Looking for something

Looking for something

By Brian Kershisnik

I make art because I am searching for things. I do not approach my easel with an overriding objective to change anything or anyone. Rather I am looking for something. Looking teaches me, and teases thinking out of me, and precipitates internal and external conversation that I believe do me good. My job of course is to paint, and to paint very well, but I have observed that art often accomplishes something quite independently of any artist’s intentions. It is understandably difficult to accomplish things beyond your own intentions and so my way is to walk forward into the work looking for something and being open to finding something else altogether.

My subjects are typically not grand, they are you and me – a little awkward in their common work-a-day holiness. They are often not “getting it”, or perhaps getting it wrong. They are misunderstood, like you and I are misunderstood, but loved and lovely too. They are a little heavy footed in their dancing, a little disheveled in their useful and inscrutable activities, a little disoriented in their best of intentions. The subjects in my paintings are metaphorical and mythological autobiography and when it is working, they are you too.

I admit frankly to the pursuit of truth and beauty. I also admit that the aspects of these principles that draw me in are illusive and difficult to comprehend. I cannot fathom what they are independently, let alone combined. They are not things to be manipulated and controlled by me. I find them often enough to at least keep me at it, and each occurrence has aspects that are unique and unrepeatable. I feel a bit like I’m looking for a home I can’t quite remember – a foreigner trying to fit in an alien circumstance, but truth, love and hope persist and build and remind and change me. Being changed for better or worse is invasive. Building often involves excavation. Life and art require a million coarse and delicate adjustments. Healing involves comfort and crisis, triumph and overthrow, invasion and retreat. It takes discipline and practice to enjoy reality because it is never only limited to the fun parts. Life requires healing which necessitates work and courage. These things do not exclude rest and joy and even fun. If you need surgery, you will want a surgeon who is not afraid to use a saw, but not one who has no other tools.

If my work is to ever be important, it will not be because I was successful in trying to second guess the multitude. It will be because what I found to be authentically important to me, is, or becomes, authentically important to many others. I believe in the importance of beauty, but must acknowledge that it can be both an effective conveyor of truth and also a distraction from it. Perhaps it is linking truth and beauty in their uncountable facets that should be hoped for and sought. This linking is a pursuit, not a location, and artworks that are the proper byproducts of that searching are good for us even when most fall short of the actual fusion. I believe that I have found this truthful beauty to envelope birth and death, union and isolation, victory and defeat, knowledge and bewilderment, pleasure and agony, profundity and silliness, and as I desperately scan the horizon for solutions, I sometimes look down to find them right on my lap.

Nativity: an essay

By Brian Kershisnik

 To purchase the ‘Nativity’ print, please visit www.newvisionart.com

This painting is called “Nativity”. The decision to avoid the definite article illuminates a particularly fascinating and miraculous aspect of Jesus’ advent. Notwithstanding the overwhelming significance of Jesus coming, He came very much like you and I came. His birth was like your birth and mine. He came into our dirt and sweat and blood and milk. He arrived into our hunger and discomfort, just as everyone else on the planet ever has. His birth was, in that sense, unremarkable. It hurt his mother and Him.

It was very likely troubling to Joseph as well (his vexation probably complicated by their displacement from home) and likely not so troubling to the midwives, smiling through the bloody ordeal as midwives do. I know that no midwives are mentioned in the scriptures, but bear in mind that almost none of the details of his birth are mentioned in these holy texts. Even the stable is inferred by the brief mention of an improvised cradle– his being “laid in a manger”. The chance of a young woman having her first child away from her usual residence and not being attended by women (even strangers) seems to me very unlikely. Women would come. They would hear; they would help. I feel sure of it.

In undertaking this sacred subject on such a large scale (the original is 17 feet long) I decided to not look so much for an actual historical reality, but rather to try to fathom an emotional reality to the experience. Virtually all of the visual memory we have of Jesus’ birth has come from centuries of this kind of imagining–the event being so very important, the historical details so very scant.

Perhaps the sheer number of them is a clear indication that I became engaged with the angels. The births of my own children felt so very “attended to” by otherworldly beings. Perhaps they were ancestors and descendants; any who had particular interest in our little nativities. Since none of us would have a chance of salvation without Jesus, it felt obvious that all beings looking to this redemption would take a peculiar interest in this birth. The number of angels in my work kept multiplying. I have counted them several times, but I come up with different numbers. I rather like not knowing exactly.

My original plan to include the conventional beasts was eclipsed by this cloud of witnesses. I did have a bit of room for a dog and her pups. Although no mention is made of any stable occupants, I wanted the animals to be represented and I love dogs. They have long been a symbol of fidelity in western art, so I put them in since Jesus’ coming is the ultimate and most impossible example of keeping the unfathomable promise of His essential condescension. Only the dog can see the glorious river of angels. The mortals depicted, like us, are understandably and rightly distracted with the quotidian tasks at hand.

