Sketching Stories: Artist Kristen Solecki’s Visual Narratives

This Durham-based illustrator combines art and storytelling in her work, which has graced book covers and magazine spreads.
by Colony Little | photography by Joshua Steadman

Storytelling and art go hand in hand for Durham-based illustrator Kristen Solecki. One of her drawings features a stargazing couple, each holding a concealed ring box behind their back — a hint of anticipation for an extra-special engagement. Another piece, a painted matchbox, depicts the colorful exterior of a brownstone. When you open the matchbox, it reveals what lies behind the building’s walls. Solecki’s drawings create worlds that transport viewers to fond memories of the past as well as parts unknown.

It’s a craft she honed at the University of Arts in Philadelphia, where she studied illustration. “Our focus was on telling stories through your artwork, and I’ve taken that and evolved that into different types of things,” says Solecki.

Since graduating in the late 2000s, she has built a freelance practice creating wall coverings, murals, book covers and merchandise. She also has a fine-arts practice that includes prints, journals, stickers, stationery and greeting cards.

Solecki’s art combines collage, ink and a water-based paint called gouache to create images with a familiar, yet aspirational feel. These mediums speaks to the diversity of inspirations and processes that guide her work. Some of her influence can be traced back to her childhood in Philadelphia. “I lived in a town that was built in the 1700s. It was filled with old Victorian Gothic-style houses, and I grew up around a lot of antiques and old art,” she says, noting that she particularly loved collecting vintage photographs of women. “I liked finding 25-cent photos in thrift stores. I was always interested in these weird little things.”

Solecki hangs onto treasures like these until they find a useful purpose. In 2020, for example, she created a series for a solo show titled Women in Wool at Quirk Gallery in Richmond, Virginia. Using black-and-white photos as a starting point, she created contemporary characters that pulled in details from the original images, like a pair of plaid pants or cat-eye glasses. “The illustrations were based on what the women in these discarded photographs would look like in color, with modern hair,” says Solecki. “Even though they’re from a different time period, people can see themselves or their families in these pictures.” 

Another point of inspiration for both commissioned projects and personal work comes from Solecki’s trove of sketchbooks. She started keeping a sketchbook in college as a class requirement. At the time, it felt like an arduous task. But the practice became a habit, and now she has thousands of pages filled with images she creates via collage, ink and gouache — another form of collecting that helps her explore and preserve her inspiration. “It’s an outlet to keep things flowing, and now I have all of these ideas I can pull from that I use for paintings,” she says. “I’m leaving these little breadcrumbs for myself.”

Each page of Solecki’s sketchbooks is a work of art unto itself. A two-page spread may feature 12 pen-and-ink studies of cityscapes and buildings, for example, or colorful character studies of birds or cats using magazine clippings as a starting point. “Right now I’m working on these little faces,” she says of a page where she’s painted a series of pastel gouache boxes to frame tiny portraits of young women. Some of the boxes are blank, to revisit later. “If I’m finding myself stuck, I’ll come back and say, OK, where did I leave off?” she says. “It’s great to have a point of reference to get back to a thread or idea. I leave a lot of pages open to finish later.”

When Solecki graduated from college, she worked as a preschool teacher in Philadelphia, where she met parents from a variety of creative backgrounds. They exposed her to the breadth of opportunities she could pursue with her talents. She started doing freelance projects on the weekends and got involved in art markets and gallery shows, carving out space for herself to build a diversified portfolio of work, which has given her career flexibility.

She moved to Charleston in 2012 and now she’s been settled in Durham for five years. In addition to client work, she continues to teach art classes. At the Durham Arts Council, she offers courses in subjects like illustration and gouache painting. “My students range from 13 to 80. It’s really cool to see who becomes friends and who inspires each other,” she says. “It’s a big part of my practice again; if I can get one person to push through the project they’re working on, that makes me happy.”

Solecki discovered at the end of one of her classes that a student, a 75-year-old woman, had never picked up a paintbrush before. “I thought, this is incredible,” she says. “That’s why I love to teach! I helped give someone in their 70s a whole new skill to explore.”

Solecki has also illustrated numerous book covers and magazine editorials for Bitter Southerner, Parents, WALTER and other publications. Most recently, she illustrated a children’s book titled Your Heart is Your Home by Kyle Tibbs Jones. The book encourages creativity, open-mindedness and courage for people exploring the world. “When I was writing the books, Kristen’s illustrations literally danced around in my head,” says Jones. “The vibe of her work is positive, powerful and a little quirky. We had loads of fun working together!”

Solecki’s illustrations are thoughtful invitations to readers to meditate on the messages in the book. On one page a child shares a day with a loved one at a museum, while on another, collaged trees are placed on a painted backdrop of a park lawn, with people from all walks of life enjoying a day outdoors. “The message is, don’t lose yourself — grow on who you are,” says Solecki. It’s a message she embodies, too.  

This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of WALTER magazine.