The Art of 'Displacement' – An Inside Look at One Artist’s Take on Her Family History

Thursday, June 13, 2019

For Krista Svalbonas, assistant professor of art, “Displacement” is more than just the name of her most recent art exhibit. It’s a crucial part of her family history.

In her latest photography project, Svalbonas features archived copies of plea letters from Latvian and Lithuanian refugees laser cut into images of buildings that were once displaced person camps in Germany at the end of World War II. A separate section of the exhibit features current portraits of individuals who had once lived at those camps with audio retellings of their stories — some of which come from Svalbonas’ own family members.

“I began this project to preserve the history,” Svalbonas says. Both of her parents were displaced as children, living in one of the camps photographed in her collection for five years before ultimately moving to the United States.

“I began this project by researching the camps my parents had been in. As I was digging through the archives, I discovered the plea letters Baltic refugees sent the governments of the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom,” says Svalbonas.

The letters beg for necessities like food, bedding and medical supplies. When burned into Svalbonas’ modern-day photographs, they create a lace-like feel that brings a sense of fragility to her images — what she calls “the complete image.”

“I like mixing elements in my work,” says Svalbonas. “I’m a photographer, but I rarely do straight photography.” Svalbonas even teaches a class on mixed media at SJU.

“With my students, I always try and push them to create something larger than themselves,” she says. “I encourage them to create projects that speak to a bigger issue.”

Her “Displacement” exhibit, which was featured at the Latvian Society of Philadelphia in May, is still a work in progress. What began as a project to photograph the camp locations in Germany has transformed into traveling the country to meet individuals who had once lived within those camps.

“I mostly connect with them through their children,” Svalbonas says. “They see my posts on social media and reach out because they also grew up hearing the stories from their parents.”

Some of the individuals she meets with still have items from when they left their homes in Lithuania and Latvia, including things like jugs or blankets. “I want to turn their stories into a book,” Krista says, “but I’ve just started this interview process.”

Svalbonas’ one regret with the project is not starting it sooner. “I do wish my grandparents were still around to be able to share their stories,” she says.

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