I believe that the human hunger for dramatic conclusions (to sporting events or books or movies) is linked to our own impossible redemption. Our chances for reconciliation were all but lost when…this happened. Part of our attraction to these dramatic endings is because it is, in part, our story too. He said He would come. Then impossibly and improbably, He did, but not as we would have expected. Certainly the epic drama of redemption is far from over, but the message to me is this: He came. He came. Thank God, He came.

A general note about “She Will Find What Is Lost”

By Brian Kershisnik

A painting of mine called “She Will Find What Is Lost” has lately been receiving a bit of attention.  This is all fine and good, and indeed the people who are responding to this image are doing so from a large spectrum of extremely varied experiences.  That is an indication to me that I have stumbled into something that is needed.  The circumstances that drove me into this piece are, as usual, particular and personal and not necessarily needed to have a personal reaction and use for this piece yourself.  I have often said that my paintings are a kind of mythological autobiography whether the subjects are men, women, animals, buildings, etc.  It was not, for example, intended as a painting about being a woman, but rather a human.  Humans have gender and for fairly specific, but not exclusive reasons, I chose to paint a woman.  I do believe that in art, very often that which is most personal taps into currents that are most general.  In this way great art of the distant past can continue to inform and illuminate very current issues.  Finding these “big subjects” involves a kind of dumb luck and often has little or nothing to do with an artist’s conscious intention.

The painting “She Will Find What Is Lost” has been used to underline and illustrate a good number of private and public experiences as well as political or social agenda.  This has led to a notion of my endorsing certain views.  Of course, I agree with some of these views, some of these views I am ignorant of, and others I actually disagree with.  Most of the stories I hear are completely consistent with the hopes I retain for the usefulness of this picture which is an extremely and intensely personal sort of usefulness.  I cannot pretend to be able to dictate how people are to feel about my work or the narratives that they will bring to it.  That is in fact anathema to my understanding of how art works and should work.  If I may ask it of you, I ask that you respect that my intention for this piece was to speak to the most intensely private and intimate kind of supernatural interference, influence, and assistance, whatever your particular experience.  I don’t have to agree with you to believe that whatever your gender, circumstance, or issue, many unseen forces are interested in you, love you, and work to influence matters for your profound benefit.  Most of what we all do is resist it, misinterpret it, or mess it up, but my experience indicates that these unseen efforts persist impossibly.  I thank God for that.

On a more temporal level, please be reminded that it is a licensed image and any promotional or commercial use must be done by permission.

Mormon Essay

By Brian Kershisnik

I am a Mormon.  Warning: The following text contains some religious content as well as invitations to learn more about my church.  You will not be bombarded with proselytizing materials or doctrinal messages from my website, but this essay will just be here and possibly updated periodically.  Please feel free to read it, but obviously you are under no obligation.  So here goes.

Some of you may have seen the short video on YouTube or lds.org about my being a Mormon.  If not, I recommend you see it both for a peek at my notions of the cosmos as well as a look at my studio in Kanosh, Utah.  Whatever your assessment of my cosmos, it is a pretty great studio to be sure.  Better than I deserve, no doubt, but I am glad to have it and use it.  Ethan Vincent was working on a documentary (his own self-motivated and unfunded project, so of course understandably unfinished) when he was commissioned to do several video portraits for the Mormon Church, and this dovetailed nicely with his project that was already underway with me.  The result was satisfying, largely because of the skills and trustworthy intrusions of Ethan Vincent, and I was very pleased to participate.

My intention here is to invite you to know more about the Mormon Church, or as it is officially known, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormons” is understandably easier to say) should you be in the least bit curious.

I was raised all over the world and have known and loved many, many people of vastly different religious and secular convictions.  I believe truly in the virtue and holy participation of many of these people in the complex and extremely difficult work of redemption for this world.  My conviction is that my church has a vital and central role to play in the unfolding history of the redemption of this earth and believe it would be silly for people to not engage in it who otherwise would if they had some, or better, information.

There is much good that is accomplished by individuals, and I prize greatly my individual effort to be and do good, to improve my humanity and the condition of those immediately around me.  There are also very important things that are accomplished by the collective effort of groups and organizations.  Group actions and hierarchies often push us into actions and interactions that we might otherwise have avoided, but nevertheless do us and those around us good — often affecting a circle much wider than our own small one.  Both individual and group efforts have their profound advantages and disadvantages and I am convinced that both are needed notwithstanding the failings of each.  My conviction of the truth and importance of my church is firmly linked to rich positive revelatory experience, but also does not ignore the mistakes and awkwardnesses that are infused in any organization involving human beings.  My assurance of God’s interest in my participation in this church does not incline me to require of that experience perfection of action and result, or unmitigated bliss, but of course there needs to be enough satisfaction and bliss, and thank God there is usually more and to spare.

