Deborah Kraft (b. 1988, Davenport, IA) is a painter, sculptor, and mixed media artist living in Chicago. Her twin obsessions are irreligious shrine-making and the aesthetics of collecting. In meticulous fashion, she interrogates the impulse to sort, catalogue, and assign meaning to objects.

Her work is shaped by experiences both idyllic and frightening. Her grandfather, a self-styled inventor, ran a religious cult in her childhood home. She found an escape in the nearby forest as a member of a semi-feral girl gang, building tree forts and performing seances to keep herself safe from monsters real and imagined. She is inspired by the toil and devotion to craft inherent to religious grottos, wunderkammern, and matte paintings on film. To build her pieces she integrates oil painting, paper collage, metal- and woodworking, gemstone carving, and found materials.

Original Art by Deborah Kraft

How has your relationship with art changed over time?

I’m from Iowa. My idea of art growing up was pure naturalism. I wasn’t exposed to contemporary art growing up, and what was valued among my family and friends was my ability to replicate images faithfully from life. I studied art at Iowa State University, which was a highly technical experience. Students were expected to master draftsmanship first, and to introduce conceptual frameworks second. We received a solid art history education, but it stopped short of informing us about contemporary art practices.

The biggest shift in my relationship with art happened when I moved to Chicago just out of school and took a job working in an art gallery and then eventually for major art fairs. I was meeting established artists and seeing such a wide variety of work that it opened up possibilities for how to be an artist that I hadn’t previously understood. I was roaming the exhibition halls before the fairs opened, taking notes on techniques and styles and presentation. At the fairs, my role was to manage all of the lectures and educational programs, so it was almost like a second art school. When I came back to my work in a serious way in about 2017, I felt like I had a roadmap for living an art-focused life, and I set out on that path that I continue to walk.

Where do you find inspiration? What drives your work?

What has never changed over the course of my life is my absolute and utter compulsion to create art. Inspiration comes from everything—I can have an aesthetic experience at the grocery store and bring it back to my work.

Right now, I’m very excited by the concept of the object and the collection. My current work explores the process and the art of building collections. I’m interested in the historical and contemporary practice of amassing and displaying objects as a way to communicate an experience of the world, as well as its relationship to colonialism and consumerism.

Original Art by Deborah Kraft

What is your favorite part of your process?

My mixed media collage work involves a lot of laborious material processes. I love to problem solve with a tool in my hand, paying close attention to both what I’m making and how I’m making it. It has been suggested to me by more than a few well-meaning people that I ought to automate my processes - use CNC or laser cutters or the like. This is wrong. I can’t give a computer my touch, my in-the-moment decision making as I’m hand-cutting a line or forming a piece. The variation and attention that I can give is crucial to me, and to equate what I do with my hands to a less-perfect, more slowly made version of what a machine can do totally misses the point.

What is one thing about your art and/or practice that our audience may not know?

My work is heavily informed by my background in metalsmithing and jewelry work. In every project, even my works on paper, I seem to end up doing a fair bit of work at my jeweler’s bench. My piece Cave, for example, is a large-scale collage that operates a little like a treasure hunt. Among the paper jewels in that work, I’ve included a few sand-cast bronze pieces that have actual little stones embedded in them. I try to learn at least a few new metalsmithing techniques each year, and they really do end up informing my fine art work.

What does your dream piece/project look like?

Right now, I’m dreaming of creating an expansive work—maybe eight or 10 feet long, that preserves the incredible detail I’m able to achieve in my smaller works. This would function as a massive collection of recognizable and abstract objects that explore my fascination with curiosities, icons, miniatures, and monuments. The piece overall would also be a zone of stillness, not overly messaged, but reflective and excessive, that the viewer can zoom in and out of hundreds of times without seeing everything there is to offer there.

Original Art by Deborah Kraft
Original Art by Deborah Kraft