ALANA WAGNER / KELLY MOORE CLARK
In conversation and, especially, through her art, Christiane Drieling shares herself fully and without reserve. She doesn’t regret any of the experiences that make up her story: a German-born woman now living in the United States, having earned a graduate degree in sociology and now an artist, and more recently weathering public and personal trials she could never have anticipated. Christiane recognizes that all of her experiences have made her who she is and appreciates that they have given her stories to tell.
Christiane grew up in Oldenburg, a city in northern Germany near the Baltic Sea. “I have always lived near water. It’s necessary for me,” she said of the significance of her childhood home. For Christiane, being near water gives her the freedom of knowing that she can easily leave, even if she doesn’t want to. Her eventual moves to the United States, first to Johnson City, Tennessee, then to Chicago, Illinois, and now to Ruston, Louisiana, brought a significant loss of this comfort. “It was strange when I first came to Tennessee, where there were mountains and no water. I felt claustrophobic.” She laughed that Ruston has been a little better, knowing the Gulf is nearby.
The German system of transitioning from school to professional life consists of two paths. Students can finish tenth grade, become an apprentice in some field for several years, and then take an exam to earn an official diploma; or they can finish school through grade thirteen and take an exam to earn their “Abitur,” which qualifies students for university entrance. Christiane’s parents advised her to choose the former. She apprenticed at a bank for two years and continued working there full-time as a loan officer for another five years. Christiane had previously done a high school internship at a dental lab, carving and pouring wax teeth. While she enjoyed this job for the ways it satisfied her already-present artistic cravings and skills, she’s ultimately glad she ended up at the bank. “I hated working in the loan office so much that I was driven to get away.” She decided to work toward earning her Abitur. “The year when I finally earned my Abitur and started my university program was also the year of the German Reunification. 1990 was in so many ways a year of reorientation.”
After earning her Abitur, Christiane began graduate studies at Kiel University in Kiel, Germany. In Germany, students directly begin graduate classes in their particular field of study with two supporting minors, rather than the common United States practice of progressing from undergraduate to graduate studies. In her seven-year program, Christiane studied sociology with minors in psychology and German literature. The research she needed to do for her thesis, “Social Interaction via Electronic Media,” wasn’t available in Germany, so she did much of her thesis work during a year abroad at East Tennessee State University. This allowed her to also take undergraduate classes out of interest, so she took some sculpture classes and loved them. Christiane finished with her Magistra Artium degree, equivalent in level to a Master of Arts degree, but the sculpture classes truly cemented her future path. “I had always felt that I would be an artist in my life. This was the moment I felt I would do this at some point.”
Following her university studies, Christiane worked in Hamburg as editor for Card-Forum, a technology magazine that focused specifically on chip card technologies and applications. Her time with Card-Forum offered Christiane yet another unexpected artistic outlet. “For one year there was a different local German artist on the cover each month, even though it was a technology magazine,” she said, noting that she enjoyed being able to research the images each month. As much a writer as an artist, Christiane also contributed articles that explored the effects of this technology on individuals and society. Writing has always been and continues to be one of Christiane’s passions. When she describes herself now, rather than a painter or sculptor, she calls herself a “visual writer of thoughts.”
Christiane met her husband, Markus Wobisch, while working for Card-Forum. A physicist, he was in Hamburg working on his doctorate and doing research on a particle collider. “He was looking for a position in Chicago and got it, so he was already preparing to go away. So, we got married after seven months.” This, Christiane explained, was a significant departure from German tradition. “In Germany, you get to know each other, after one or two years move in together to see if you can live together, and if it works out after a few years, then you get married.” Christiane and Markus never lived together, but in her own words, “It worked out,” and twenty years of marriage and two children, Jacob and Mona, testify to that.
What was meant to be a temporary move proved to be just as lasting. “We always intended to go back after the contract ended for Markus’s job,” Christiane said. The contract was for three years, but when the time came, they were not ready to leave the friends and home they had made. “We extended for one year. Two more extensions was the max. Then, we decided to stay.”
Yet after moving to the United States, Christiane found she couldn’t work because of the conditions of her visa. So, she started creating small objects and ornaments with Christmas themes or German storytelling traditions but quickly realized this was not what she wanted. “I grew up with puppets. We acted out stories as kids when we were younger, about ourselves and what we experienced, and I assumed that this must be something people in the States do,” Christiane explained. But instead, she found that people saw these artifacts of her culture as collectors’ items. “This is not what I want,” she thought at the time. “I wanted to make something that said what I have to say.” So, she changed course.
The struggle to figure out what Christiane did want to create, and what kind of artist she wanted to be, was ongoing. She didn’t, however, question that she was an artist, despite having no formal training and several careers in various fields. “You are born an artist. It’s not something you study, and all of a sudden you are one.” In 2016, she began uncovering the answer. Christiane saw another Ruston artist, Liz Zanca, doing the “30 Paintings in 30 Days” art challenge and decided to sign up herself. “People from all over the world post their things. It’s thrilling. I met so many people.” During the challenge Christiane did a painting of two doors, one in and one out, that made her question her assumptions. “I thought, ‘Why am I staying?’ Then, I cut a small person out and glued him there and said, ‘Yes, that’s it.’”