Most people reading this will be at least vaguely aware of the young Mormon men and women going about in pairs looking for people to teach.  Of course these missionaries are very interested in talking to you and of course they want you to join the Mormon Church.  Be patient and tolerant.  They have devoted a few years of their life to this effort and are anxious to engage.  They can also be a good resource for what Mormonism is about.  Interestingly, they are not so much receptacles of vast amounts of information, but they know enough to get you started on your own understanding of the subject — an understanding that will hopefully lead to revelation of your own.  Everybody can guess what the missionaries, or even I, want you to do.  The point is always to find God and get a sense of what He wants you to do.  I recommend and invite you to take a few minutes to widen your understanding enough to include talking to some of these missionaries or visiting mormon.org for information that may prove very useful or at least interesting.  I am happy to field any questions you might have or refer you to resources I find useful.  I will not, without your permission, put anyone else in contact with you.

The world is full of truth and beauty (if indeed those two things can or should be distinguished).  It comes at us from every angle.  It is often unexpected and hard to categorize.  The sources can be sublime or inconvenient and even at times a bit unruly.  I believe the work and message of the Mormon Church to be vital, significant and true.  I am pleased to be a part of it.

brian

Painting God

by Brian Kershisnik
Art, Belief and Meaning Symposium
BYU Museum of Art Auditorium
Friday, November 7, 2008

So, should I paint God? Certainly I have done just that, dozens of times, and yet I continue and continue to ask myself whether or not I should. If there is any merit in those works of mine that depict God, I believe that it is partially because I have never been able to lay down the question of whether or not I should have made them.

This is difficult for me because, notwithstanding regular sublime experiences while painting, I believe the entire realm of pictorial representation is tainted with rather unsavory elements that threaten the concept of holiness from the very onset. I’ll just mention three. Briefly.

1.     First, art is artifice; at its best art reaches for the truth through artificial avenues.  For example, in visual imagery feelings of esteem and sympathy for the subject can be almost immediately aroused in the viewer through the use of physical beauty or attractiveness.  To achieve this end, artists often resort to transient, current trends.  Yet, as hardwired as we all are to like someone because they are beautiful, all of us would like to think we know that outer beauty does not indicate virtue.  So, how does an artist, appealing only to the eyes by means of oil paint applied to a flat surface, paint virtue?

2.     The second difficulty I see in my art with depictions of holy subjects is that for the professional painter like myself, art is a means of generating revenue and must continually define and redefine itself under the constant attack of my need for money.  In such a grip, how do I differentiate between financial need and an interior need to delve authentically and honestly into a sacred subject?  And how can I be sure I’m even asking myself these questions honestly?  What if the style to which I have become accustomed locks me into making more paintings of the Lord whether or not I “feel like it”?  I am alarmed at how authentically I can “feel like doing something” that would prevent the repossession of my home.

3.     My third struggle with holy subject matter arises from a concern that the production of powerful works of art, sacred or otherwise, could propel an artist (myself, for example, to choose the example that really bothers me) into various degrees of local or general fame and the corrupting and distorting influence of well-meant but unwarranted esteem.  As a painter I am a performer on a stage.  I both love and need my audience and yet they pose a most terribly devastating threat to my accurate perspective.

And so it is, at sea in these thrice (at least thrice) troubled waters that the artist, (Brian, let’s call him) takes up his tools to presume to depict the sacred in some useful, honest and illuminating way.  How can it be done?  I will not venture to answer this question for anyone else, let alone everyone, but I will state candidly that for myself, I am most often far, far better off not doing it – or at least not for the public.  I might even have been known to state, when pressed to take a stand, that I suspect more people than now do, should, perhaps pause long to deeply consider whether they might not be better abstaining from holy subject matter more often.  Children, drawing God with authority and honesty as often as it suits them, I completely except from this rule and from them we can learn a lot about true and right depictions of Deity.    The innocence of children, the limited scope of their audience and their considerable indifference to the reactions and tastes of that audience, protect them.  If as adults we could retain the untainted, unapologetic power and honest symbolism of children, then we like them should by all means fall to, drawing God with the honest authority of that sort of faith.  I myself must depend on such childlike revelations either sneaking up on me or tumbling accidentally into my work and experience this very rarely, though I manage it as often as I can.  Accidents are a difficult sort of stuff to manage.

But to speak to the three troubles previously acknowledged, if the first (the inevitable reliance on artifice) can be abundantly and systemically acknowledged within the work itself and the second and third (pressing need for money and the dangers of esteem) can be kept in check (if not completely ignored) at least in the production stages of my work, then I believe it is possible to explore through art sacred subjects in ways that are edifying to both the artist and the public.  Works of art will savor of their primary motivations and, regardless of the approval or disappointment of collectors which can very well be deceiving, the artist is ultimately accountable before God for his own motivations.  My own salvation is abundantly more important than my professional success.

I hardly know how to describe what must sound like a psychosis, but I feel a profound accountability for all of the people in my paintings.  The ways that I manipulate them must acknowledge on their part a kind of agency, for they must never become the mere toys of my fancy.  All the more certainly then, in my depictions of God I must stand ready to account for what I have done and my motivations for doing so.  In this matter I am in constant need of self analysis and course correction, which is nothing other than repentance.

