Podcast transcription: Brian Kershisnik Is Looking for Something
Glen Nelson: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Center's Studio Podcast. I'm your host Glen Nelson. The music you've just heard is "Tomorrow Morning" by Tiny Bicycle Parade, a duo of Steve Vistaunet and Brian Kershisnik. I'm here today with Brian. Welcome.
Brian Kershisnik: Glad to be here. Glen.
Glen Nelson: Let's start with the song. This was the first track of your 2017 album. And then maybe we can use that to move our way into your visual artwork. The lyrics for "Tomorrow Morning" aren't a bad introduction into your body of visual work: "This may not last until tomorrow. So look at all of the love you borrow. And time will tell us all. We could be laughing. We could be married, tomorrow morning."
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah, Paul Buchanan. Blue Nile cover.
Glen Nelson: And you are the lead singer?
Brian Kershisnik: I am. Yeah, yeah.
Glen Nelson: I recognize your voice. In that song, I also hear nostalgia and hope and a little bit of longing too, and dose of moral purpose.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: How far off am I?
Brian Kershisnik: No, I think that's why I have always loved that song and loved his work. And one of the things that happened when I first met Steve... he is a complete music lunatic I mean he knows...
Glen Nelson: He's like an encyclopedia?
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah, everything. And I'm not. I play, and I love music, but I'm not anything like on his level, but I knew and love Blue Nile, and so that was kind of...
Glen Nelson: The guitar is your instrument?
Brian Kershisnik: Yes. We became close friends and play every Thursday night, still. We are doing a performance in Provo at the end of the month.
Glen Nelson: You rehearse each week or you perform every week?
Brian Kershisnik: No, we rehearse each week.
Glen Nelson: How long you have been doing that?
Brian Kershisnik: 10 years.
Glen Nelson: How about that! How did you and Steve meet?
Brian Kershisnik: It was at a party. A mutual friend had a Christmas party, and he was playing Christmas songs on the piano. And I said, "I got my guitar in the car." And he didn't, he didn't... I didn't realize he was rolling his eyes, but he was thinking, "Oh, great." But I got the guitar, and we started playing, and I thought, "Wow, we should do something here." And we just realized that at our ages, we were going to realize one day that neither of us had picked up our instruments for six months.
Glen Nelson: That's right.
Brian Kershisnik: And so we thought, "You know, let's just try to do this every week just because we need it. We benefit from it." It's really been a lifesaver, actually. We don't have time. I mean, almost every week there are plenty of reasons to not get together, but we just need it and love it so much, that it's very rare that we miss.
Glen Nelson: My excuse to get you into the studio to chat today is the recent appearance of a monograph of your paintings titled, Looking for Something, issued by Unicorn Publishing in London, 2018. It has around 225 pages of selected paintings and essays by yourself, critic Geoff Wichert, and Faith Kershisnik. So how did the book come about?
Brian Kershisnik: Well, Don Linn is the Chicago representative for Unicorn Books. They'd opened an office in Chicago, and he was looking for American projects. And he was aware of my work from my gallery in Park City, Meyer Gallery. And so I got a phone call one day. It must have been two years ago or so. Projects like that take quite a long time. There's a previous book that was about 10-15 years ago. And so it seemed like it was time to do another one. And it was different publisher.
Glen Nelson: How did you decide what paintings to put in it?
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah, that's tricky because I do a lot of paintings. I generally paint somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 paintings a year and have been doing so for a lot of years now. So there are thousands of paintings.
Glen Nelson: Were the selections basically taking up where the earlier monograph left off, or is this more for the full career?
Brian Kershisnik: No, this is not this was not envisioned as a chapter two. They just went from the beginning. There are some pieces that appear in both books. But essentially what happened was they told Faith and I to compress the 2500 or 3000 paintings down, initially to 800 and then to 400, from which they would pick the ones. And I depended hugely on Faith for that because this is very difficult. I'm not particularly objective about my own work. My paintings will be important to me for reasons that are not part of why you like a painting. And so I think it was important that I not be the only voice in deciding what was in. So essentially what would happen... It was kind of funny. We joke about it although... I would be sitting down with Faith, and we'd be going through the pieces one at a time: in, out, in, out, in. And so usually what would happen is after about 15 or 20 minutes of that, I would be so frustrated. And I'd get up, and I would stomp off, saying, "Faith, you are ruining my legacy." [Laughs.]
Glen Nelson: It's like a digital dating site--swiping left or swiping right.
Brian Kershisnik: And I didn't get... I suppose there were some times there was real frustration. I mean, I never felt like she was ruining my legacy, but it is very difficult. There were pieces that were very difficult for me to let go into that pile of "outs."
Glen Nelson: I talk with artists who have a big retrospective--and in some ways, a book like this is a retrospective exhibition, just printed instead of hung--and they have a really difficult time after it's over. Because it's like, "Okay, that's sort of a summation of my career, like now what am I supposed to do?"
Brian Kershisnik: Now what happens?
Glen Nelson: I don't imagine with you was quite like that because you have an extraordinary work ethic and you kind of know how to generate ideas.
Brian Kershisnik: There's a beautiful Degas quote, and I'm paraphrasing it, but essentially he says that for an artist, it's about what he's going to do. People will ask me, what's your favorite painting that you've done? And it's very hard for me to even think about that. I mean, I haven't done it yet. I'm working on it. I'm thinking forward. So the project took a long time and was frankly a pretty significant distraction from working. And then when everything is out of my hands, there's quite a while before you're seeing any book. So once everything was sent off, it was kind of a relief to just dive back into a studio without the distraction.
Glen Nelson: That's publishing.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah, yeah.
