“Draftshuman” Crista Siglin on her multiple arrivals in Berlin, life-love-addiction-recovery and the sharpness of being found in the long tunnel of night.
Studio apartment salvation
HE: Follow-up: Who taught you your faces? What influences combine in them?
CS: I definitely should mention my training at KCAI. Jesse Fischer’s figure drawing class helped a lot with more direct renderings of faces and figures. BUT: I have always, always drawn faces. They were the first things that I drew. Largely from my mind. But also from reference. In middle-school and high school I would painstakingly copy celebrity photos in pencil. Later, from stills from my favorite films (i.e. Meshes of the Afternoon, Cria Cuervos, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives… I guess I learned how to draw the profile of a bull from that one… The Blood of a Poet, Ikiru, so on and so on). These I really love doing in ink for some reason. Can’t get away from ‘em. Some painterly references: I look at a lot of Paula Rego, Andrew Wyeth, Belkin Ayón, Nicola Tyson and Nicole Eisenmann. I also have thought a lot about photography, its technological and cultural history, and I have consequently used a lot of photographic references.
HE: Your film references are amazing. How did you discover these greats, and who helped you fall in love with the medium?
CS: Thank you! I started falling in love with film very early on. My dad had a closet full of DVDs. My mom did pizza/movie nights every Sunday that we were with her. My siblings and I watched films relentlessly — it was a sound way to feel togetherness. We still quote our favourites together out of context — as if it were our own separate language. My first job was at our tiny movie theatre in Greenfield, Iowa. We also offered rentals, and so I’d bring films home with me after every shift. I also made friends with Oliver, who worked over at the rival rental shop in town. I’d ask him to point me to “weird” films.
Later, various professors would relate films to painting or poetry, and seeing the films in this new framework deepened my fascination with the medium. I realize now that film feels like the marriage of poetry and painting, with flirtatious additional dimensions.
I will never stop loving film. Now, friends recommend me films. Or, I use specific streaming services to seek ‘em out — MUBI, Filmstruck (RIP), Kanopy, etc.
Film is a conduit to other states of being. Growing up, it provided both a method of escapism and a way to relate to other oddballs — it gave me solace to know they were all out there somewhere. Proof that the world was so much bigger than Greenfield. It still reminds me. I also think that films have helped me develop emotional intelligence. A good film reveals something new yet also a feeling I’ve known in my bones all along.
HE: Happy to be wrong again: There seems to be an aqueousness to your work — is water an inspiration? And, I see you employing what appears to be a palimpsest technique from time to time. If I am on the right track in both cases, is there any overlap? (Feel free to break this question any way that suits you.)
CS: Definitely right about the palimpsest. I think about time a lot. Its elasticity. Its distortion in memory, as well as in the moment. Our brain has inhibitory and excitatory forces at play that regulate how many events we can perceive per second, per minute. The distribution of these forces can shift over time and under varying conditions (drugs, adrenaline). But, sometimes I also think about it more mystically or phantasmagorically. In either case, within my work I like there to be evidence of time. And textures, abrasion and the like, seem to be a steadfast avenue by which to arrive at the perception of passed time.
Never thought about the water connection, though. BUT IT MAKES SENSE. I spend a lot of time by the river these days. And looking up now, it seems as though one of my lady’s eyes are wavering through a wave. I often am shooting for this feeling of presence as a question. Who’s there? Are they really there? I like ghost stories. I think about the residue of presence in my writing a lot, too. How do I signal doubt about what has been? The aqueousness might be a symptom of this question. Like when I take a bath (which I am also doing a lot of these days) and I see my leg past the screen of water and feel odd about calling it “my” leg. I begin to feel like one of us is a shadow.
HE: You used the word "draftsman" at the outset (my quotes). Why did you choose it? Can you unpack what it means to you?
CS: A few years ago, an instructor told me I was a good draftsman — that was the first time I had heard the word in application to myself, and it felt good. There was a way that the word bestowed a legitimisation onto drawing as a practice. Sometimes I get worried about the frivolity or self indulgence of what I am doing. “Draftsman” made me feel like I was honing the skill to draft anything. It pin-balled around inside my skull.
One could say I am a “draftswoman.” Or a draftsperson. Draftshuman. For the sake of ease or maybe thoughtlessness, I say draftsman. Maybe I should be more careful.
In terms of the “man” portion of “draftsman.” Hmm. Yes. I guess at various points I have felt compelled to distinguish myself as a “woman” artist. But sometimes that feels like an unnecessary categorisation. One that would only be called for under patriarchal societal conditions in the first place. One could say I am a “draftswoman.” Or a draftsperson. Draftshuman. For the sake of ease or maybe thoughtlessness, I say draftsman. Maybe I should be more careful.
HE: Not a question, but a statement. Your "who are you" is one of the most frank and beautiful I have read in a long time. What a pleasure it is to "see" you and know you are out there. Now, one question about that section: HOW did you end up in Berlin? Please spare no detail.
