Estonian artist Liisa Kruusmägi: “My drawings are like a diary”

Estonian painter and illustrator Liisa Kruusmägi, whose latest solo exhibition opened on 28 April in Tallinn, shares her worldview and insights into her work with Estonian World.

If you live in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, chances are that at some point you have come across the vibrant paintings of Liisa Kruusmägi.

Kruusmägi’s work mainly focuses on people in different moments, and their environments. Her mastery of colour and detail as well as humour draws the viewer into the work, evoking relatable emotions and feelings.

Born in Tallinn in 1988, Kruusmägi received a bachelor’s degree in painting from the Estonian Academy of Arts in 2011 before completing a master’s degree in drawing in 2013. She took part in an exchange program with the Rhode Island School of Design and participated in residency programs at the James Black Gallery in Vancouver, AIRY and Yosuga in Japan, the Kitokia Grafika risograph printing studio in Lithuania, the Cassis art residency in France, the Silva Linarte painting symposium in Latvia and Residéncia São João Brazil.

Her solo exhibitions have taken place in Portugal, Sweden, Canada, Japan, the US, Lithuania, Latvia, Germany, Finland, Brazil and Estonia. Kruusmägi has also participated in group exhibitions in London, Berlin, Slovakia, Italy and Russia, as well as the comics festival in Brussels and elsewhere. Kruusmägi has been a member of the Estonian Artists Union since 2013. 

Her solo exhibition, “Balearic Liisa”, at Stella Soomlais Studio in Telliskivi Creative City in Tallinn, opened 28 April. Estonian World caught up with Liisa to find out more.

Liisa, your art includes paintings, drawings and illustrations. How would you describe your work and what is your art about?

My art is basically about my life. Lately I thought my drawings were kind of like a diary – about my thoughts or things that have happened. My art is a combination of my dreams, thoughts and my life. I mix them together and this “my world” is the result.

Liisa Kruusmägi, “Playa Zipolite”, acrylic on canvas.

Was there someone or something that inspired you initially?

There are at times a lot that inspires, it can be basically everything. But mostly almost all of my trips, good art, brilliant people with their thoughts.

Your work focuses on illustration – mostly of people in different moments and environments, very vibrant and colourful. Is that your search for meaning? Is that you and the world around you? 

Yes, mostly people and human nature are my biggest interest. Because we are all so different and we will never understand anyone else completely. Every one of us is living in a totally different world and life – and it’s so beautiful. I love to listen how people are fascinated about something they do and it’s so nice to see people dancing, or swimming or laughing. And how beautiful our eyes, skin, hair are. 

I usually draw and paint situations that I like – for example, parties with lots of people or just dreaming on a couch. Usually, I don’t paint certain people or myself, just human beings in general. But I can relate with them.

Liisa Kruusmägi, “Hey You”, acrylic on canvas.

More recently, your paintings seem to be more and more inspired by nature and its intense colours. Your 14-metre long painting full of amazing colours and corals and fish at the “Corals Colours” exhibition in Tallinn really makes one feel like they are part of a David Attenborough nature series. I have also been following the YouTube channel where you and Taavi Tulev (Estonian artist and musician) are videoing Estonian nature, with no music added – just the high-quality sound of the nature. It feels almost magical! What experience and thoughts do you hope visitors will take away from viewing your paintings and illustrations?

The “Corals Colours” exhibition was a collaboration with Maarja Mäemets (Estonian glass artist and photographer) and was inspired by the diversity of natural historian David Attenborough’s TV series as well as by the artists’ personal experience. As corals are so colourful, we decided it could be our topic. I wanted to play with this room – as it is such a small gallery, I wanted to create an underwater feeling there.

How do you see yourself evolving as an artist? Would you say that each of your works is a search for who you are as an artist?

Yes, of course – my style, techniques, topics are constantly changing, as my life and life around me also changes.

Liisa Kruusmägi by one of her paintings.
Liisa Kruusmägi by one of her paintings.

What about bringing art to more public spaces out from the galleries and museums? 

A gallery or a museum is a place where to show art – like theatres are the place for a play. There’s no need to change it.

How to get people to see art in the galleries depends on a promotion: advertisements, publications or even when somebody shares an exhibition visit on Instagram, which has mostly worked for me lately. Instagram is not the place where to host an exhibition – it’s about creating an interest, so that people want to see it.

Do you think that interest in more classical paintings is disappearing now that the poetic is being supplanted by photography and technology?

Definitely not. We have so many possibilities to make art and it’s really nice that artists are using all the mediums. Nothing will disappear.

Is art the mirror of society?

I think it can be. Maybe we don’t see it in the moment but after a while, when we look back – for example, at the art that we are doing right now – probably there will be lot of reflections of our current society. But probably there are artists who do not agree and believe that their art wouldn’t fit to any particular time or place.

Liisa Kruusmägi, “We All Have To Live Here Together”, acrylic on canvas.

Why do we need artists?

My friend told me this recently: art makes us more empathetic. People need to be taken out of materialistic and everyday life – a little bit, at least. And art helps us with this – to think about other thoughts, to think about life itself.

Do audiences matter to you? 

Of course, I like to get feedback. It is rare here in Estonia, but when it comes, it’s very pure and touching. It keeps me going, too – I feel like I am needed.

What is your personal philosophy? And how is that reflected in your work?

I am not sure I really have one! Maybe just going with the flow? My life is like that. I rarely plan anything, and I usually don’t know what will happen in the next months or years, so maybe this is reflected in my work. Like how to enjoy life just being in the present moment, or just doing something you really enjoy!

Liisa Kruusmägi, “Knitter”, acrylic on canvas.

As an artist, you have visited many beautiful places is there any place that inspired you in particular?

Yes, there are some places that have changed my life and me in times. Starting from Stockholm, where I had my first exhibition with my friends. Then when I studied as part of the Erasmus programme in Lisbon, where I felt I grew up and found what I enjoy most in life.

The biggest change came when I had my exchange studies in Rhode Island, the US, and went to a friend’s place in New York City. I felt so free and started to paint very differently to how I had done before. In fact, I didn’t want to come back [to Estonia] at all!

In Chicago, being together with the cool artist community there.

In Mexico, to see these huge cactus fields and ancient Aztec and Maya art, it’s incredible! I’m truly happy that I have had all of this in my life.

On a trip.

What do you enjoy most about being an artist?

I think it is the freedom. That I can do what I really enjoy, I can do it when I want, I can travel, I meet many interesting people.

What is your new exhibition, Balearic Liisa” about?

It’s mostly about how to fit big artworks into a small place! I will have seven paintings and some wall drawings.

“Balearic Liisa” runs until 13 May at Stella Soomlais Studio, 62 Telliskivi Street in Tallinn.

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