interest in architecture, particularly urban environments. My past work has dealt with low-income housing complexes; modernist architectural ideals, drawing from Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Soviet architecture. My cultural background as an ethnically Latvian/Lithuanian artist informs this interest. My parents spent many years after the end of World War II in displaced-person camps in Germany before they were allowed to emigrate to the United States. Their childhood memories were of temporary structures, appropriated from other (often military) uses to house tens of thousands of postwar refugees. My connection to this history has made me acutely aware of the impact of politics on architecture, and in turn on a people’s daily lived experience. My work explores architecture’s relationship to cultural identity, social hierarchy, and psychological space. I work in a variety of media, including photography, painting, and installation. Integral to each series is extensive photographic documentation. In some cases, this documentation becomes a visible part of the work I produce, and in other cases it becomes a subtext or a part of a multilayered piece. Within my practice I am often looking at the range of the camera-generated image, and its combination with other media such as silkscreen, painting, collage, as well as its integration with technology including CNC routing and drone photography. I am avidly interested in the intersections of media where these technical investigations serve social, political, and cultural explorations.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I’ve lived in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia and have had friends come visit in all cities. It’s hard to choose which itinerary to present! Since I live in Philadelphia now, I’ll choose this city. I’d start off the morning with a walk in Wissahickon park, perhaps stopping at Finger Span bridge, a public artwork that hugs the cliffside of the gorge produced by artist Jody Pinto. Next would be a visit to the Mutter Museum, a collection of strange and odd pieces of medical history dating back to the 1800’s. A short walk would take us over to Eastern State Penitentiary, a former prison built in 1829 and that house the likes of Al Capone. The prison also hosts rotating exhibitions by local artists, that activate the abandoned spaces of the cells and prison grounds. Late lunch would be had at the Water Works restaurant behind the Art Museum which looks out to the ever beautiful and popular boat house row. Next would be to head to the Liberty Observation deck which gives panoramic views of the city from the 57th floor. Off to Kung Fu necktie to get a taste of latest indie or punk band touring. Ending the night for sushi and sake at Hiroki, one of the best Japanese restaurants in one of the hippest parts of town.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I’ve been traveling the US and Canada for about two years now visiting former refugees from the Baltic countries, taking their portraits and recording their oral history of forced migration. This shout out goes to all of those individuals, some known to me and most not, who have bravely shared their family stories, photos and memories with me. I am so humbled and grateful for their openness and willingness to participate in this project and feel truly honored to be entrusted with these stories.