CS: Thank you for saying so. I felt some anxiety sending that response. By the way, there’s one part of this response that I should premise with a CW. I will probably feel anxious about this one after sending too, haha.
“How I got here” sometimes feels like a dream I keep recounting which changes every time I say it aloud. It was a happy accident that wasn’t an accident. I came to Berlin sight unseen. I’d never been to Berlin in any capacity, other than Google Streetview (my method of exploration while at the office job I had before leaving Kansas City).
My ex and I moved to Berlin together. We wanted to leave the States (we left July 4, 2017, if that gives you a clue to how we were feeling about the U.S.). We were both feeling some despair, fatigue and an indeterminable “and now what.” I’d always wanted to live abroad, but the reasons to leave sooner rather than later were compounding impressively at the time. And we wanted a place that could hold space for both of our respective fields. We packed ourselves up — a condensed palette of our belongings, a chubby orange cat and a very large and excitable dog. When we arrived, the flat we landed in was one room. Coal heating. A shower in the kitchen (with a 15-minute wait for hot water). There were four of us living creatures in that flat for almost a year. The flat felt considerably smaller than it was, though it was indisputably too small to begin with for our situation. Factor in the tail-end of my drinking, our codependency and both of us being freelancers — the result was all of us feeling stifled physically, emotionally and spiritually. All that being said, we were lucky to have a place to land. Housing is tricky here. I remained in that flat for about a year after he moved out, and it turns out it was pretty well suited to one human and a cat. Part of that time we were still seeing each other, and it was this whimsical moment in which it seemed we were doing the “relationship escalator” backwards.
It took me a few tries to arrive in Berlin. I arrived when we stepped off the plane — the shock — “Shit … we really did this…” I arrived when I got my first job here (as a bartender). I made myself a deal, that I could take a poetry workshop so long as I got myself a job.
I arrived when I hit bottom with my drinking and using. I arrived after another sexual assault. I arrived when the confluence of those things propelled me into a program of recovery — I arrived when I got sober.
I arrived again when my ex and I split. I had to learn to navigate on my own again. I made my own friends here. Leaned into my community. Found out I wasn’t doing it alone at all. That had been the real arrival. But then also when I quit my day job to run my workshops — was that also one? Or starting with SAND? And, a couple weeks ago, perhaps another arrival hopped on my shoulders when I went to the Auslanderbehorde on my own — walking out of the formidable, grey behemoth of a building victorious.
HE: You say your figures often seem "roused from a trace." And, you mentioned earlier your sleep cycle is haphazard. So, there you go? Is that a fair link to make? And, shortly thereafter you discuss your "roused" figures, you say you are hard on yourself, emotionally. A.) Why? B.) Because you are frustrated by living in a liminal space? (My assumption — forgive me.)
CS: It’s a valid link. But I also reckon there’s more to it. I don’t deliberately correlate things like that. There’s always an emergence. And what happens to emerge is a mystery until it does so. Like a dream.
A) WHY AM I SO HARD ON MYSELF? Good god, I don’t know. I have some guesses. Old habit. I have thin skin. I have always been really sensitive. I’ve tried to toughen up, but I’m still a softie. I internalise a lot. Sometimes I manage to feel courageous, but that does not undercut the fact that I feel things really deeply. Sometimes I have a tendency to think my feelings, and feel my thinkings.
B) That could be part of it.
Sometimes I feel an acute connection to nocturnal mammals… At times it can be edifying, clarifying. Or it can be alienating. Depends how it hits me that particular night.
Sometimes it is frustration. It can be difficult feeling misaligned from the social clock. A bit lonely. But there is an odd beauty to it. I observe hours that few others do. Sometimes I feel an acute connection to nocturnal mammals. But the solitude is real. At times it can be edifying, clarifying. Or it can be alienating. Depends how it hits me that particular night.
When it is really difficult is when I feel like I am not able to work. When I am just staring into the deep tunnel of night and it seems to stretch on and on, but there’s nothing I can get myself to do. But there are times when I feel my sharpest in this liminal space, and I delight in its magical definition.
Haines Eason: I mean this in the best possible way: I don't know where to begin with your work. I am intoxicated because I see a fully realized world, and yet it is one built of a variety of mediums, all of which speak well to each other. Are you a pen-and-ink artist? A collagist? Water colorist (if that's a title)? And you don't get to say "a little bit of each"!
Crista Siglin: Haha, I appreciate that you are disqualifying the answer “a little bit of each,” however I have, for many years, assessed my practice as a multidisciplinary one. I tend to try to use whatever medium that will help me build an internal system that suits the composition, and I like mediums that allow for moments of abstraction within a figurative piece. But I have always loved being a draftsman. For whatever reason, I tend to deal with concerns like texture and line better than with, say, colorfields and space. Even when I paint, I seem to be drawing more than painting. Drawing was the first way in which I rendered anything, so I guess it’s just an old habit. But I still find plenty of challenges within drawing as a practice.
HE: You seem to keep your personal life off the internet — or at least off your Instagram account. Patreon, too. Who are you?