Glen Nelson: So regarding bad questions--and now I'm super anxious that my questions are going to be as bad. But I promise, I'm not going to ask like, "What's your favorite painting?," which seems like the laziest question that anyone could possibly ask.
Brian Kershisnik: Well, I mean, you haven't asked it, but I will tell an anecdote where someone asked me, "How do you sell them? And aren't they like your children?" And I said, "Well, they're like my grown children. I love you, but it's time to go, because they're more coming."
Glen Nelson: Reviewing past interviews and articles about your work, a substantial number of the questions put to you are in some way trying to demystify the paintings. Like, they keep asking about your process, or the number of paintings you make year, the meaning of them, how you get ideas, what you want people to see in them, your intent, and so on. I prefer not to ask you those questions, if that's okay.
Brian Kershisnik: That is grand.
Glen Nelson: All right. I was taken with some of the ideas that Geoff Wichert describes in his lovely essay for the book titled, "Gravity Lessons." And here's what he said, in part, "There may be no parable of gravity in The Revelation Quartet, the name of a major painting, "but there are many deliberate references to gravity Kershisnik's body of work. In related paintings done over several months or years, in a way he has of meditating on questions that interest him, figures confront this inescapable, yet invisible and utterly mysterious force in the form of a disembodied arrow pointing down. It makes gravity visible in a painterly way, even as it explicitly questions the relationship between the figures and the arrows, which represent both the physical force and knowledge of it, however, unaware of times. Kershisnik has said that when he paints always in this inquiring, open-ended frame of mind, he's searching for something, but he isn't sure what. In fact, the exact nature of what he is searching for is part, perhaps the most important part, of the search." So do you think of your paintings as some kind of searching?
Brian Kershisnik: I do. I'm actually working on a series of paintings right now that emerged simply from my interest in the beach. I don't live on the beach. I grew up on the beach and was really fascinated by some of the paintings of people on beaches, I'm very often drawn to a subject not because of the metaphors in it but just because it feels like it looks good. I'm drawn to it, almost always, for formal reasons, and then the metaphors start to emerge from the process. But these paintings of people walking on beaches, beachcombing, looking for things on the beach, I think is a good metaphor for what painting is like. For me, the sea, which is where the world we know disappears underneath the world we don't know, spits little things up, accidentally and incidentally. And if we had been walking six feet over, we wouldn't have seen this thing. But I think that painting for me is kind of like beachcombing. And so when I go to the studio... I always have a sketchbook in my back pocket, and ideas come from conversations--from conversations you hear someone else having... Just yesterday, we were in the Met, and Faith pointed out some labels on some Chinese pottery. Obviously, I'm not going to be making pottery, but I love the idea of "Dish with Immortals," you know, I mean, that I think that's, that's going to be a painting... I mean, I was in the next room, and Faith said, "Oh, you've got to come in here and look at these titles."
Glen Nelson: Yeah, well done, scout.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: So then the images in the text sparked potential.
Brian Kershisnik: In that instance, it wasn't the visual. It was kind of taking the text away from the visual and saying, "What would my painting...." This was an actual dish with immortals on it, but I'm kind of thinking of a... One of them was "Dish with Immortals and a Still Life." And so, you know, I'm combining those a little bit differently. But those accidental things that suggest other imagery start to get me thinking and searching and looking--finding shells on the beach, finding clues for what is out there underneath that ocean.
Glen Nelson: This kind of probing, it's almost scientific, in a way.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah. Well, when Geoff's talking about gravity, the depictions of gravity, that is in my mind kind of a response to some things I understand, or maybe more precisely, don't understand about a scientific look at gravity. I mean, there's this thing that we experienced constantly, and depicting it in some pictorial way as either with arrows pointing down, are there other ways, in some instances, people are standing on ground with arrows pushing up because of my understanding of all of these pressures that are coming at us from all angles--=electromagnetic forces and gravitational forces and all these things. I perceive the world as being just all of these particles, and sometimes I paint those particles.
Glen Nelson: Very cool. I'm thinking of your paintings as you're speaking, and there are all these little bits that pop out. It's not like a mastery of these principles that govern the world, but rather a curiosity about things.
Brian Kershisnik: And I think in some ways, I prefer almost a childlike naiveté in an exposure to a profound principle. I like to understand science. I like to understand these things. But one of the things I love about certain scientists is this kind of childish fascination and delight with these amazing things. And I kind of try to approach those ideas like a child.
Glen Nelson: An extension of that is the whole human condition.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: And so that seems to me to be a big part of your work. It reminds me of the author and playwright, Anton Chekhov, whose day job was a doctor. But then he could create the short stories and plays that were so rich in an understanding of how people work.
Brian Kershisnik: Right.
Glen Nelson: And I think your art has some connections like that.
Brian Kershisnik: Well, and I suppose the angle that I come at--and maybe Chekhov did a lot of this, too, maybe anyone who writes about humans has at least an element of this--but I like to look at the fact that you have two people, who are even connected to each other and know each other very well, possibly even are married, or in the same family, and it is very difficult for the one standing two feet from the other to really know what is happening for that person, right there. And that mystery that is just right in your living room is... that's fascinating to me. And obviously, it creates comical misunderstandings, tragic misunderstandings, all kinds of things.
Glen Nelson: It is the complexity of daily life.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: I mean, you've occasionally written about it, about the mundane, and somehow the elevation of those things. But everything around us is so complex, if you really break it down, it is unknowable.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah. And I remember in art school, they used to say, you know, "Be sure you paint what you know," and my response was, "But if you paint what you don't know, that's a much larger territory to explore."
Glen Nelson: And my view is, "Who knows anything?"
Brian Kershisnik: Who knows anything?
