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Kristin Abbott Carves Successful Career Designing Fantastic Walk-Through Worlds

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A scene from one of Abbott’s worlds for the Forår Festival in Copenhagen (2014). Photo courtesy of Kristin Abbott.

You wouldn’t find dollar store gift wrap at Kristin Abbott’s house when she was growing up. “If we wrapped a present, it wasn’t just wrapped—we made the paper and decorated it like crazy,” said Abbott, who graduated from Academy of Art University’s School of Illustration with a B.F.A. in 2006.

Encouraged throughout childhood to “make stuff,” Abbott has a proclivity for creativity – especially if it involves imagining up fanciful worlds complete with woodland castles, onion-domed churches, and koi ponds crossed by stone bridges.

“I love looking at the big wide world, other cultures,” explained Abbott, who said she was an avid National Geographic reader as a kid. “I love a lost civilization. The tombs of Egypt, mummies, the Mayas, the Aztecs. When I found out a place called Petra existed—I was like, ‘That’s it! I am going there!’ How amazing is that? That’s where my love of location comes from. I wanted to be an explorer. Lost civilizations – that’s what I’m all about.”

A backyard explorer since she was a kid growing up in various places around the U.S.  with her military family, Abbott hoped to one day unearth a sunken castle, instead, she discovered an affinity for illustration—but not until she was in her thirties. After working as a journalist for several years, the Stanford University graduate took time off to start a family. Once two of her three children were in school, she enrolled in her first class at the Academy.

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Academy of Art University School of Illustration alumna Kristin Abbott.

“Art class was my ‘mommy getaway,’ but pretty quickly I got serious. I did my homework from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. I busted my ass,” explained Abbott, who paid her tuition by painting bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah portraits of kids in her Palo Alto neighborhood.

During her time at the Academy, Abbott formed an impressive portfolio, which helped her land an agent and several illustration projects after graduation. From Desmond Tutu’s book of Bible stories to tales of magic carpet-flying sisters and sports-loving princesses, her illustrations portray a sense of wonder and adventure.

Three years ago, Abbott found herself enjoying a busy career as a children’s publishing illustrator, while simultaneously teaching some classes at the Academy, when an intriguing project came her way. A representative from an entertainment production company had seen her work online and offered her a job designing enormous multi-colored lanterns for a festival in Barcelona. Suddenly, Abbott’s career took an extraordinary shift. Instead of drawing scenes destined to exist forever as two-dimensional illustrations, she was now designing three-dimensional worlds that visitors could walk through and experience.

“I am a rare illustrator that loves to design the whole scene,” explained Abbott. “I have always loved the whole world-building thing. It’s actually my favorite thing. I love doing the props, I love thinking about the buildings, the furniture, the windows, the shape of everything, the entire scene, that is super fun for me, it’s truly my favorite part, and so I love this work.”

In November, Abbott flies to Shanghai where she’ll oversee the art direction of a winter wonderland snow carnival she designed. Composed of 12 scenes from Alice in Wonderland carved completely from giant blocks of ice, the holiday fun park stretches for a full city block. When that opens on Christmas Eve, a winter lights show Abbott designed will be flashing along to holiday tunes at the Great Mall of America in Minnesota.

It all sounds so magical, but the deadlines, said Abbott, are “ferocious.” “I might do 100 paintings in two-and-a-half months,” she said. “Six or seven a week.” Meanwhile, she’s keeping track of revisions, what’s going into color, what needs to be reinforced so the ice is sturdier—organizing it all in a spreadsheet.

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One of the lanterns Abbott created for the Barcelona Festival de las Linternas (2014–15). Photo courtesy of Kristin Abbott.

School of Illustration instructor Steven Kloepfer says it’s no wonder Abbott has found success in such a rewarding career. “Kristin was always an exceptional student,” he said. “Her journalism background gives her a unique appreciation for the importance of storytelling, which she applies to both her children’s books and theme park designs.”

While Abbott never had the financial means to do much traveling, she now enjoys a career that takes her to places she formally only dreamed of (or read about in National Geographic). She says she owes her success to her passion for making stuff. “I feel like that’s the most important thing. Do you like making stuff? Is that satisfying to you? Because you can love art and you could have a job in the realm of art, but if you don’t want to do it every day for hours and hours and hours, you’re not going to be an artist. When you’re in art school it’s a 16-hour-a-day deal. And while I had no [formal] training in my youth, my training was making stuff.”

She added that while seeing the finished project is certainly rewarding, it’s the day-to-day scope of the work that gives her the most joy. “It’s so satisfying to do this work. I just love to finish a great drawing, or finally, after it’s all designed, all the color studies are done, to do the painting. It’s cool to go and do the art direction and have the reward of seeing it, but the thrill of doing a fun drawing every day makes me just as happy as seeing the guy with his giant drill in the ice.”