CS: This struck me as really funny. In some ways I feel like I have very little filter in conversation (IRL, and potentially now). But I suppose online, I could appear enigmatic. I have a bit of an anxiety that I might caricature myself online. So, I’m not entirely certain how to answer this one. In the past, I’ve frozen when confronted with a “What’s your story?” Admittedly, I can’t make much sense of myself. I am still learning about me and so much experience feels quite fragmented. When I try to weave it together, it seems out of sync. But if I don’t, it feels anecdotal. On good days, I try to avoid overly attaching myself to my narrative; I feel more present and perceptive that way. On other days, I spurt “facts about myself” that feel incomplete.
I steal flowers ... and can’t help but climb tree trunks... I am anxious ... depressive. I love people, and yet have a difficult time parsing out who I am versus how I perceive other people perceive me to be... I am a funny little earthling like other little earthlings — negotiating with my ego, attempting to love, be loved and accept my connection to everything else...
It’s also a funny question to me because I sleep so deeply that by the time I wake up, I feel like I have to figure it out all over again. I have a late chronotype — in addition to the fact my body believes there are 27 hours in a day — so my sleep skips around the clock. I can list some things. I am sober (I got sober here, in Berlin, three years ago). I am an eldest sister to my siblings. Daughter to both sets of parents. I am Midwestern; I am queer. I love my cat (Apollo), films, and board games. I am in pursuit of facts about plants and animals. I meditate by the Spree. I steal flowers from bushes, and can’t help but climb tree trunks — living or dead. I am anxious, and at times, depressive. I love people, and yet have a difficult time parsing out who I am versus how I perceive other people perceive me to be (this exhausts me). I am a funny little earthling like other little earthlings — negotiating with my ego, attempting to love, be loved and accept my connection to everything else (while also understanding my boundaries and trying to make ends meet in this weird capitalist experiment of society).
I walk around Berlin sometimes and find little snippets of things that remind me of where I grew up. I look up at the church towers on Baumschulenstrasse. There are two. One is topped with a cross, the other a rooster. I think of a family member’s kitchen — stocked with porcelain plates with green and red roosters on them — and a wooden cross by the door. I see a spati with a grubby Santa Claus figurine in the window display, and think of the diner in Greenfield, Iowa with its Christmas Coca-Cola collection that loomed over you while you eat your chicken-fried-steak. There are also these strange industrial voids that occur in Berlin. You’ll cross a bridge from one Bezirk or Kiez to another and somehow feel totally anonymous in an anonymous landscape. It reminds me of parts of Kansas City. The fondness that I feel comes as a surprise. I never thought I could or would miss those things. When you’re a teenager, no one is equipped to tell you what you’ll miss. I carry Midwestern associations with me at all times, but often don’t feel like the same person who collected those memories in the first place. Sometimes I miss the sprawling space. Yet, I am full of gratitude every single day that I am here in Berlin, that I am living in the life that I am living, amongst people I have come to voraciously adore. And the clutter and grime and oft-frenzied life of Berlin fill me with joy, especially as they intermingle with the curling of canals topped with swans.
If you want a brief bio version: I grew up in Iowa, was schooled in KCMO, moved to Berlin. I hit bottom, was held by my community (they loved me before I knew how to love myself), and since then I have had to learn how to grow up again (an ongoing affair). I am a painter, a poet, an editor. I work with SAND Journal, run workshops and do commissions. I spend most of my time trying to figure out how to best spend my time. Often, this is done with friends, or with my cat, or with myself — wandering.
HE: This is just a feeling of mine and I am happy to be wrong: There seems to be a lot of looking back and longing in your subjects' faces. Or ... or maybe and? ... many of your subjects appear to be looking at the viewer from a diminutive, submissive and yet also a sometimes dispassionate "place." What are your thoughts on that?
CS: This observation makes sense to me. Much of what I gather (still trying to figure it out myself, really) about what the hell is going on in my figurative compositions has to do with an internal antagonism. My figures often are colliding in some way, but the faces remain confused — as if they have just been roused from a trance. Much of my thinking and behaviors are still mysterious to me. When I really go into the mental ring with myself, I can get pretty bruised sometimes. I think the faces and figures are a relayal of sorts of a lot of the near-daily conflicts which consciously, or subconsciously, arise in me.
Artwork titles: "tough cradle," "waking up," "diplomacy." All artwork credit Crista Siglin.
Crista Siglin moved to Berlin in 2017 after growing up in the Midwest. She was awarded a BFA in Painting and Creative Writing from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2015. Siglin's poetry has been published in Sprung Formal, KCAI’s compendium; Not Sorry Zine; Retrograde Craft; Likewise Magazine; A Spartan Anthology and Desolate Country: We the Poets, United, Against Trump. Siglin released her first book of poetry, Fleeting, Sacred with Spartan Press in 2015.
Crista is currently a poetry editor for SAND Journal Berlin and runs Poetry As__A Workshop. Her second book of poetry, Unpleasable Nature, was released in July 2020 by Vegetarian Alcoholic Press.