In conclusion, to answer my initial question, “should I paint God?” I have determined that it would be as insincere for me to avoid all paintings with God in them as it would be for me to paint nothing else.  I would hope that my discipleship colors every subject no matter how secular it may appear on the surface, but when it comes to painting God as a subject I never feel free of the searching question of whether or not it is appropriate and acceptable this time.  I have no intention to free myself of that question, nor to cower when it feels right to proceed.

“By proving contraries truth is made manifest.”
–         Joseph Smith Jr.

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey.”
–         Wendell Berry

“Art is a lie, but a lie that tells the truth.”
–         Pablo Picasso

“One cannot learn much and be comfortable.  One cannot learn much and let anyone else be comfortable.”
–         Charles Fort, Wild Talents

An Experience Shared with Brian Kershisnik's "Nativity"

by Sam Payne, 2007 

I’m standing with Brian Kershisnik in his studio—the historic social hall in Kanosh, Utah.   This spring, the road to Kanosh pushes through wide fields dusted with tiny purple flowers.  Brian can’t remember what those flowers are called, which amazes me, because they’re as ubiquitous as air (would you forget what air was called?).  “Suzanne will know” Brian says, “or Suzanne’s mom.”  He tells me a funny story about how his mother-in-law knew once, without looking up from her reading, that some flowers in a Provo neighborhood were Dahlias and not Zinnias.

We’ve been talking about Brian’s glorious painting “Nativity” (“glorious” is not his word for it—just mine and everyone else’s). The painting is enormous—bigger than any single wall, ceiling-to-floor, in my whole house or the houses of any of my neighbors.  It’s hanging for a few more days (the show comes down on June 16) at the BYU art museum, part of their remarkable “Beholding Salvation” exhibit—works centered around the life of Christ.  Brian has brought me to the Kanosh studio to show me the preparatory sketch for “Nativity,” just for fun.  The sketch (on a page of a medium-sized black notebook) is roughly the size of half a stick of Wrigley’s.  Black dots on the sketch might be people.  There’s a shape that looks to me like a cow.   Brian tells me that in the beginning, the painting was going to be about some dancers.  Dancers and a cow, maybe.  The painting, it seems, had other plans.

It’s important for you to know up front, maybe, that this is an article about fine art, written by a fine art idiot. What I know about the periods of art history I learned reading Dave Barry, who refers to the “sharp and clear” period, the “blurry” period, and the “sharp and clear, but mostly squares and triangles” period.   I can spot the Rembrandts in the “Beholding Salvation” show, but only because they’re featured in the video introduction to the exhibit.  As such, most of the canonic qualities of line and color and composition get cleanly past me, and visual references to other artists or traditions are, of course, inside jokes that I don’t get.

Me, I’m a songwriter.  It’s a more prevalent art form (art form?) than fine paintings maybe—fewer inside jokes.  There are more hack songwriters than hack painters, probably.  But Brian and I both know a few things about a few things.  We both know, for example, how a piece of art can run away with you—about how a finished piece (like a child sort of) winds up being a reconciliation (after a healthy wrestle, more often than not) between what you set out to create and what wants to be created.  That sounds an awful lot like a bunch of artsy-metaphysical gobbledygook, I know, but it’s true.  It’s not even that weird.  You take some ideas that you have—some things you’ve been thinking about—and you try and frame them in whatever medium you’re working with.  And the medium, whatever it is, comes with the baggage of form and structure (“unless it’s free verse,” you might say, to which I would reply, “yeah, right—like there’s such thing as free verse”), and suddenly whatever it was that you were thinking about finds itself channeled into the grooves of your medium.  In songwriting the grooves are all about chord and melody and rhyme.  In painting they’re about other things.  Those grooves—the elements of form and structure inherent in your medium—often have a lot to say about which direction your creative energy is going to go; much like water splashing all random from a hose might be affected once it hits a garden furrow.  The form takes what was on your mind, and asks it to operate within parameters.  Sometimes that feels constraining.  More often than not, though, the process has a way of ordering your ideas—of truing up your thoughts.

And so “Nativity” begins its life as a blank canvas at BYU.  I’m paraphrasing (and reducing, certainly), but Brian describes it as having begun as an exercise in confidence—in demonstrating to his students (as professors must from time to time) that he’s “got game.”  I feel that impulse often, before audiences and other songwriters.  Too often, I respond to it by overplaying—sending listeners home scratching their heads after bombastic sets.  Brian responds to it (or responded to it in this case) by stretching a canvas the size of a U-haul trailer.  Almost immediately, the painting bends pretty quickly away from being a dancer painting and toward being a nativity painting.  Once down that road, Brian is in the wonderful, dangerous place where the painting is most likely to be sucked away from the artist by the muse. Furthermore, in painting a nativity, an artist like Brian is looking God straight in the face.  As such, he suffers what pride always must when it looks God in the face (even the benign and purposeful sort of pride that Brian admits to)—his own ideas get swamped, and he finds his own capable artist-hands commandeered by the Lord in order to get some serious work done.