Glen Nelson: Speaking of knowledge, you have scientists in your family. Let's talk about them a little bit, your growing up, where that happened, and so on. So your dad worked in the petroleum industry, is that right?
Brian Kershisnik: That's correct.
Glen Nelson: What was his job?
Brian Kershisnik: A geologist, and he got into geology in the late 50s. It was a very fascinating, adventurous time to be a young petroleum geologist. And he, my both my parents were raised in Rock Springs, Wyoming. And the deal when they got married was, "We're going to go, we're going to go somewhere far away." And every summer growing up, we always went back to Rock Springs. I still have quite a connection and lots of friends and family there. But they got married. My dad got a job with Gulf Oil, and he said, "Far is good." And they sent them to Sicily. And most of his career was overseas. So we grew up there.
Glen Nelson: And you're the youngest of four?
Brian Kershisnik: That's correct. Yeah.
Glen Nelson: Okay, so where were you born?
Brian Kershisnik: I was born in Oklahoma. They were back in the states for a while, But then when I was five, we moved to Portuguese West Africa, to Angola. Then we were there for a number of years, then moved to Bangkok, Thailand. We were there... I can't remember, I guess I was just about to start high school, and we left Thailand, and moved to Texas for a few years, and then to Pakistan. By then it was time for college. Actually, I graduated early from high school because of the burning of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, which it wasn't as big news here, because it was right during the Iran crisis--and actually, it was partially in response to what was happening in Iran--but we remember it very well.
Glen Nelson: I'm sure.
Brian Kershisnik: We ran and hid.
Glen Nelson: That experience is so different from mine. And I can't imagine that those experiences didn't inform a lot about how you see things in the world.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: What lessons did you learn from all of that?
Brian Kershisnik: I think about it fairly often and talk to my mother about it. My father was not evacuated. He stayed, but the dependants were all evacuated.
Glen Nelson: I guess I'm talking more generally. All of these international experiences, they had to have shaped your worldview growing up.
Brian Kershisnik: Oh, yeah. The world is for me, I think as a result of my experience, a fascinating, kind of divine, but not really clearly understandable place. I've become comfortable with the fact that it is not all completely fathomable to me. I appreciate that, in long conversations late into the night, particularly with my mother, to explore aspects of theology and the wonders of the world in a way, that where I grew up with a sense that the world that I'm in, there is safety, but not full understanding. I'm comfortable with the world that I don't fully understand. Maybe too comfortable. I should try to figure more of it out.
Glen Nelson: It's not just the geographies of these places of Angola and Thailand and Pakistan, but those are three very distinct cultures, and languages, and prominent religions, and so on. And so it's not like your parents were at Oxford and so you're in London and Paris and Dublin. It's very different.
Brian Kershisnik: No, no. And in that period of time, children were essentially set loose, you know. I mean, we went out, and we'd be gone all day and come back for dinner, and my parents didn't know where we were. And this strange experiences we had... Fortunately, I survived them.
Glen Nelson: And food, and the sonic and visual things that you saw...
Brian Kershisnik: And the experience of the religions, Christian and otherwise, in Angola. And the fact that every year our field trips, when I lived in Bangkok, were to visit usually Buddhist temples, or a monk would come into class and meditate with us, teach us the things about meditation. I grew up with, not just an interest and fascination, but pretty deep respect for a lot of ways of trying to fathom the mystery. And I feel like I gained a lot from all those various things.
Glen Nelson: I've known over the years, a lot of expats, and maybe they grew up in a place, you know, with maybe their parents were in the military. Those are sort of cloistered experiences. They might have been posted in the Philippines, but you couldn't really quiz them on Filipino culture. They just didn't really partake of it. So in these different places, did you also travel to other places? Were your schools international schools, for professionals or were they part of the general culture?
Brian Kershisnik: I would have to say that there was at least some of what you're saying in our experience. We were not on a compound. We just lived in the city. Economically, expatriates from an oil company, you know...
Glen Nelson: Well, you're using American dollars.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah, well, my father's income was in American dollars. My allowance was always in baht and whatever, rupees and whatever. But we would go into the city to go to the movies. The schools, the international schools, were generally half American and half everywhere else. And so we didn't go to Thai schools, and so we weren't immersed in the culture to that degree. But the food... An example is if I wanted to have some fried rice in Thailand, Mom was a little uncomfortable with the hygiene of the dishes of the little restaurant across the street, so she just sent me send me across street with my own bowl. And I'd pay 25 cents for a bowl of fried rice and come home and eat it. But we did eat a lot of food on the street, and we survived that, too.
Glen Nelson: In addition to that part of your life, then in undergrad, you also lived in London to study?
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah. When I was evacuated from Pakistan, my brother was at the University of Utah. So I came to Salt Lake City, and then got the news that high school was over. This was November of my senior year, so it's just like a quarter into my senior year. And so I started school at the U. And then after about a year of school there, I turned 19, went on a mission to Denmark. While I was in Denmark, my parents moved to Norway, and so after my mission, I just went over the North Sea up to Norway.
Glen Nelson: How long did you live in Norway?
Brian Kershisnik: In Norway, because I was starting school, it was kind of back and forth. So probably a total of six months or so. But I spoke enough--Danish and Norwegian are similar enough that I could adjust to make myself understood--so I enjoyed my time in Norway.
Glen Nelson: If I'm dotting the world map of places where you've been, there are quite a lot of dots.
Brian Kershisnik: There are a lot of dots, and they're very different kinds of dots.
Glen Nelson: And you and Faith still travel quite a bit now?
Brian Kershisnik: We do as much as we can, but not as much as we'd like. I love to travel and have a lot of experience, and she hasn't been to as many places. So I'm kind of...
Glen Nelson: Circling back?
