An Interview with Kristina Bilonick by Paul Shortt
Kristina Bilonick is an artist and entrepreneur with a passion for small business development and community building. Bilonick was born and raised in the DC area and returned after studying painting and printmaking at the University of New Hampshire. She has run arts programming at a number of organizations including DC Arts Center and Washington Project for the Arts.
In 2010 Kristina founded Pleasant Plains Workshop – a community-focused arts space near Howard University that supports emerging artists. As an artist, she has exhibited her work at local venues including Transformer, Arlington Arts Center, Gallaudet University, and the American University Museum. After five years of operating Pleasant Plains Workshop along Georgia Avenue, Bilonick has moved the shop to the emerging arts district in Brookland and is shifting the focus more towards specializing in print.
This is part of Paul Shortt’s conversation with Kristina Bilonick. It should be noted that Paul exhibited his work at Pleasant Plains Workshop in the solo exhibit Essentially Qualified in 2014.
Paul Shortt: Pleasant Plains Workshop (PPW) recently closed its space on Georgia Ave. and consolidated all activities to its Brookland location. What brought about the move?
Kristina Bilonick: Some of it was me wanting to move on and explore other models, and some of it was financial. I’d rented the building we were in for five years and endured five rent increases. By the time the lease was coming up again, I was starting to see that we were not necessarily breaking even, so it was becoming a financial burden. I also had the idea that if we combined our studio and exhibition spaces, I’d have more time to work on my own art (selfish!). And I also wanted to edit the concept a bit to focus more on the art of printmaking – through classes, exhibitions, and having prints for sale.
PS: Does this give the organization more space for shows?
KB: The wall space we’ve designated in our print shop to be the gallery is actually around the same square footage as we had at our Georgia Avenue location (which was tiny and charming!) so the amount of space is the same. We also have some moveable walls and other ways we could trick the place out to do even bigger exhibitions than we’d done in the past if we want to.
PS: What is in store for the new location?
KB: I think the biggest shift (besides the physical one) will be in our format. At the old shop we exhibited a wide range of media and we used to sell a lot of craft items and jewelry and used clothing. At the new space we are going to focus on printmaking and showcase its many directions- we’ll have flat files and racks with prints, but also showcase book arts, zines, limited edition art objects and print installations. We’ll also teach printmaking classes and offer new artistic services including printing artist editions (collaboratively or commissioned) and making screens for artists.
PS: Is PPW a Non-Profit?
KB: We are not a non profit. I see PPW more as an ongoing art project, and didn’t want to deal with the infrastructure of running a nonprofit and managing a board of directors. I do realize it opens up a lot of fundraising opportunities, but for me PPW is simply an extension of my art practice. I’ve always held down other jobs for steady income and what I make selling art or teaching classes at PPW supplements that. I guess it’s fair to say that I want to keep PPW simple, fun, and experimental so that I don’t get locked into one thing, or one mission – and by keeping it as a commercial entity, I have more freedom to make changes in its structure.
PS: Can you discuss the structure of the organization?
KB: I run it as a business. We have five resident artists that pay rent for studio space and that helps cover operational costs. Each resident artist can sell their own work out of the studio and teach their own classes to make some extra money. When we invite outside artists to exhibit/sell work we have a sales split between PPW and the artist.
PS: Community outreach has always seemed to play a key part of PPW. Will this continue in the new space?
KB: Definitely. Our new spot is part of a strip of arts spaces along 8th Street near Catholic University. Within blocks of our studio you’ll find the Arts Walk on Monroe, Dance Place, Live/work artist studios at Artspace, and SCRAP DC which is a thrift store for artist materials. We look forward to partnering with some of those organizations and taking part in their 3rd Thursday Art Walks.
PS: We’ve talked a lot about PPW, but you are also an artist as well. Can you talk a bit about what you are currently working on?
KB: For the past couple years I’ve been working on pieces collaboratively with members of my family. I send them a photo and say ‘what was going on here?’ and I hand-print reproductions of the photos with their various perspectives transcribed underneath. It’s astonishing how differently we all remember the same moment!
I’ve also been having fun with new materials and scale. I recently made a large-scale Gillette Daisy razor using 3D printing and that piece was about the heft of the act of shaving your legs for the first time. Currently I’ve been hand dyeing cotton rope and making large scale macrame works that are almost a little formal – but totally playful since they read as giant friendship bracelets. I’m drawing from themes of adolescence and coming-of-age and thinking about the scope of my world when I was a teenager.
PS: In addition to running PPW you have also worked at WPA and DC Arts Studios. Is your current day job in the arts?
KB: I’ve recently made a shift over to real estate and work for the Menkiti Group which is company that deals with residential & commercial real estate and development. I’d been working at a large-scale arts studios facility for a few years leasing out studio spaces. I also had experience renting various commercial spaces throughout the city for my art practice and for PPW, so I started to have this huge desire to learn about the other side of that transaction.
Particularly I’m interested in how small commercial spaces lend themselves well to small businesses (creative or otherwise) and how those small business shape a neighborhood. And I’m also interested in learning about larger-scale development projects, how they impact the city, and how those deals are made. Eventually I’d love to combine commercial real estate knowledge with my knowledge of arts management and give artists some tools for purchasing commercial property, either collectively or with the help of investors.
PS: In closing, I feel it’s easy to dwell on all the changes in the DC art scene over the past few years, but what do you see as the strengths of the DC art scene moving forward?
KB: Thanks for this question! Lately it feels like a lot of galleries are shuttering and artists are fleeing to other places, so the morale is down. But I feel it’s cyclical. Just like the real estate market, the art scene here in DC ebbs and flows. When a bunch of galleries shut down or move, the lull becomes a time when exciting alternative spaces/projects pop up.
I think DC is ripe for someone to come in and do something really exciting for the arts. Our strength right now is that there are still some places that are affordable for artists to live and/or work. There are some newly developing areas like Ivy City that artists should plug into (if they act fast!).
Author Paul Shortt is a visual artist, writer and arts administrator. He received his MFA in New Media Art from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his BFA in Painting from the Kansas City Art Institute. He is currently the Registry Coordinator and Program Assistant at Maryland Art Place and lives in Washington, DC.