Volume 12, Number 2 September 10, 2004

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Drawing Italy

Return trip to Europe inspires local artist

By Colleen MacPherson

Artist Kris Engstrom
Artist Kris Engstrom, secretary to the U of S dean of Law, peruses her sketchbook from a recent trip to Italy.
Photos by Colleen MacPherson

When Kris Engstrom was packing for a trip to Italy in June, she was quite prepared to leave behind her sunscreen, her wide-brimmed hat, even her English/Italian dictionary to ensure there was room in her suitcase for just one thing – her sketchbook.

An accomplished painter and an equally accomplished secretary to the dean of law, Engstrom was anxious to return to Europe, a part of the world that has influenced her art since her first visit there 25 years ago. And she knew the two-week tour of Rome and the Tuscany region would do “exactly what I wanted it to do”, and that was reinvigorate her work.

Sitting at sidewalk cafés, left alone by staff as long as she kept ordering cappuccinos, Engstrom filled page after page in her sketchbook with pen drawings of the narrow streets, the old buildings, people, neighbourhoods, gatherings. Some days, she used the watercolours she’d brought from home to record images with an immediacy that comes only from painting on site. Back in her home studio, each sketch or small watercolour holds the potential of being recreated into one of Engstrom’s unique acrylic works.

her drawings of a Tuscan village street.
Photos by Colleen MacPherson

Never a landscape painter – “landscape is too vast for me” – Engstrom has a particular affinity for buildings and a singular ability to capture their essence in as few brush or pen strokes as possible. No rulers used here. She is an artist who doesn’t mind a crooked building in her paintings. In fact, “I think it gives it more personality, and it’s interesting that there are architects who really like my work”.

She keeps detail to a minimum “but I don’t leave out things because I’m lazy. I just really try to avoid overworking my paintings”. Her style, one that simply hints at such features as the people in her street scenes, “leaves more to the viewer” and suggests, as the artist confirms, an interest in exploring abstract art.

Born in small town Saskatchewan, Engstrom has lived in Saskatoon for about 30 years. She has always been a sketcher, she said, but only started painting about 20 years ago when a drawing class instructor suggested it was time for her to pick up a brush.

When she did start to paint, it was with watercolours but “other artists urged me along”, she said. When Engstrom taught herself to use acrylics, she found a medium that did something special for her art – “it allowed me to work so much bigger”.

As her artwork progressed, so did her career. At the University since 1977, minus one year for that influential trip to Europe, Engstrom began in the College of Law, moved to Commerce and returned to Law as secretary to the dean. Since then, she’s “been through five deans, and Dan (Ish) keeps coming back”. Although she likes her job, she loves her art and today, readily admits she works in order to paint. “It’s my priority now. If I can afford to, I’ll take early retirement” to pursue her art full-time.

In the meantime, she has taken to sketching and painting University buildings, the only ones in Saskatoon with the same age or interest that so appealed to her in Italy. But rest assured, she said. Even if the walls aren’t ruler straight, her rendering of the Thorvaldson Building looks like the Thorvaldson Building, “but just not with as much detail”.

As she continues to transfer her Italian memories from sketchbook to canvas, Engstrom is already thinking about another trip, this time to Morocco. Ever since her first visit, before she began to paint, she has retained one memory that holds a great deal of appeal for the artist – “a lot of colour in a very colourless land”.

Engstrom’s work is available in Saskatoon through Collector’s Choice Art Gallery.

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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