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah, we've been to Paris a few times because we really love it. But I'm anxious to figure out how we can get to Italy and take her to also to Slovenia, which is where both my father's and mother's families are from, Slovenia.
Glen Nelson: How far back?
Brian Kershisnik: Both grandfathers are 100%. So my mother's father immigrated as a little boy. My father's father was born in the U.S. to a Slovenian immigrant. I've a lot of cousins there, family there. We're still in touch.
Glen Nelson: So if I'm painting a picture of you, this is a pretty broad worldview. How do you think all that informs the work that you're doing?
Brian Kershisnik: Well, I've thought about that, and I'm glad to talk to you about it, but I don't know that I'm the last word on it or that I have figured it out. But I think that there...
Glen Nelson: Because you're more intuitive, you don't really need to articulate what it is?
Brian Kershisnik: Well, certainly the way that I approach my work is not to figure something out and then paint it to explain it to you. The painting is part of even trying to articulate the question, let alone come to the conclusion.
Glen Nelson: You can tell.
Brian Kershisnik: And I feel that--my own sense of that--is that the way I approach work, I can be more truthful that way than in coming up with a message and then trying to convey it. Instead, I'm asking you to come with me to look for the message.
Glen Nelson: Yes. I think that invitation is one of the most attractive aspects of it, to people who are seeing your work, especially with the first time. They completely feel invited in.
Brian Kershisnik: Well, I hope so. And when they don't, what's funny to me is they'll ask me, "Well, what does this painting mean?" And they realize after talking for three or four minutes that, "Oh, he doesn't know, either."
Glen Nelson: You're not the one to ask.
Brian Kershisnik: Oh, yeah, "That this painting is about not knowing exactly what's going on under these circumstances." So the assumption is often that if someone doesn't understand fully a painting, that everyone else gets it, it's a joke that they don't get. But as soon as they can realize that no, no, this is a painting about wondering what is going on or what is going to happen or, you know, that that is an actual element of the composition. Then they can relax a little more into that question mark.
Glen Nelson: Well, art is a communication, but questions are also communication.
Brian Kershisnik: They are. They are, very much so.
Glen Nelson: Back to the global thing, what kind of influence do you think that might have on how you paint?
Brian Kershisnik: One that I've identified is that I believe that there is an element of foreignness, of displacement that not only squares with my experience of being a stranger, and kind of needing to assimilate into a new circumstance every couple of years, but also my view of the cosmos--my sense of our being here in this life on this earth, that there's a foreignness to it. There's a sensation that we bump up against of stepping on a stair that isn't there; it alarms us, but we know there should have been something there. I feel like, through my life, I get these reminders that we need to figure this out, but part of it doesn't really belong here, isn't quite settled here. And I believe that I see that repeatedly in the paintings.
Glen Nelson: Some of the figures--well, many of the figures--in your paintings are not just isolated, but almost disembodied from their environments. Let's say those are that are flying around or defying gravity or doing whatever. So it's also structurally part of what you're trying to achieve.
Brian Kershisnik: Yes.
Glen Nelson: I didn't know all this international stuff about you at all until kind of recently, and I had this experience that I will tell you about. So one day, I was minding my own business at the Metropolitan Museum, and they had just installed these new Islamic art galleries that are just gorgeous. I mean, like, they really did it right. And I'm always attracted to the intersections of art and literature--so illuminated manuscripts and artists' books and things like that. I was looking at the Met's collection of Medieval Persian manuscripts, and all of a sudden, I thought of you.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: There were these flat figures. They're pretty two-dimensional, not trying to be realistic regarding depth. And sometimes they were completely separate from their background. And other times they were acting sort of fancifully, you know, maybe unrealistically, surrealistically, against a backdrop of colorful, geometric patterns. And sometimes they were doing supernatural things, too. And they commonly added text to the image, kind of describing it or sort of giving it a title or a context or something. And I said to myself, "Oh, that's like a Brian painting!"
Brian Kershisnik: Well, I think that those observations are spot-on. I love that work, too. And I've been fascinated by it for long time. There's this element that you mentioned that they're not realistically depicted. I think that's an accurate description; however, it feels to me like they're aiming for a different kind of accuracy--that a photograph would miss, that an exact painting would miss. The reality we experience is not just a visual reality. And if we're too fixated on it being visually accurate, then it is sometimes metaphorically inaccurate. That happens to us all the time, when we tell stories about fantastic things that happened to us. And sometimes I've had the experience where I was also present when someone is telling that story. And my sensation is, "That's not exactly how it happened." But I realized that the storyteller is being true to how it felt. And if he just gives you the cold sequence, then it's true, it is visually accurate, but it is not at all true to how the experience felt, you know? And so sometimes fictional elements in all of the arts are necessary to make them truer, and I feel like the works that you're describing--one of the reasons I'm influenced by them--is I feel that they were after an accuracy that is influenced by... Certainly involves enough accuracy for us to identify the subjects, but there's something truer about how those interactions are being described in that surreal way. I feel like I'm reaching for, grasping for, trying to locate...
Glen Nelson: I'm following you. Because this idea of, what is fiction, even?
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: It's really tricky. How true is true? You would say, "Oh, well, if I just took my camera, and I made a documentary, that would be truth." But documentaries are edited. They're lit.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
Glen Nelson: They're from a single point of view, rather than, you know, it's not this 360-filming.
