Interview – Kristina Rolander on creating immersive environments and large-scale paintings

Kristina Rolander is a visual artist living and working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She makes large-scale paintings and immersive environments.  A while back, Kristina realised that her work wasn’t reaching the type or size of an audience she desired when showing in galleries, so she began collaborating with musicians, making custom works to be installed for live shows.

Kristina currently creates handpainted backdrops and is slowly embarking into the world of immersive stage design.


“Milwaukee has an amazing music scene and within it, I’ve found a community full of talented creatives crossing over genres and open to collaboration.”


You can view her portfolio website at built on PIxpa.

© Kristina Rolander[/caption]

Tell us a little bit about yourself?

In addition to being a visual artist, I’m a mama to two children – Julien (11) and Vera (5). My son is a musician with a design sensibility and my daughter is a painter with a fashionista personality. My boyfriend, Joey Grihalva, is a writer that covers the music scene in Milwaukee and despite working with different mediums, we are a united creative force. It’s a house heavily immersed in art, music, and culture, and it’s a great time to be an artist in Milwaukee.

Describe to us your college days at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design?

MIAD was very, very intense. I attended college on my own dime and was very aware of needing to extract every possible opportunity from the institution. There was a lot of flux within the school – power plays between the old art school mindsets vs. the new. We had yet to experience the impact of social media, digital technology, and tech blogs. We were still grinding limestone rocks in Lithography class and developing film in the darkroom. I’ve always felt as if I’m straddling the line between analog and digital worlds. I use the computer as a powerful tool in my skill set, but I don’t prefer it for artmaking. For artmaking, I’d much rather use physical materials and create something with my hands.

At MIAD, every student was required to choose a major area of focus. This was difficult for me as I was pushing for an interdisciplinary path. I eventually went into Printmaking at the advice of an instructor. I liked how physical it was, how I could push and pull materials, dig and carve into metal plates, smash colours together through a press. It was also the department with the smallest amount of students enrolled. I was well aware that I could exploit this for my own artmaking exploration. For my senior thesis, I created multiple installations with objects, paintings, video, but with very little Printmaking presence. I definitely found the loopholes in order to make the work I wanted to make, while still meeting the objectives of the class.

How clear were you on what lay ahead?

I really wasn’t at all! However, back then I would’ve told you I had it all figured out. Honestly, I could never have predicted the path my life would take. After graduating from MIAD I worked in a thrift store for minimum wage until I landed a temporary production design job. I was illegally living in my warehouse art studio with a handful of other artists when my best friend and I decided to leave Milwaukee and move to New York City. I had $500 and a one-way ticket. In October of 2002, we both packed a suitcase and headed to the city. We had no friends and lived together in a small room inside a family’s brownstone for the first six months.

My plan was to go to graduate school for film. At the end of college, I got really into avant-garde video and landed in NYC with an idea to “remake the music video.” It’s funny how music has always been the common thread throughout my life. In middle school, I thought I would grow up and design CD covers for bands. In high school, I thought I would be in a band. In college, I briefly flirted with the idea of photographing musicians for Rolling Stone after documenting a few years of my high school boyfriend’s band. When I moved to NYC, I started making collage-type paintings with lyrics scrawled all over, while hitting local shows at night and documenting them with my video camera. Now, I collaborate directly with musicians, blending all of the skills I’ve accumulated thus far – design, installation, painting, and concepting. It’s surreal when you look back at the entire picture of your life and career.

© Kristina Rolander. Photo by Kelly Bolter

© Kristina Rolander

What or who inspired you in your early days?

Everything + anything! I’ve always found really strong women to attach myself to, placing them in mentorship roles. My professor in college, Lynn Tomaszewski, was and is a huge inspiration. As a child, I loved Stevie Nicks and Keith Haring. As a teenager “Siamese Dream” by The Smashing Pumpkins changed my life. In college, I loved Basquiat + Rauschenberg. I’ve been continually inspired by thrift stores, poetry, rock stars, song lyrics, 1970s television, crescendos, adventure … all of the places I’ve ever seen … and all of the people I’ve ever known.

