Death by Beauty: Krisztianna’s Muertitas

For me it is parable about grief and overcoming it.

Art by Krisztianna Photos by Christopher Rigg Interview by Tiffany Credle
Photo © Christopher Rigg

Willow Blossom Muertita Photo © Christopher Rigg

California based artist Krisztianna is unique, complex and intriguing – much like her Muertitas series. By combining her Hungarian roots, appreciation of Mexican culture and natural talents, Krisztianna weaves mystical tales of those who exist in both the land of the dead and the living. She recently gave Citizen Brooklyn a peek into her creative process and the story behind her popular project with Tim Tadder titled Las Muertas.

Photo © Christopher Rigg

Pacific Muertita Photo © Christopher Rigg

Citizen Brooklyn: How did you get started in sculpting and painting?
I really owe it to my parents. I was a withdrawn kid, and I loved drawing since before I could remember. My mother encouraged my scribbling, and would roll out butcher paper on the kitchen table. We’d tell stories to each other about what we were drawing. Eventually she enrolled me in art classes. My father would compliment my doodles and crooked clay pots, and I’d believe him. They really gave me the space and the support to create.


Photo © Christopher Rigg

Tiger Blossom Muertita Photo © Christopher Rigg

By the time I was in high school, my art and ceramics teachers allowed me the hope of attending an art college, and my siblings encouraged it. That’s when I started viewing my art as a craft, and focused my attention on learning as much as I could. I graduated from Otis College of Art and Design in 2004 with a major in illustration and graphic design. Presently I work as a creative director in advertising. YouTube has become my teacher as I  learn new techniques and develop my skill set on my own time.

Photo © Christopher Rigg

Mediterranean Muertita Photo © Christopher Rigg

CBK: What made you begin creating Muertitas?
I love stories! There are usually 3 or 4 story-lines cooking in my head. These drive and inform my art. There’s one story that had been on a slow simmer for a few years in which immortal spirits are hunted. Despite their horrible beheading, they remain halfway in the land of the living. They are painted to ease their pain, and mounted to preserve their memory. They continue to bloom, like flowers on gravestones. For me it is parable about grief and overcoming it. The plan is to make it into a graphic novel. I had no intention of sculpting any of it.

Photo © Christopher Rigg

Pumpkin Harvest Muertita Photo © Christopher Rigg

Enter 11:11 A Creative Collective, a talented group of people in the San Fernando Valley. They bring a thriving artistic community to the forefront with gallery shows, art walks, and community events. For one such event, called “Heads Will Roll”, they were handing out Styrofoam heads and encouraging artist to make anything to fit their theme. I entered some of my paintings, but felt inspired to make a real life Muertita from my unpublished graphic novel. So I took a Styrofoam head and sculpted one. It was by far the most popular piece I have made to date. I continued making the other characters, and it snowballed from there.


Photo © Christopher Rigg

Daughter of the Amazon Muertita Photo © Christopher Rigg

CBK: Do you think your Hungarian background influences your sculptures or paintings, if so how?
Absolutely. Quite directly actually. I grew up in an immigrant, bilingual household. Though I was born here, living here always felt very temporary. My father had been a freedom fighter in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. He escaped execution by coming to America. As a child, it felt like one day we would be moving back to Hungary. But eventually, after raising his family here, even after  receiving a pardon allowing him to return, he realized he really loved living in America. It had been good to him. Much of my love for America comes from his experience of it.

Photo © Christopher Rigg

Sea Foam Muertita Photo © Christopher Rigg

However, growing up that way made me feel very much like an outsider in a strange culture. I felt like our home was a little island in the middle of an American ocean that loved strange things like Thanksgiving and white bread. We’ve come around, but at the time those things seemed weird. Little did I know that other islands where floating around in the great American Ocean. In Southern California, there is a large Mexican immigrant community. I remember in school when little girls would wear their Mexican embroidered shirts their grandmothers sent them. The patterns seemed so similar to my own Hungarian folk blouses, I was convinced these little girls were Hungarian. I’d even get into arguments at recess about how they must be Hungarian, and how I know, because I’m 7 years old, or whatever odd logic I had at the time. So, that was the first connection between our communities, then came folk dancing, religious iconography, and of course English as a second language.

Photo © Christopher Rigg

Artic Muertita Photo © Christopher Rigg

In high school, my best friend and now husband introduced me to Dia De Los Muertos. The art was just mesmerizing. Its message about overcoming loss through the remembrance of life was, and still is, powerful and therapeutic. I would say my Hungarian background is a direct influence into my interest in Mexican art, and that my friends and family are my gateway into an appreciation for Dia de Los Muertos.