Brian Kershisnik: Well, Adam Miller's paper at the festival a few years ago about truth emerging from fiction. I mean, that's kind of a gross, short paraphrase. But most of the--maybe even all of the--stories we have from Jesus are fiction. As a matter of fact, Faith is reading a book called The Short Stories of Jesus. That is, they are fiction from which truth is derived. And I think sometimes we don't allow those elements to affect our sense of truth enough. We just want to know what actually happened. I think in human interactions, it is very difficult to get to what actually happened, and it's important to kind of make sense of it, give it a shape. I feel like that's what art kind of is about, and all of its media: It is from fiction that we actually come to better understand our lives. I would guess--and this is just an intuitive guess--that if we had been present with Abraham and Isaac, we might not recognize the story as it exists in Genesis. We might not recognize it at all. And that's not saying that it's been fictionalized, or it's not true, but just that certain things are emphasized in a story as it becomes important that remove it a little bit from the accuracy you would have sensed when you've been present.
Glen Nelson: Well, the four gospels... as I'm reading, I'm thinking, "Oh, someone's taking notes at Jesus’ birth," you know. Oh, no, that's not really how it played out.
Brian Kershisnik: Interestingly, in Zealot by [Reza] Aslan, he kind of talks about how Luke would have had no notion at all of writing an accurate, journalistic history. He wasn't avoiding that. He just would have had no notion of that. He had a message to relay. That was the truth. And so whether or not the things happened precisely in that order is not really central to the whole thing.
Glen Nelson: I think artists get this innately--this idea there's nothing definitive. They're going to do their version of a thing, and they're going to put it out there and invite other people to interpret how they will. And if the interpretation is really, really far afield, they might nudge them a little bit back but not to expect that other people have the exact same reading that they would.
Brian Kershisnik: Right.
Glen Nelson: I will say regarding your work, I'm uncomfortable when I've read in some press or even articles with you, the vocabulary of faux naïve. I don't see that.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: For me, it connotes that it's not intellectually rigorous, somehow. It's just that you're putting your energy, kind of, in a different sort of probing way.
Brian Kershisnik: I would say that the idea of faux naïve would only... that it is utilizing some of the tools that a naïve artist might use in order to really explore some things that are very true and very intellectually rigorous, even. That's the faux part. Kev Nemelka has written some essays about faux naiveté in a couple of artists, that we're not naïve, we're kind of utilizing some of their tools.
Glen Nelson: Right. To my mind, at least, it's not like Outsider Art where the people... one of the exciting things about that body of work is the fact that they're not trained, right? So you are trained.
Brian Kershisnik: We are trained.
Glen Nelson: And you specifically, your master's degrees in printmaking...
Brian Kershisnik: Right.
Glen Nelson: Which can be very technical, even more than a lot of contemporary art schools do with painting, and so on. And also the emphasis on flatness in printmaking is quite common, and the final product is quite flat compared to other things.
Brian Kershisnik: Right.
Glen Nelson: So I like that we're sort of on the same page, reading of it. Let me jump back to Middle East and Africa and Asia influences. Did you see artwork there? Did you go to museums? Did you have that kind of experience?
Brian Kershisnik: It's interesting to me. My parents having been raised in Rock Springs, Wyoming, there was there wasn't a lot of original art work in the house.
Glen Nelson: Where is Rock Springs?
Brian Kershisnik: Southern, Western Wyoming.
Glen Nelson: And the biggest town close to that?
Brian Kershisnik: Rock Springs is the big town. Evanston. Evanston is smaller than Rock Springs. There's not a lot in Wyoming. But they, as they traveled the world, would gather artifacts. There would be carvings, temple rubbings from Asia, and masks and such from Africa. We would go to museums. As a child I was more interested in the Natural History sections of the museums rather than the paintings. My interest in art growing up was mostly in the books that I read, the illustrators: Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss and Mercer Mayer. They are high on the list of my influences, along with the Lascaux cave paintings and Giotto and Paul Klee and Rembrandt and Degas, Modigliani, and Chagall, you know, that I put those illustrators high on that list. But what seemed to happen to me as I grew up telling stories, drawing pictures, but kind of cartoony pictures--no one would have looked at my drawings and thought, "Oh, this boy has promise." They seemed to me very common kind of children's drawing. I look at some of them now and think, "Yeah, you are kind of reaching for that gesture in that not-quite stick figure." There is maybe a subtle profundity and some of the ways that I enjoyed drawing.
Glen Nelson: In your book, Looking for Something, you have an essay, and I'm going to force you to read.
Brian Kershisnik: Okay.
Glen Nelson: The first paragraph. It speaks to why you make art.
Brian Kershisnik: "I make art because I'm searching for things. I don't approach my easel with the overriding objective of changing anything or anyone. Rather, I, myself, am looking for something. This looking teaches me and teases thinking out of me, and precipitates conversation between my internal and external worlds in ways that do me a great deal of good."
Glen Nelson: All right, so anything more about that, this idea of searching?
Brian Kershisnik: I feel that... I would by no means suggest that conclusions are not vital and important. And in certain fields, more and more important. And we live in a world in which amazing things are being discovered. And understanding the world around us. But I feel like in my realm, in my profession, if I have a gift, it is about keeping alive the fascination and wonder, keeping alive the question mark, not being so preoccupied with the arrival. I remember talking one time to a doctor, who, in talking about DNA evidence, was saying, "For hundreds of years, we thought this, but now we know." He said and went on to say, "What we now know." And I just remember talking to him saying, "Do you not think that in 50 years, they will laugh--in five years, maybe, they will laugh--at what we now know?" It is a continuation. We do have to keep pushing. I don't know if this answers your question, but I do feel like I want to get better at asking good questions. I feel like my understanding of the world, I feel like my understanding of the cosmos, my understanding of my theology, is almost always based on when the question can be stated well. The answer is almost right next door when you can ask the right question. And so I go looking for those questions. I think I mentioned earlier, I feel I can be more honest with you in looking than I can in coming up with a conclusion and then making a painting to manipulate you to feel a certain way. I feel like I speak of that almost as if that's a bad thing. I feel like there are artists that can do that better than others. But really, the art that I love contains some of those open-ended things, even if there's something profound to understand and that is conveyed in the piece. I am more interested in the paintings that convey an emotion rather than concrete data. Data is going to be outdated. It's going to be. The emotion isn't.