What projects are you currently working on?

For 2017, my goal is to push the stage design elements of my work. I’d like to integrate more installation and create something more immersive for the live shows. I’m currently working on my second project of the year, a stage design for The Fatty Acids album release show. I will be collaborating with Wes Tank who will be creating live visuals and projecting them onto my stage design. It’s my biggest challenge yet and we are both excited by the haphazard surprise element that may happen when it all comes together for the live show.

How would you describe your visual style?

Neon day-glo gypsy glitter rock-n-roll sparkle packaged inside a well-executed dash of design + order.

How has music influenced your life?

“MUSIC IS EVERYTHING” … this is a phrase that my friend Ava once said, which kind of became our informal mission statement. Really, it’s that simple. Music is everything. Music has the power to immediately tap into human emotion, connect and transform us through live performance. Music allowed me to feel when I was numb due to my life exploding all around me. Music gave me a community to belong to. Music brought me the love of my life. Music is the most beautiful form of human expression. Music has saved so many people in their loneliest and darkest moments. It brings us joy. It sings our pain. It makes us feel alive.

Which of your recent works is closest to your heart and why?

The “Bizarro Jungle” set that I created custom for Oakland, CA band Shannon and the Clams is one that I am very proud of. The owner of the venue they played in Milwaukee (Company Brewing) requested I make a backdrop for their show, however, Shannon asked to buy it after they played. The band took it on tour and back home with them to California. It is the highest profile band I’ve ever created for and to make somebody that happy, that I’ve never met, was an incredible feeling. It was also a turning point for my career as it was the first backdrop I received payment for. Months later, I came across photos online of La Luz playing in front of my backdrop! Turns out, Shannon had put it up at one of her Oakland events, a tropicalia themed dance party that La Luz was headlining. To see my little backdrop baby out in the world, sharing the stage with La Luz and bringing joy to people in California made my heart soar. This is the type of stuff that makes it all worthwhile and keeps me invested. It is what keeps me coming back for more.

If you could go back ten years, what advice would you give yourself?

Not to worry so much, that we all have our own timeline. To enjoy your babies a bit more and worry about your lack of artmaking a little less. That you’ll get there eventually, slow and steady. That you can’t buy time and life experience. That life experience is ultimately what makes the work interesting. So go live your life. Experience it. Be free. The work will follow.

What excites you when you look ahead?

That I have no idea what is gonna happen! I always make a list of goals at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year I look back in awe at what was actually accomplished. I also laugh at what I thought was important but eventually fell away and was forgotten. I’m excited to push my work outside of Milwaukee. I’m excited to meet new bands and musicians and collaborators to work with. Mostly, I’m looking forward to (eventually) quitting my day job and becoming a full-time artist. That’s probably the dream I most look forward to and if I pull it off, I’ll be amazed and in awe of what we as humans are capable of.

Any words of wisdom for artists starting out and trying to find their rhythm?

Make a lot of work, don’t stop, just keep making it. You are gonna make a lot of bad work, and you might think at the moment it is profound and revolutionary (I did!) but don’t make it for anyone else. Make it for you. It will get you somewhere and when you look back, you will see clearly how you needed to make that work in order for you to get to that next step. Find mentors. Talk to people. Be kind. Collaborate! Be open. Know that your ideas are not your own but part of a collective conscious, with many others tapped into the same wavelength. Find those others. Find your tribe. Don’t give up. If you keep one foot in front of the other, eventually you’ll get where you need to be. And lastly, eat the fear.

How has your website helped you?

My website is very important as it acts as a complete visual portfolio that anyone in the world can access at any time. I use Instagram like a blog with more lifestyle and process shots, but my website is my professional landing page. Pixpa works nicely for me as it allows my photos to take centre stage, while the rest of the design maintains a minimalist aesthetic that I desire. My artwork should do the heavy lifting. My website should easily support the content that is already there.

Kristina’s portfolio website ( is built on Pixpa

Featured image photographed by Joe Kirschling.

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