Artisan Insights: Kristi Abbott

Collage artist Kristi Abbott paints with paper—crafting intricately layered portraits of icons past and present

Photos by David Ellis

Kristi Abbott’s personality shines bright in her artist portrait—captured at Everett & Charlie in Linden Hills.

After a sold-out exhibition at Gamut Gallery in 2018, collage portraitist Kristi Abbott opened her own highly successful studio and gallery in downtown Minneapolis. But the COVID-19 pandemic and riots following the murder of George Floyd took their toll on her, and after three years, the Australian-born artist needed a change of pace and scenery. But where to next? A friend suggested she apply to the 12-month Art Business Incubator program on South Padre Island in Texas. She was accepted and has been honing her artistic practice ever since.

Inspired by icons in popular culture, music, and fashion (in addition to the games and puzzles she enjoyed as a child), Abbott crafts intricately layered portraits using 200 to 4,000 pieces of hand-cut paper and imagery sourced from magazines, album covers, photographs, and online. Creating stories within stories, Abbott generates layers of symbolism that relate to her subjects, resulting in richly textured and colorful artworks—which can be two to 15 layers deep—that invite deep appreciation.

Why did you become a collage artist?

It’s the way my brain works. As a kid, I loved spot-the-difference and jigsaw puzzles. That led me in this direction. In my work, I create multiple layers of interest beyond the initial aesthetic. At first, people think my works are paintings, but look closer, and you’ll see textures, glitters, and shimmers. The more you look, the more you find. Surprises keep coming to the surface. 

What have you been working on during your residency?

I’m bringing a new lease on life to my “God’s Creatures,” “I Am,” “7 World Warriors,” and “Icon” series. I’m getting stronger technically. The way I play with paper and bring textures together has ramped up. People will see a refinement of my skill. 

I’ve also realized how my portraits touch people and create a connection and bond. I want to continue bringing iconic people alive through paper and imagery. I just released my new Willie Nelson. I’m creating Tom Petty and Jerry Garcia pieces by popular request; they’re fan favorites. I’m also working on an Alanis Morissette—she’s my jam—and a Queen Elizabeth. I’m creating a James Bond piece, too, and [I’m] going old school—Sean Connery is the guy.

Why add so many layers to each piece?

The layers tell the story. Once I’ve picked a person or theme, I research. With Willie, the imagery within the portrait reflects where he has performed, his style of music, what he’s infamous for, and his top albums and songs. The Queen’s portrait will include images that speak to her powerhouse career, the presidents she met, and the eras she lived through. With Bond, it’s all about women and cars. I use my papers to delight the viewer by telling the story through color, texture, and pattern. The three ingredients come together in exciting ways. 

What are your plans for when you return?

My residency finishes in April, and I’m already looking for studio space in northeast Minneapolis. Another thing cemented in my mind during the residency is that when people look at my work—while living in a world that’s as tumultuous as ours is—I want to provide a sense of solace and beauty, a story, and something a bit magical. I hope to present a new series this year that does just that.

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