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.