“Commandeered by the Lord” though?  Come on…really?   Maybe that’s just more cosmic gobbledygook—the ravings of an admittedly unmitigated fan of Brian’s work and a sharer of his faith.  Maybe descriptive words and phrases like “glorious” and “commandeered by the Lord” smack too much of hyperbole.   Maybe, at least, I should check my own enthusiasm for the piece (the enthusiasm of an art idiot—remember?) against some better heads.   After all, this is journalism—or something like it.

I make some calls.  And every discriminating art professional in the state is out to lunch—at the same time (um…lunchtime).  But Dawn Pheysey calls me promptly back.  She’s a curator at the BYU Art museum, and is quick to mention that the museum owns a couple of other Kershisniks—one is called “Sleeping Musicians” (one of several Kershisnik pieces by that title) and the other is called “Cat Gift.”   The way she talks about the paintings reminds me of the way I used to pull a couple of magnificent steelies out of my marble bag in elementary school, and set them next to me even if I wasn’t going to use them—just so people could see that I had them.   “Just what is it about Brian?” I ask.  I hope the question is oblique enough that she’ll be candid.  On she goes. She talks about how Brian’s paintings sometimes seem simplistic at first, but then ideas begin to stream.  And before you know it, you find yourself wondering if you’ll ever stop learning from the paintings that you at first dismissed as simplistic.  I know what Dawn is talking about.  I went through a “Brian’s paintings are simplistic” phase myself.  It lasted the time it took for short looks at two paintings.  The first was a painting of some women—sisters.  I didn’t get it (I’ve since realized that I didn’t shrug that painting off because I didn’t get the painting, but rather because I didn’t get women.  Brian describes women and their relationships as something of a sacred mystery, and manages to capture a certain un-gettable-ness in every woman he paints).  The second painting I saw of Brian’s was a postcard-sized print, of a girl standing on the shoulders of a boy, next to their father and mother who are both standing on their heads.  In the painting, papers litter the floor around the acrobats.  “Good heavens,” I thought.  That’s my family.”  I framed the postcard.  I never stop learning from it.

Next I call Dave Ericson (he’s back from lunch, apparently, by the time I get done with Dawn). He owns a gallery in Salt Lake City that handles Brian’s stuff.  As with Dawn Pheysey, I figure I might want to ask a more general question about Brian’s work, before I zoom in on one piece.  “So, what makes Brian’s work important around here?” is how it comes out.  He doesn’t hesitate to comment, and he doesn’t hesitate to turn his comments to “Nativity” with the first sentence.  “’Nativity’ is the most worshipful painting I’ve ever sat in front of” he says.   Good heavens.  Superlative city.  There’s more, of course.  “You’re observing Mary and Joseph,” he says, “and you’re immediately led to the angels, who all seem so familiar to you, and it doesn’t take long before you’re one of them—worshipping right along with the figures in the painting.”  Dawn Pheysey had made the same comment.  She talked of how some of the angels are looking out at the viewer, not so much inviting the viewer to join the throng as acknowledging that the viewer is already a part of it.  Dave Ericson continues, “It’s that kind of participation—in this piece, certainly, but in Brian’s work in general—that draws people to them.  It’s shared experience between the work and the observer, and it’s what makes Brian’s paintings so vital.”

I’m not cynical (again, I’m an unabashed fan), but I’m wary of the language that artists use.  As a songwriter, I know that there’s something spiritual about creating art—but I also know that to create art is often a matter of simply building something with tools you know how to use.  It’s largely, believe it or not, a workaday process.  You pick up your tools, you punch in, you spend the time, you strike a bargain with the muse, and you do your work.  If the audience is tapping its toes when it’s done, you succeeded.  It’s often that pedestrian. So phrases like “shared experience between the work and the observer’ (stock-in-trade language of art heads around the world) spook me.  Sometimes I just want to hear someone say something like, “I don’t know, man, but the painting sure is a blast to look at!” I hang up the phone with Mr. Ericson, and I’m thinking, “All right, Mr. shared-experience-between-the-work-and-the-observer smarty-pants—it’s time for an experiment.”   I’m gonnago again to the museum, and see the painting.

For several minutes, I’m the only one there.  Me and the holy family, and a glittering heavenly host, hair all unkempt (they’ve been flying, after all), and white clothes that look like they’ve been pulled from the temple bags of my wife and my mother and my grandmother.  The angels are streaming rapidly in from the left (their tears are windswept back across their faces), rushing in to be close to the baby and his family. In the center of the painting, the angels gather like family at a baby blessing—all awe and congratulatory hush, and helping the other angel-kids to see.   The angels, as they exit to the right of the painting, are singing (“they’ll keep singing all the way out into the hills, where they’ll startle shepherds,” I think).  The painting is predominantly solid angels, but down in a gentle, dark pocket rests the Holy Family.  Mary is there.  There are midwives there too, their hands in a pail, the blood from the birth clinging to them as they clean up.   The women all wear gentle smiles, and there is a soft triangle in their focus that includes the women and the baby.

