Interviewsand Articles


Kristen Van Diggelen: This Gift I've Been Given

by Richard Whittaker, Feb 28, 2014



I think it was a business card that caught my attention, or maybe I saw them somewhere else, the thistles. Even at less than 1% of their actual size on the canvas they had the power to make me stop. Van Diggelen’s painting itself (Battlescape 1) is ten by twelve feet, and something to see in person. Even with the color dropped out, the images still speak with an arresting voice.
     I wondered why the artist chose the title Battlescape. In a way, it’s obvious—a basic existential condition of life. But I’m always interested to hear what the artist is willing to say about a work’s intended meaning. When we met at her San Francisco studio, Kristen talked about a theme that occupies a central place in many of her paintings. “Sometimes when I get up in the morning it takes some effort to face the day. But after a few hours, I get going. I start to feel something closer to the light.” It’s a disarmingly ordinary way of putting the struggle between darkness and light. Enlarging on that, as she told me about one of her paintings, “I want the viewer to feel both the struggle and the danger as well as the hope and possibility that face us.” 
      On my way into SF to visit Van Diggelen, I saw a billboard for something called Jambox. A young woman stares out at drivers passing by. From the looks of her, she hasn’t yet found a direction in life. “Starts with Jambox,” reads the billboard. And what starts? Her life, don’t you see? She starts with Jambox. 
     This comes to mind because we’re awash in an endless array of putative answers to our problems. All we need is the purchase price for some magic product. I guess Jambox is looking for traction where this isn’t working so well—even with all the “Five Steps To…” and the “X Number of Habits of Highly Successful People”-type books now available on your e-reader.  
     I suspect that if I had grown up with the digital revolution with all its promises and had instant access to, well, to everything, I would also be looking out and wondering why I hadn’t gotten on the happy train yet. As a matter of fact, when I was new to SF, having arrived during the Summer of Love, I was asking myself questions like that. And really, have the big questions gone away? What is worth living for? Who am I?
     Looking at this artist’s work, I felt I’d found someone willing and able to give voice to these fundamental questions. And I take it that this is not easy to do today. I still remember being on a listserv where someone apologetically admitted, “The question of meaning is still important for me.” Look at Garrison Keillor’s fey irony in the persona of Guy Noir, “One man who is still trying to find the answer to life’s persistent questions.”
     And what does it take for a young person (Van Diggelen is only 29) to stick to the path of making art? After five years the great majority of MFAs have stopped making art—at least, that’s the oft-quoted factoid. And no doubt it’s true. There are career paths that promise to be not only easier, but much more likely to provide an income one can live on. And in the Bay Area, that’s a real challenge.
     Kristen talked about the problem of justifying her choice to make art instead of doing something more practical, perhaps something useful in a concrete sense. Short of possessing a overdose of narcissism, how could an artist not have doubts in the face of such questions?
     It’s no small thing to take the leap of trusting a quiet voice that tells one, against all odds, to follow a path that only you can see, and one in which an inner vision is the only authentic coin. In speaking about her obvious gifts as a painter, she put it this way: “Is this gift I’ve been given something I’m responsible for bringing to the world?
     Looking at Van Diggelen’s work, I’d say it is.

You can see more of the artist’s work at 


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine


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