Krista Svalbonas is a Philadelphia-based artist whose work investigates memory and ideas of home. Svalbonas’ practice has always been informed by her background as ethnically Latvian/Lithuanian and the diasporic experience of growing up as a child of immigrant parents. Svalbonas recently completed her artist-in-residency at Park Towne Place (PTP). Her time at PTP culminated in an exhibition entitled Residuum which included both previous work and a collection of new, working anthotypes. Svalbonas sat down with InLiquid to discuss her experience at PTP and where she sees her artistic practice taking her next.
Personal history is central to Svalbonas’ work. Inspired by stories of her parents’ lives before they immigrated to the United States, Svalbonas’ art draws upon her research into the experiences of those displaced from the Baltic states at the hands of the USSR following World War II. When the Soviet Union re-occupied the Baltic states in 1944, many Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians escaped west for fear of being deported to the Gulags, a system of Soviet forced labor camps.
Svalbonas has traveled to and photographed former Baltic refugee camps in Germany, including those her parents lived in until they were granted asylum in the United States. The architecture of these sites became a focus for Svalbonas. She would laser cut the photographs she captured of the structures with text from plea letters the refugees were sending to the US, UK, and Canada asking for asylum. Eventually made entirely of lace-like text, the buildings grow fragile, inseparable from the precarious lives they housed.
As an artist-in-residence at PTP, Svalbonas’ historical research remained central to her artistic practice. While her work had previously focused on the sites of refugee camps in Germany, Svalbonas shifted her research to focus on the sites of forced labor camps within the Gulag system. The war in Ukraine made it impossible for Svalbonas to travel to and photograph the sites she was researching. Google Maps and other sources provided aerial shots of the landscape of these locations, but Svalbonas found herself faced with the challenge of authoring these images, as she was not the direct photographer. Creating anthotypes provided a multi-faceted solution to this challenge.
Anthotypes use the juices and pigmentation from plants to create photographic prints. By covering a sheet of paper with the plant-based emulsion, a light-sensitive surface is created onto which images or shapes can be created through exposure to light. Svalbonas was thus able to incorporate a physical manifestation of place in her pieces, using plants which are regional to Siberia. She also employs a nineteenth-century process, called cliché verre, to replicate the satellite images. The process involves covering a glass pane with soot. Then, through a process of mark making, she removes areas of the soot, thereby the pane of glass functions akin to a photographic negative and can be placed over the treated sheet of paper. Svalbonas combines these two photographic methods to recreate the aerial images. As part of the clichè verre process, Svalbonas decided to freeze the treated panes of glass. She does so at, what she describes as, “Siberian temperatures.” The visual representations of these gulags are grounded in the places they depict through the use of plants native to Siberia and its freezing temperatures. The combination of these two 19th century processes functions as a continuation of Svalbonas’ exploration of the medium. What constitutes and defines a photograph is consistently present in Svalbonas’ mind, and she is simultaneously always considering how to push or redefine the medium, especially in regard to its potential for physicality.
Svalbonas described her artist-in-residency at PTP as a catalyst to her exploration of this process of anthotype iterations of the satellite images she had collected during her research. The complicated nature of the medium necessitated experimentation, and Svalbonas reflected upon her time at PTP as a period for testing, learning, and gathering feedback. As she described, Svalbonas does not usually show people the behind-the-scenes of her process. For Svalbonas, the early stages of this work, and the possibility of presenting those early stages in Residuum, was daunting but immensely helpful. As she described, venturing into that unknown space was “part of the discovery, part of producing something. You’re exploring, pushing or trying; something that is new to you. [ … ] A new process, a new way of working, a new technique. So it was exciting for me to trust the results and also trust showing it to people, showing people a peek into the working process of an artist’s studio. I felt that was appropriate in the terms of a residency space to let people into the process, and let people see what I was doing.” The information and feedback Svalbonas gained from exhibiting these works helped her to begin to refine her work and to clarify the response she hoped to gain from it.
The Park Towne Place Artist in Residence (PTPAIR) program provides an opportunity for visual artists to bring their studio practice to Philadelphia’s museum district. Over the four month residency, selected artists will be able to create, advance, or complete work in close proximity to one of Philadelphia's art hubs. The PTPAIR program offers artists the space and freedom to experiment with their practice in a new environment. Artists are encouraged to explore new ideas and find inspiration from a change in scenery. As they create, PTPAIRs are encouraged to engage with the Park Towne Place community. This is a chance for dialogue and education as well as a competitive opportunity for artists to meet potential new connections and collectors.