Iceland born artist Kristjana S Williams has been a long-time collaborator with the V&A, and so when plans began for the Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition to celebrate the wonderful world of Alice in Wonderland we knew of no one more suited to illustrate both the exhibition publication and our shop range!
We spoke to Kristjana over the phone from her London studio about her unique collage aesthetic, seeing her work in virtual reality for the first time and what she missed most about the museum during lockdown.
V&A: How did you approach illustrating such an iconic and well-loved book?
KSW: The V&A asked me to work on this project which was just a marvellous, otherworldly experience. Lewis Carroll, I think, to a lot of creators is remarkable because of the depth of creativity, the layering, and the different angles and senses he goes into in his work. His work touches everyone.
Can you tell us more about your illustration and design process?
I’m mostly a collage artist and I work with Victorian engravings both digitally and physically. Often times the images I find and source are from a time before there were cameras and so the engravings were the only records available of plant life, people and products and so on. Once I gather these engravings, I’ll work with them back and forth both on the computer and as physical print outs to make the collage.
Your work is so intricately layered and detailed – what was your favourite character or scene to create?
The first one that comes into my head was the croquet grounds at the Queen’s palace, but also the Pool of Tears, but then also all the animals after the caucus race when they are all drying off! There were so many different ones, but in the end, I think Alice was the best to create because it was just nice to reimagine her how she might have been during Lewis Carroll’s time. I worked working closely with the curatorial team at the V&A on that. It was so lovely to have a character to study in depth and from lots of different perspectives. I think it was Alice and her journey that to me was the pinnacle!
For the shop range your illustrations have been designed to feature on all sorts of items from pocket mirrors to scarves to cushions! How did you approach adapting your work for such a varied selection of products?
Because of the paper theatre nature of my artwork, the layering lends itself really well to adaptations to different kinds of products. It allows you to play with scale and take the images apart to make them work on different objects. It comes quite naturally to me, I like working with globes and furniture as well. In my mind it’s like working in a theatre, or seeing them like a journey, so making things make narrative sense comes easily to me!
We’re very excited to be offering three-dimensional limited edition collages for this exhibition, including one which will be made bespoke for each customer. These three-dimensional collages harken back to some of the paper peepshows in the V&A collection – could you tell us more about these unique pieces?
Yes! I’m super excited about the three-dimensional pieces – they are being constructed in the studio at the moment in fact! It’s actually like the reverse of the illustrations, where it’s gone on its journey of finding the work, finding the pictures and putting them together so that when it comes out at the other side, when everything has been constructed and you’re putting together a three-dimensional fine art piece, which is all intricately pinned together with entomology pins (traditionally used for securing specimens for display), the paper folds in a particular way and it becomes quite sculptural, which is wonderful. I’m really excited about that because it will be a very physical piece. And with each of the bespoke pieces, each customer, or collector, gets to put three individual personal items of inspiration into it, which I’m very excited about!
Your illustrations will also be entering the virtual realm with Curious Alice, a VR experience available in the exhibition – how has it been to see your artwork come alive in this way?
Having an electronic background it’s been an absolute incredible joy! In a way my style of work in the narrative paper theatre tradition is kind of like the old-fashioned version of VR. It’s been very wonderful working with the VR experience team and being able to look up and down and all around and see how wonderfully they have played with scale. They worked with 2D and 3D elements in the VR so it kept really true to the Alice story. It was incredibly creative and I can’t wait to see it immersed in the exhibition.
Finally, now it’s possible to visit South Kensington again what’s the first thing you plan to see?
I’m always drawn to the giant tapestries, that’s always my first stop and I have to admit after that it’s to the café for lunch! I love the William Morris restaurant rooms which are a joyous place to sit. Just to be in the building brings me joy!