And there’s Joseph.  Oh, Joseph.  I’ve been in the delivery room for all our baby boys, and there’s always this moment after the birth:  I’m standing up where I can dab at Kris’ forehead with a damp cloth and feed her ice chips.  She’s exhausted.  And for a moment, the weight of responsibility for a new life, the weight of Kris’ trust in me—the first glimpse of a path that you know widens into an all-consuming forever—presses down on me.   I love the new child with all my heart, but that moment feels for all the world like agony.   And while men in Brian’s paintings often seem, well…befuddled (or confident in a way that makes them seem foolish), the bewilderment and nerves and love and portent of every delivery room experience I’ve ever had is there, writ large on poor Joseph’s face.  And among the myriad angels pushing past to see the baby and his mother, one angel (unseen by Joseph) stops to place a comforting hand on Joseph’s head—on mine.

I’m deep in that place (a shared-experience-between-the-work-and-the-observer, in case you’re not paying attention), when I realize that I’m not alone anymore.  A couple has come into the gallery room behind me.  Val and Alice.  I ask what they think of the painting, and Alice is smiling, but can’t speak for her tears.  Val, like me, begins talking about what happens in the delivery room.  Only Val is an honest-to-goodness pediatrician. “Look,” he says, “The women are cleaning up.  There’s blood on their hands, and the baby—so new that he hasn’t been washed [Val points out the blood on the baby’s head, and his deep, red coloring]—is put immediately to the breast [he turns to me] you have to do that, you know; [back to the painting] it’s bloody, but it’s not gruesome.  It’s a close, holy time—look at those women, and you’ll see.  Mary is flushed, and there are circles under her eyes.  The greatness of it all is tumbling in on Joseph.  It’s here.  It’s all here.  He’s told the story as it happens—in stables and in delivery rooms.  And he’s reminded us that it’s holy.”

Alice blinks back her tears, flings her arms out and says, “And there are angels everywhere!  There we are [‘there we are,’ she says], and we’re trying to be as quiet as we can, but there are so many of us!   It’s as if we’re cheering for the holy family.  ‘He’s here!’ we’re saying.  ‘Joseph, you can do it!’ we’re saying.”  Alice lapses into silence, and then says, “I wish Brian would paint one like this of Gethsemane, with all of us there too.”

Val and Alice wander warmly off through the Rembrandts (I know which ones those are).  A girl in doctors-office scrubs replaces them almost immediately. She’s seen the painting before, and on her lunch hour has brought her friend to see it.  Her friend’s name is Stephanie Burns.

Stephanie Burns squeals, “The babies!  Look at the babies!”  Like a kid herself, she moves up close to the painting, and without touching it, points, “There!  And there!  And there!”  I love the children too.  When I first looked at the painting, I thought, “Baby angels.  Wow.  I’ve never seen that before,” forgetting that I’d seen maybe a thousand baby angels—little-winged cherubs.  But these are real babies.   They have the novice faces of babies.  They’re leaning out of their mothers’ arms—their mothers holding them with the kind of unconscious, confident care that characterizes Brian’s women.   My favorite baby angel in the painting is held by a mother whose horizontal posture (flying as she is), causes the baby to grab a bunched-up fistful of her mother’s white robe as they go, in the same way that my own baby son, secure in my arms, might grab hold of my T-shirt as I bend down to pick up a left sock.

There’s a mother dog in the painting, and grown-up Stephanie Burns finds it as baby-delight leads her eye down to that corner.  The dog hovers over her pups, and casts a watchful and benign look up at the angels (none of the angels are looking at her.  Her pups, after all, were born days ago, and none of them is the Son of God).  Its mother distracted by the angels, one of the pups wanders on puppy legs toward Mary’s toes.  Stephanie Burns points with delight to the adult dog.  “Man, dogs are like that,” she says to me.  “They’re hooked up to stuff we’re not hooked up to.”  Is that so.  “I have seizures,” Stephanie explains, “and my dog tells me when I’m fixin’ to have a seizure [‘fixin’ to have a seizure,’ she says].”

Person after person enters the room and shares an experience with the piece.  One woman walks right up to the descriptive plate on the wall, pumps her fists in the air, and says, “It’s a Kershisnik!  I knew it!”  (tough to mistake it for anything else, actually.  My nine-year-old knew it was a Kershisnik the moment he saw it).  I tell the woman that Brian’s a friend of mine, and lives in Kanosh.  She’s surprised.  She thought he was Polish.

Shared experience between the work and the observer.  Whaddaya know.  I’m left with nothing else to say except for this, maybe.  The woman turns back and nods toward the painting before wandering off into the Rembrandts, and says, “don’t you think this piece is just a blast to look at?”  Now that’s what I’m talking about.