Christiane specializes in collage art utilizing mixed media. “Life is not one medium. It’s a mix of cultures, observations. Mixed media is closer to reality: different influences, different textures because life is made of that.” She believes that her “paper people,” such as the one she added to her painting of the doors, accurately reflect human beings, as well. “We are flesh and blood, but we have also been created and put into a story. People will ascribe certain meaning and identity to their person, while others will ascribe something completely different, and all of this is different from the original painter or author.” These are the means by which Christiane tells her stories.
Some of Christiane’s stories are about what she sees. “My art has become a tool to express what I want to say. I digest what I see and put this into images.” The stories behind her work are in response to some deep emotion, her observations when she watches people communicate or, often, her political opinions. “I don’t want to be patronizing, but I’m not worried about offending people if there’s something I have to say.” Yet she does want everyone to be able to see and feel something when interacting with her work, and that factors into her process, as well. “There are usually several layers. Of course, I always hope people will see what I see, but if they don’t, that’s fascinating, too, because it gets additional meaning.” Christiane can appreciate “pretty art” but wants to use her own art to evoke a range of emotions.
The stories Christiane tells are also deeply personal. Though the United States has been her chosen home for twenty years now, she still deals with the inherited guilt she feels as a German. “I grew up with guilt as a German even though I never grew up under Hitler. I consider the States to be my home because I have been living here for twenty years, but this fact doesn’t erase my responsibility for German failures. In fact, I feel that I owe it to my now-home and now-community to not only deal with my German baggage but also with the US American baggage simply because I am part of this society here.” A memorable work for Christiane is a painting she did about the Holocaust. “There were chairs hanging from rope, representing people pulled out of their lives. But people didn’t see it like that. They just saw a cheerful painting of chairs.” Christiane hopes to invite others to do their own self-reflection. She believes that examining your actions, as well as acknowledging the failures of ancestors rather than having a “that was then, this is now” attitude, is crucial to avoiding those mistakes going forward. “We all have work to do, every generation. If you don’t catch up with the past, you’ll never have a future.”
Christiane applies this reflective work not only to the final piece but to adapting her ongoing process of creating, as well. “I was doing multiple people in my works, but I’m now focusing on one person being alone with feelings, actions, and conscious thoughts.” Christiane has focused on this particular study throughout her life, especially when she first came to the United States as an exchange student. “Everyone is seeing you completely separate from where you’re from.” Christiane felt both freed from her context and called to reflect on herself. “When abroad, you’re being faced with yourself,” she said, explaining that the questions people ask and the assumptions they make are not based in background context, only on what you present at that moment. Christiane recreates this experience through her art.
Because her work is a response to her own current and past experiences, Christiane finds it hard to imagine doing commissioned work. “I have difficulty making things on command but can do it. I can do themes more than specific subjects. But when people ask me for a commission, I can see that they don’t understand what I do.” However, Christiane is more than happy to sell her current work to anyone who asks. She considers it an honor for people to see her work and desire to bring it home.
The past several years have been an especially difficult time of focus for Christiane. From a jarring shift in presidential administration to the stress of the coronavirus pandemic, to the death of her father and the inability to travel to Germany during that time, Christiane has struggled to feel hopeful. “Life immediately felt different for me. Something broke, and it never came back. I would think so many times, ‘This is such a deep cut but time will heal,’ but it didn’t; it got worse and worse.” Christiane also teaches art at the Montessori School of Ruston, and she has felt the effects of the pandemic there, too. While the transition to online classes has freed her time and studio up for creating more, recent events have dampened her desire. “I don’t have studio space if the students come and put their things there, so I usually don’t do art during the school year. We’re all online this year, so I don’t have an excuse, but I’m so tired and worn out from everything.”
Despite these many losses, Christiane is getting back to a place of hope and creativity. Because she has a habit of starting things but not finishing them, she has made a goal to finish those projects. Christiane is currently working on a series called “earth,” which she began about a year and a half ago, that sprung out of receiving some outdated textbooks that each have a graphic of Earth on the cover. She wants to do twenty-four installments, one for each hour of the day, and has finished sixteen so far. “People will ask me, ‘How long did it take you to make that piece?’ and I’ll say, ‘All my life,’ because I wouldn’t have been able to do it without all these experiences and emotions. They are all a part of life. Everything comes together.” Christiane’s story thus far has been informed by all of the paths she’s taken and choices she’s made. Even in times like these, she will surely allow her current phase of life to be part of the stories she continues to tell through her art.
Christiane’s work and information about her studio classes can be found on her website, christianedrieling.com. You can also find Christiane on Instagram @christianedrieling to follow her “Earth” series and future work and, perhaps, be inspired to share your own stories, as well. Artwork images provided by Drieling.