Glen Nelson: Let's say you're framing your own curiosity. You're framing questions and your own experience, which includes things that have not happened to you--that's what imagination is for--so there's this element of communication. And then you put the painting--and we're talking paintings, but you obviously do many more things than paintings; you do sculpture, you do drawings, you do prints, you do...
Brian Kershisnik: Music.
Glen Nelson: Exactly. But it's all sort of the same. There's a lot of connection between those things. So you put those things out into the world. What kind of communication are you hoping comes back to you? Or is it like a time capsule that you're just launching some of these things out into the universe?
Brian Kershisnik: You know, that is a really good question. And I do hear back it. People do write me emails about ways that their lives are influenced, or they asked me, "This is what I feel about this painting, what does it really mean?" And I very much avoid answering that.
Glen Nelson: Commonalities, "I have a dog just like your dog," or...
Brian Kershisnik: People have a host of reasons of why they connect to a painting. I haven't answered this question before, so I'm going to try this and see how it feels. But I feel almost like when my work is done with a piece, it's none of my business. I'm continuing to... what I need to do is keep working. Conversations emerge, but I'm not demanding that or even asking for it. I get a certain number of requests every year, "Would you write a little bit about this painting?" And that is almost a distraction from what it is I really feel like I need to be doing.
Glen Nelson: Because it limits it.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah, it runs the danger of closing the horizons on what the painting can mean. I avoid when people say, "Yeah, but what did you mean?" I avoid answering that question. I will talk about it. But I avoid answering the question of "What did you mean?" for just exactly that reason, Glen, that if I have mined my own experience profoundly, then I am talking about your experience. And what you take away from the painting is every bit as legitimate as what I intended, and possibly for you more legitimate than what I intended. The implication will be that because I painted it, you're somehow obligated--I don't know you personally would react this way, but when I'm answering someone's question, that they are somehow obligated--to accommodate my intention.
Glen Nelson: Or to be critical of it.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah. Right. It opens it up. I feel like very often that answering the question of what did you really mean, opens up the painting for all kinds of conversations that are peripheral to what it can or should be accomplishing.
Glen Nelson: Yeah. That said, I'm sure you love that people are looking closely.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: It's just that there's not really an elegant mechanism to engage that way.
Brian Kershisnik: When I am asked--and I am asked often--certainly a show opening, and someone has to acquired a painting and they want to talk to me about the painting, I just try to shift the conversation from "What did you really mean?" to just talking about the painting as a spectator, like they are.
Glen Nelson: How meaningful is it for you, when you have, let's say, a critic, like Geoff Wickert, who's thinking deeply about your work and writes about it? That must be satisfying in a different kind of way. Or no?
Brian Kershisnik: Yes, it is. Deeply. But I don't know how common this is--it's fairly common among artists in many, many, many different media--there is this worry that we are imposters, that maybe it isn't quite as profound, this experience we're having in the studio. So when someone like Geoff, who's writing about it in language that, I mean, is his own language, and is emphasizing things that I haven't maybe not either not noticed or noticed to that extent, there is a sense of, "Okay, maybe it does mean more than I intend." Because I do really feel like good art work needs to be accomplishing more than the artist is intending. That's kind of an indication that it is important. And so when someone, and there are a number of people that have written, that have helped me understand my work better, that is satisfying.
Glen Nelson: I have a bunch of friends who are poets, and this is the exact conversation that they have. They don't want to explain every word, every phrase. That goes against what the whole thing is about. I think of your work as poetic in this way. You've created in many cases these people, animals, and plants that are like Everyman. And you've talked about that, using those terms. And there's a humanity to them. And just like a poet who is trying to describe an experience, and for the most part, they're looking for some sort of universal truths of things--that's why poets have this reputation of being more aware and more all-seeing than the rest of us. One of the things that's a little unnerving about your paintings is that these are just average people, but that's one of their great benefits too: Everybody sees in them himself or herself.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah, there are certainly movements in art that have explored that through the heroic, and I'm not doing that. I do paint heroes every once while, and you can tell because I have labeled them a "hero" because they're an anomaly in my work. Or in these paintings that I expect to emerge from these pots that Faith was showing me in the Met... Painting immortals, you know, somebody that is kind of outside... In the first sketches that are in my sketchbook in my pocket right now, you can't tell which are immortals and which are not, and I like that. I think that might be kind of the direction that I go. I feel like there is something really important and really sacred in things that are extremely common. And I'm kind of looking for that: picking up shells to see what's on the other side to look for the evidences of God's fingerprints in a peanut butter sandwich, you know.
Glen Nelson: So for you then, my guess is--you're a student of art history, both as a student and your ongoing engagement with museums that tell them a broader story. My guess is as art moved away from being about kings and scriptures and became about the common man, that must have been an aha thing? You can imagine that for them being an aha moment? The average person could be worthy of the same kind of treatment that a king might have.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah, and it is maybe not coincidental that that happened historically, as the power of government was being dispersed more generally.
Glen Nelson: Realism...
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: ... generally speaking, it's a democratizing idea.
Brian Kershisnik: It is. And in the democratization of governments and of the arts, some things are lost, and some things are gained. But I do feel like for the most part, I'm exploring a common holiness. I feel like a lot of holiness and heroic action is missed because it is perceived as common. And so we miss it. We don't realize that...