I Know I Don't Know What I'm Doing

Brian T. Kershisnik

In a sense more profound than I can say, I don’t know what I am doing.  When people learn that I am a painter and ask me what I paint, I have difficulty answering.  Usually inquirers are seeking only the short answer and must be embarrassed or annoyed at my stumbles and what probably looks like attempts to conceal something.  I used to say (only to myself) that I was stalling for the arrival of a clearer understanding, but gradually the reality of my authentic ignorancebecame clear to me.  I hope that my responses have since then become less ridiculous if not less illuminating, and I will here make another attempt.

My current conclusion as to what I paint is that I don’t know and I’m trying to be more at peace with that awkward reality.  I don’t mean by this that I think I’m a bad painter, I am in fact, one of my favorite painters. No one’s artwork moves me as often to tears or laughter, insight and revelation, ecstatic discovery, and joyful or fearful views of the truth as does my own. (No doubt this has something to do with the fact that I am generally pretty heavily involved in its production.)  I am not painting about something I have learned and wish to explain to others, but rather something I am trying to understand myself– the problems of being this particular human being in progress.  I don’t paint people to show you who they are, but as part of trying to discover who they are, and I believe I fall in love with every one of them.  The questions involved in a painting, if I know them at all, are very difficult to articulate. I’m following a hunch in search of a question by acting with the tools of my trade and in this process, often unexpectedly and even unintentionally something of another world– of the other world, something of God– leaks out.  Then whether my abilities are frail or splendid, they are either way woefully inadequate and that is exactly where I want to be.  Painting for me is anxious disciplined pursuit, trying to sense when and how much to get out of the way so that what is coming can come though it is not expected or even possible to remove myself completely.  They are my hands after all, with my quirks, they are my weaknesses and capacities. It is my sense of humor, tragedy, composition, color and material–each of which use elements of the unexpected to succeed.  The benevolence, indifference, or even malevolence of each idea must be discerned in a process which can take days, weeks, or years.  Through these processes my abilities can be and often are augmented, but are seldom generated.  I try to bring all I have, and am seeking to improve, to the table and, in the ensuing dance of faith and work, I must never, in factI can never, “get it down” or reduce it to an easily regurgitatable process without doing violence to this fragile unnamable “thing” that I do.

As I get older, and more experienced, my sense of what to pursue or discard gets better as does my appreciation for the sacred state of not knowing exactly what you’re doing, just knowing you should be doing it.  I hope this extends to every aspect of my life and every relationship in and out of the studio. Life is much bigger than I am, and so it would be surprising if I felt that I knew what I was doing. What is truly surprising is the sensation that comes to me that I should be doing what I am doing.  Hanging on to this sensation often takes more power than I possess, yet like an act of grace, it persists unbelievably.

Stewardship and the Leak

Brian Kershisnik

All my life I have heard of artistic talent as being a gift.  I, myself, have often referred to such talents as gifts and have been accused of possessing such a gift myself.  So prevalent is the use of this term that I am compelled by sheer consensus to acknowledge that there is truly something to this notion that some people just arrive here with an extraordinary facility or capacity.  The more I am involved with art and the more I contemplate the processes which produce art and the ways which the art of others gains access to me, the more I wonder about the nature of this gift.  Perhaps art is a rend, a hole, a place where a seam in the body or spirit did not quite come together and as a result another pure authentic reality leaks out not necessarily in intentional ways.  Perhaps everyone has these leaks and the artists are the ones who through poetry, dance, story, music or what have you give shape to the issue and substance such that it can be perceived as something more than just a mess that needs mopping or therapy.

I once heard a story reported to be true about a soldier wounded in battle some several centuries ago.  The gash in his abdomen never healed and the physician under whose care he remained for the decade or so of his remaining life learned much about the inner workings of our digestion because he had a window into the gut of this poor fellow.  Thus, this particular and unfortunate defect was put to good use.  I believe that the power of art is derived from what I referred to earlier as another pure authentic reality.  A reality which is concealed for what I trust are good reasons and leaks coming from that world are not necessarily all to be broadcast or celebrated.  Benefit can certainly be derived from such intentioned or unintentional leaks just as in the case of the poor soldier. But only if treated with care.  The same window which provided knowledge to the physician was potentially dangerous even under proper supervision, and thus required incredible and careful stewardship.  I believe that as an artist I should exercise such stewardship.  The invasion to ourselves in creating art as well as the invasions to those who receive the art make it clear to me that the process should be handled with appropriate care, affection, concern and not least virtue.  Even in my pictures which are humorous and whimsical there is an element of danger because they must in some way acknowledge or address the existence of the very center of truth.  In that truth, I have found that there is plenty to laugh about, but not at.  There is plenty of comfort if I can learn how to receive it. There is plenty of joy, but it must have a foundation.  And there is plenty of sorrow, but not despair.

The battles I fight when I paint are intensely personal and their triumphs and defeats are seldom the ones celebrated or mourned by those who receive the art.  It is usually not exactly known why I am so very moved from time to time by something I have received into myself be it film, text, painting, etc.  The artist herself may very well be oblivious to the actual precise source of the chord which now vibrates and causes to vibrate in the recipient that same chord in some unreachable, unremembered or partially recalled chamber.  This exchange though it may contain whimsy and even laughter is in fact very like an ordinance and hence art work should never be displayed thoughtlessly or casually, to say nothing of malevolently.