CBK: How long did it take you to create and paint one look for each model in the Las Muertas series?
The series was based on sculptures I had already created. Tim Tadder’s shoot was inspired by those pieces, so most of the conceptualizing for the painting and the headdresses was already done. I just needed to make the headdresses based on my sculptures, and change the facial patterns for the models’ proportions.

Photo © Christopher Rigg

Autumn Muertita Photo © Christopher Rigg

I didn’t want any face paint near the waterline of the eye on the models. Crisp lines were key, and moisture makes face paint run.  Also, eyebrows were an issue because paint catches in hair. Luckily I had the help of the talented Dezi V, a stellar makeup artist. On top of doing the hair styling, she smoothed eyebrows, applied eyeliner, mascara, and dark eyeshadow on the lids of the eyes. Then she applied a base coat color of my mixing, different with every model, with an airbrush. That alone took about an hour to apply and dry. For the painters out there, it acted like gesso on a canvas: It helped the paint go on smoother, making the line-work much easier.

Photo © Christopher Rigg

Summer Muertita Photo © Christopher Rigg

While she prepped the next model, I would commence the face paint on the first. The actual line-work took about 2.5 hours depending on the model. Except for Winter. She had to suffer me for 3.5 hours. One of them was sick and we had to stick paper in her nostrils to keep the paint opacity consistent around her nose. Those of course were removed before the shoot, and she rocked it. All the models kept extremely still while I hovered in their face. It was a bit of a production line, with everyone working on their part on different models all at once. After they were dressed and adorned by the wardrobe stylist Julia Reeser, my headdresses were carefully placed on. I’d still have to trim flowers or branches off my pieces for the right composition in the end. In a way, the models became like living sculptures. I ended up painting with only a 10 minute break for about 9 hours straight.

On a side note, I also designed the halos behind the portrait shots after the shoot. Each one has its own symbols representing that season, with little skulls hidden inside. I lost track of the hours those took…Maybe about 20 hours total? Tim was integral for their finessing. He has an excellent eye for detail without losing site of the whole picture. I love details, but I get lost in them. He helped me keep the pieces cohesive by noticing when the halos were veering into crazy illustrator land. It was one of the most rewarding collaborations I’ve had.

Photo © Christopher Rigg

Spring Muertita Photo © Christopher Rigg

CBK: Why did you decide to focus on the four seasons for the Las Muertas series?
When I started making my beheaded Muertita sculptures, 4 of them were named after the seasons. Their characters are important to the story in my graphic novel, and I loved making them. The talented Christopher Rigg took beautiful photos of my sculptures, and I put them on my Behance website. That’s where Tim Tadder saw them. It was his idea to shoot live models and turn it into Las Muertas series.

CBK: What has been the reaction to this series?
Overwhelmingly positive. My Muertitas are the most recognized work that I do. It has been fulfilling to have such an excited response. Working with Tim Tadder on this series was huge. People have been asking for prints and the feedback has been glowing.

Winter Muerita Photo © Christopher Rigg

Winter Muerita Photo © Christopher Rigg

However, I am aware of the frustration and offense my work represents to some. My name is Hungarian and my skin is white. I create art inspired by a marginalized culture I was not born into, and benefit from it by the sale of my work and holding shows. I like to believe that if the people debating the merits of my work knew who I was, what I was about, and understood my process, that maybe the tone of the conversation would be less resentful. But it’s an important conversation, and I hope people continue to lend it their voices.

CBK: What can we expect from you in the near future?
I’d like to answer the most common questions about my process in some videos, and publish those to my very empty YouTube channel. I am still an illustrator, so work will continue on my experimental graphic novel series called “Sleepless” where I draw my most vivid dreams. Also high on my list is continuing to self publish my coloring book series. They focus on art with an educational twist, like science and historical legends as a secondary element. The drawings are detailed so adults can enjoy them as well.

Crimson Harvest Muertita Photo © Christopher Rigg

Crimson Harvest Muertita Photo © Christopher Rigg

I’m also preparing for my third solo show! I have several new pieces to finish by November. It will take place at 8 Ball Art Gallery in Burbank. Eventually I’ll be opening up limited commissions in my shop for bespoke Muertitas.

Ultimately, my dream is to travel the world with my art and participating in international art shows. I still see much in the way of improving my painting, drawing, and sculpting. I hope to one day earn the honor of an invitation to hold a solo show in Mexico City. Maybe in some little way I can share something of myself with a culture that has shared with me so much. We got to dream big, right?

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One Response to “Death by Beauty: Krisztianna’s Muertitas”

  1. Yudit Ecsedy says:

    Absolutely stunningly friggin gorgeous. Congrats on the interview and answers it solicited. Have more of a feeling who she is and, why the art and where’s she’s going. I guess you are creating authors.