Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Lend a Hand to Help Kiersten Essenpreis Heal Hers

Written by Katie Hinderer
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Fashion Week in New York City is an event to behold. If you’ve ever lived in the city, you know the area surrounding Bryant Park gets temporarily overtaken by fashionistas, models, designers, and wannabes. This year, Fashion’s Night Out is Thursday, September 10 and every major label is hosting some kind of shindig. Coach is no different—the purse company has invited illustrator Kiersten Essenpreis and graffiti artist Pesu to custom design purses at its flagship store on Madison Avenue. But Kiersten has not always been at the point of custom designing bags for Coach during New York's biggest fashion week. In fact, there have been times when she almost walked away.
Photos by Jason Rodgers
Illustrations by Kiersten Essenpreis 
 
Fashion Week in New York City is an event to behold. If you’ve ever lived in the city, you know the area surrounding Bryant Park gets temporarily overtaken by fashionistas, models, designers, and wannabes. This year, Fashion’s Night Out is Thursday, September 10 and every major label is hosting some kind of shindig. Coach is no different—the purse company has invited illustrator Kiersten Essenpreis and graffiti artist Pesu to custom design purses at its flagship store on Madison Avenue. But Essenpreis has not always been at the point of custom designing bags for Coach during New York's biggest fashion week. In fact, there have been times when she almost walked away.

There comes a point in every freelancer’s life where she or he sits back and asks in all seriousness, “What the hell am I doing?” When that question becomes the focal point of life for a time, that’s when the real freelancers are separated out from the fakers. For illustrator Kiersten Essenpreis, that point came a couple years out of college.

Right after school, Essenpreis landed a lot of work and then it began to lessen, and then really slow down. “To make money on the side, I was nannying,” Essenpreis says. She and another illustrator were sharing an apartment that winter where they both lived and worked on their art. “We didn’t have heat or gas and we were cooking on a tiny camp stove eating rice.” She hid the true state of everything from her parents but rather than throw in the towel and hunker down at a desk job, Essenpreis worked harder than ever. “After doing that, everything from that point felt like it was uphill.”
 
Now, Essenpreis, twenty-seven, lives in a large Brooklyn loft that similarly doubles as her studio but does provide the amenities of heat and gas. She ditched the babysitting gig and works full time on her craft, which often means thirteen-hour days with a paintbrush in hand. Her unique and imaginative illustrations have appeared in a number of publications including Wired magazine, LA Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, Bitch magazine, The Boston Globe, Nylon magazine, and GQ magazine. Last year alone her work was exhibited in thirteen different shows throughout the country.
 
Essenpreis’ art is mostly created by painting with a vinyl-based paint on wood. Her themes? As imaginative as possible. And while she claims her craft is always changing, one theme tends to run through a vast majority: childhood memories blown out of proportion. She paints the scenes from the eyes of the child; like the gigantic monster emerging from the dresser drawers to get the sleeping girl.

Inspiration is found everywhere, but Essenpreis carries a small pad around with her where she jots down ideas, childhood memories, or observations. Those ideas are then taken and exaggerated or meshed together to create one work of art. “I do a lot of cross narratives, taking two objects or experiences and combining them to see what new experience comes from it,” Essenpreis says.

Lately she’s been more interested in texture and detail. She confesses, “I get obsessive with really minor details.” She will paint a portion of a piece many times, or one idea over and over again. Flowers have been Essenpreis’ latest new discovery—a way, she explains, to make up for her total lack of a green thumb and her mother’s amazing garden back home in Chicago.
 
But while the repetition might make for an interesting piece, for Essenpreis, it also means physical pain. A couple of years ago, she began to notice that after painting for long periods of time her right hand and arm would swell. After relaxing her painting arm for a time, the swelling would go down and the tingling sensation would dissipate. But then in January the swelling and pain didn’t go down. At that time she was regularly putting in thirteen-hour days for an upcoming project. “My hand looked two sizes too big for me. I couldn’t grip my paint brushes normally and finally, after too long, I went to the doctor.”
 
But that doctor couldn’t properly diagnose the issue that led to more doctor visits and more unanswered questions. So far this year she has been to four doctors and received three different diagnoses. Surgery might be in her future and the tingling is still there. As a freelancer, she doesn’t have company-offered health insurance. “It is getting really costly and annoying,” Essenpreis says.

Well-meaning but clueless doctors have suggested she stop painting for a while to let her hand rest. Others have told her to use her left hand instead, as if the art she’s been cultivating since her second grade gifted art class can be easily transferred to the other hand. “Twenty-seven years of training (on my right hand)...maybe when I’m fifty-four I’ll have mastered the left hand,” she jokes. Neither switching hands nor halting her passion and livelihood is an option, so she keeps painting and hoping for a solution.

To defray the costs of the medical procedures Essenpreis started her own Save the Hand campaign. She is offering several of her artworks at a discounted price, hoping the sale will entice buyers and she’ll be able to pay off the mounting medical bills. She collected the works from her own studio and several galleries that previously showed her work and retained her pieces.

In addition to trying to raise money while waiting for a definitive answer, Essenpreis goes to physical therapy and has been trying to cut down on using her right hand as much as possible. This means less Internet work and more old school research at the library where she goes to look for images and inspiration.
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After years spent sitting around a small campfire stove eating rice, Essenpreis now has a steady flow of editorial illustration work and gallery showings. She spends her time split evenly between the two. Where she’ll be in ten years? Essenpreis is the first to admit her idea of what she wants to do is constantly being tweaked. “Five years ago I thought I would be just doing illustration. All I wanted to do was my own work and have it all conceptual.” But now she’s gotten into designing wedding invitations or Save the Date cards and she’s enjoyed that as a diversion from her usual work. The human interaction is attractive, since “freelance can be hermit-like.”

By the end of the year, Essenpreis plans to move back to Chicago, where she grew up and where her entire family still calls home. “Now seems like a good time to experience something new, especially since most of the work I do I can do from anywhere.”  
 
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