Various Exhibition Statements

By Brian Kershisnik

Though all my life I have lived and traveled all over the world and hope to continue doing so from time to time, it has been in the isolation of rural Utah that my vision has had a chance to incubate and hatch.  I first moved to Utah to attend college and here I discovered my desire and ability to be an artist.  Now, in a community filled with births, deaths, marriages, droughts, times of plenty, triumphs, tragedies, indifference and faith, I continue to learn about the hand of God and about being a human being the essence of art.

Art is devotional.  In its creation and in its appreciation it reveals the object of our devotion.  It defines the religion of the artist and of the patron.  This is true from the most so-called "secular" to most overtly "religious" art.

My objective in all of the facets of my life, including art, is to be good, honest, worshipful, virtuous, joyful and full of love.  In spite of my common inadequacy, God continues to express an interest in working with me.

My artwork is not so much a visualization of an ideal as it is an exploration of the process that leads to an ideal.  The often awkward practicing, the occasional detours and lost ground, as well as the triumph of joy.  And then there are those pictures that I love, but for the life of me I cannot figure out.  Oh well, I suppose that too is part of the process.

At the risk of seeming simple, I must admit that my artistic objective is to make good pictures.  The swirling myriad of form, composition, art history, metaphor, accident, psychology, spirituality, color, content, marks, etc., etc., etc. is far too much for me to harness and direct.  I do my best work when I participate with, rather than compel, the enumerable elements that make up art.

The source of much of my work is other artwork, old and new, my own or others.  Of course my paintings emerge from my own experience (indeed, from whose experience should they otherwise emerge I wonder?) which includes not only what I know, but what I don't know, the latter being without question the heftier reserve and often the more fruitful source.  My gifts or my deficiencies are equally as likely to result in good art when I allow them.

Painting is a holy thing for me.  It helps me to see and to feel and to love and to weep and to laugh with God.  Sometimes the process is holier than the product and sometimes it is the other way around.  I do not say this to suggest that the work should be holy to you or that your response is somehow a gauge of your worthiness. That is obviously your business.  It is holy to me.

I believe that I make paintings about being human.  They emerge from my love and faith, my fears and awkwardness, from my euphoria and failures together.  All of these may be experienced in a single day and hopefully, when I am permitted, are affectionately contained in good pictures.

As I paint, I am myself interested to watch and see who these people are and to consider what they are doing and why.  I seek to be more of a participant in the process rather than the creator of it.  The purpose of a painting, if I ever discern it, often takes me long after its completion to get a handle on, and is very seldom distillable into a single paragraph if it can be articulated in words at all.  At least words that I have access to.  I rather think that these are paintings of the memory or anticipation of feelings.  I suppose that people who respond to them must recognize the resonance of similar anticipations or memories.

There is a great importance in successfully becoming human -- in coming to fully understand ourselves and others and God.  The process is difficult and filled with awkward discoveries and happy encounters, dreadful sorrow and unmitigated joy -- sometimes several at once.  The purpose of art is to facilitate this process, rather than simply decorate the journey or worse, distract us from it.  It reminds us of what we have forgotten, illuminates what we know, or teaches us unexpected things.  Through art we come to feel and understand and love more completely -- we become more human.  The artists that I admire, obscure, famous, or anonymous, have contributed to my humanity through their whimsy, their devotion, their tragedy, their bliss, or their quiescence.  I seek to be such an artist.

As nearly as I can trace, my paintings emerge from living with people (and my dog) and from affection for the processes I use to make pictures.  Although my skills of observation and craft are good, there is a fundamental element which makes a picture succeed that is outside of my control.  It is a gift of grace every time it occurs and is always a surprise.  This element eludes me every time I try to control it.  When a painting succeeds, I have not created it, but rather have participated in it.

I paint because I love and because I love to paint.  The better I become at both, the more readily accessed and identified is this grace, and the better will be my contribution.

About Brian T. Kershisnik

By Brian Kershisnik

Brian T. Kershisnik, painter, was born the fourth and last son of excellent parents. Because of his father’s employment as a petroleum geologist, he grew up in Luanda Angola, Bangkok Thailand, Conroe Texas, and Islamabad Pakistan. He graduated from high school early, not because of sterling merit, but because the American Embassy in Islamabad Pakistan was burned and he was evacuated and the seniors graduated. After a year of college at the University of Utah searching in vain for vocation, he served for a time as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Denmark. He returned to the USA to study art at Brigham Young University, during which studies he received a grant to study in London for six months. After graduate studies in Austin Texas, he and his young family moved to Kanosh, a very small town in central Utah where he worked on paintings and his house for 16 years. He now lives in Provo, Utah, but continues to paint in his beautiful Kanosh studio.