Glen Nelson: You're elevating it, in part, just because you're interested in it.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah. Fascinated by... I have a series of paintings that I'm working on right now called "Invisible Burden" where there's a man or a woman carrying some very heavy thing that no one else can see. Part of the common heroics is that most people can't even see what is taking place. So that your interaction with that guy on the subway was not worse than it actually was, you know. And we tend to think, "Oh, that guy was rude to me," but compared to what he's carrying with him today, that was actually a pretty heroic encounter.
Glen Nelson: And this is what the best poets do all day long--this kind of flipping of the ordinary, to make it special, to honor it, to make it sacred, almost, in a way.
Brian Kershisnik: And I feel like--certainly among the poets that I interact with and the ones that I read--that there is a sense that the poet is also surprised by that flipping. When I approach anything creatively, that's what I'm hoping for. I am hoping to be surprised by profundity rather than to invent it and present it. I'm looking for it. I can be delighted by my work in a certain way, because it surprised me, you know, rather than trying to make you surprised by my brilliance.
Glen Nelson: And there's joy in that surprise. And that joy comes through in every inch of your painting, even the works that are probing, and sad, and have to deal with loss and so on.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah. That is my hope. That is my reach, my objective.
Glen Nelson: We've mentioned a few art forms. I'm just curious what other art forms that you like. There's a lot of dancing in your painting.
Brian Kershisnik: There is, and some of it might even be professional dancing, but most of it is fairly heavy-footed. It's more common dancing.
Glen Nelson: So as an audience member, do you follow dance?
Brian Kershisnik: I could not be said to be a connoisseur that will know a lot of names and that sort of thing, but I love to go to dance concerts. I love... Faith is more knowledgeable and has introduced me to a lot of companies that are fascinating to me.
Glen Nelson: What about music?
Brian Kershisnik: I listen to music all the time and go to concerts when I can. And it's a huge spectrum.
Glen Nelson: Do you write music?
Brian Kershisnik: I do. I do. Yeah. Most of the work on that album, the Tiny Bicycle Parade album, is original. There's probably a third of it or so that isn't.
Glen Nelson: What about theater? Are you theatergoers?
Brian Kershisnik: My ex-wife was a director of children's theatre, so as my children were growing up, I was heavily involved in Shakespeare productions from the perspective of building sets and being involved from that side. And obviously, we attended a lot of plays.
Glen Nelson: I grew up in Cedar City, so obviously Shakespeare. I saw so much Shakespeare that I just assumed, everybody in high school had seen Hamlet six times.
Brian Kershisnik: Right. And my growing up did not involve a lot of Shakespeare. My children certainly did. I love the theater. And I love particularly the idea of theater and a stage and the artifice to teach the truth. There are things about that that I'd find...
Glen Nelson: Writers about your work have commented on the theatricality in the sense that they seem like a set waiting for things to happen...
Brian Kershisnik: Right.
Glen Nelson: Or that are beginning to happen.
Brian Kershisnik: In my first paintings... One of the first paintings I remember ever doing was an empty stage.
Glen Nelson: And about how old would you imagine being?
Brian Kershisnik: I was in college. I didn't do any painting until college. I actually went to college with the intention of being a potter, to then go into architecture for my masters. That was my intention. And so I spent a summer living with Joe and Lee Bennion in Central Utah and learned that I'm not a potter. And the first paintings I did were with Lee's paint box, and she remains a huge presence.
Glen Nelson: You tell that story of the Bennions in the book, and it almost brings a tear to the eye. You can visualize the influence that these two wonderful people had on you.
Brian Kershisnik: Oh, yeah. And continue. I mean, just the other day was reading a statement that Joe had made and just realizing, "Oh yeah, that's where that comes from," that I learned that from him.
Glen Nelson: So parade of arts: What about books? Do you read?
Brian Kershisnik: I do. Mostly history.
Glen Nelson: Why is that?
Brian Kershisnik: I don't know that there's a why. I'm just...
Glen Nelson: You're drawn to it for some reason.
Brian Kershisnik: And I do read a good deal of fiction. Actually, I should be careful about saying "a good deal." I feel like I don't read enough. I don't have a life in which there's a reading time every day, so I get a book, and it kind of distorts my life for a couple of weeks. I'm always trying to get away from what I'm doing to read. I am fascinated by the complexity and difficulty. The idea of uncovering what we have not known about events in history is fascinating to me. Comparing the way history has been delivered to us in a simplified version, then to examine it for the complexity, in my mind, doesn't then tear down their heroism of some great figures in our history, but actually makes it... From the perspective that we've been talking about, they had serious problems, and yet they stood up. you know--the formation of our nation, which for a long time, the all of the founding fathers were essentially carved in marble. It doesn't make the miracle less interesting or it doesn't make it less miraculous to me to realize that no, they've fought, and they had difficulties and weaknesses. It kind of authenticates the miracle, for me.
Glen Nelson: This idea of authenticity is everywhere in your work, it seems to me.
Brian Kershisnik: I hope so. Yeah.
Glen Nelson: Yeah. What about collecting? Do you collect other people's work?
Brian Kershisnik: I do. A number of years ago, I just realized I depend so much on people collecting my work that I should... if I want them to, I should do it, too. And my collection is mostly artists that I know, because of course, trades can be arranged. I also collect, fairly extensively, etchings by Old Masters, and I've developed a pretty great collection, I think. But if I have it, it's because the museum didn't want it, you know? I'm not a high roller, but I am patient and tenacious and have been amazed that I can have Degas and Bonnards and Chagalls in my house if I'm patient and tenacious.
Glen Nelson: Have you used those works? Have you studied them and kind of incorporated them somehow into either your finished works or studies for works or just learning to draw and paint and so on?
Brian Kershisnik: I look at them. I have done copies, you know, just sketch copies from some of them. There's something for me, I mean... An etching, for example, is such a beautiful, visceral artifact of an artist's contact with the plate. Next to the plate, it's a few minutes with that artist. Even though it's this paper, it was pressed on to the plate that was drawn by Goya.
Glen Nelson: You can probably imagine the mark making, itself.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: So it's almost like a documentary of the making of its own work. You can sort of see each mark being made.
Brian Kershisnik: I feel like etchings are particularly rich in that regard. I do have lithographs as well, but the process is a little more removed from the hand. But I love just looking at them, looking at them with a microscope, or well, a magnifying glass anyway, being with that work, I feel like, is enriching. And drawing it, too.
Glen Nelson: When I was a kid, my dad purchased these watercolors from somebody we called our uncle, I don't even know if he was an uncle, who at the end of his life didn't have any money. And so when he died, my dad bought all these watercolors so that the guy could have a funeral, essentially. And so those were the only works that we had in our house. And I used to just stare at them. I would look at the finished surface, which was sometimes abraded or manipulated. And then I would look underneath the watercolor to see the marks of sketch marks, and whatever. So I really liked the sort of probing investigation of how an image is built up.
Brian Kershisnik: I love what you're saying about looking at a piece and trying to look in it, and through it, and experience it, is like spending time with the human who made it. That is an enriching experience for me.
Glen Nelson: In recent years, mixed in with your other paintings and other artworks, you've done a number of notable religious subjects--the birth of Jesus, for example, and the death of Jesus. Those aren't autobiographical works for you like some of the other things.
Brian Kershisnik: Actually, they are.
Glen Nelson: Well, I was going to ask you, so how do you put yourself in there, as it were?
Brian Kershisnik: Well, in Nativity, I was teaching at BYU for just a semester, it was a temporary appointment. And I was asking my students to be really ambitious. And so I thought, well, I should be ambitious. So I stretched as big a canvas as I had room in the studio they provided for me, and then was trying to figure out what I would paint, and the idea of painting the birth of Jesus. And technically, the painting is called "Nativity," not "the nativity," because part of what I think is fascinating is the realization of God's fidelity in sending a savior [who] came in a birth--it was your birth and my birth, and it was common birth. It hurt. It was awkward because of where they had to stay. And I included midwives because even though we have no mention of them it's impossible that in Bethlehem that women would not have heard that someone's having a baby. It was just... Someone came and helped. I mean, I'm sure of it. But all of these things I'm sure of because of my own experience with birth. And so I suppose that if I was to pinpoint an autobiographical part, there's Joseph with his hand on his head thinking, "Oh, my gosh, what have I gotten into?"
Glen Nelson: "What is the consequence of this?"
Brian Kershisnik: But also, as I'm painting each of those angelic figures, there's a sense of some of them are very curious, some of the very interested, very happy, some of them are crying. And all of those are emotions that, putting myself into that circumstance, could imagine that... Even knowing that Jesus needed to come, when it is actually happening, I should think, it would be pretty terrifying for some of those beings who knew the stature of the being who had been compressed into this little, purple, hungry, uncoordinated infant. And so it's autobiographical in that sense that I'm putting myself into the position of each of those characters, even though they are occupying a story that we read.
Glen Nelson: Well, the tone of them is liberated from the Old Master: This is what happened.
Brian Kershisnik: Good. Because I very much want to... I am reaching into that event with imagination because the words tell us almost nothing about what happened.
Glen Nelson: I was in a European museum recently looking at Nativity paintings from the Renaissance. And so here is Mary and Joseph in the Infant and some animals on a marble floor with these rafters of bronze. It's like, okay, these are all contemporary works.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: And I think that's one of the aspects that you bring. The person who's looking at them may or may not be able to figure out those sorts of things in their head. They might not have been exposed to enough things to understand that concept of it. But I think it's an invaluable thing to mention.
Brian Kershisnik: One of my favorite stories: My mom, actually, was in the museum when it was exhibited. It was a show at BYU. The painting is now at the Museum of Art. It's now in their collection, but it was first exhibited in a show of theirs. And a family came to the show, and the little kid ran forward to the painting to say, "I gotta find me." You know?
Glen Nelson: Ah, that's the best!
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah, that's perfect. I am not looking for a historical accuracy. I'm looking for an emotional accuracy.
Glen Nelson: I had a phone call about that painting. So I don't think we had met. And I hadn't met Vern Swanson, who called me. And he said, "I've just seen a masterpiece!" One final question for you. I can't tell you the number of times I've gone into somebody's house, and have been surprised to find a painting, drawing, sculpture, or prints of yours on display. It's funny, because now that I know you're a little bit, I feel like you're a frequent six degrees of separation figure with many other people that I know. In many cases though, these friends aren't particularly art collector types. And for whatever reason, your work speaks to them. So your works are in lots of places. How have you dealt with the ubiquity of it? Like, does that kind of get into your head? Or is it fun for you to see the works disseminated so widely? What is your reaction to that part of the business?
Brian Kershisnik: It is surprising. I mean, most of what you're talking about is work--well, I don't know about if most of what you're talking about--but a lot of it is work in reproduction. And it has been surprising to me to realize that the marketing of reproduction... I would have thought that it would have involved significantly more revenue to have some of these reproductions so widely distributed. I'm grateful for the revenue, but I think sometimes it gives other people a kind of a distorted notion of my wealth. [Laughs.] But it's, of course, gratifying to know that people are responding so deeply, and I get very beautiful letters, too. That's very sweet.
Glen Nelson: And you have to think, you know, if these art works are conversations, how many conversations you're having.
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah, and hopefully how many conversations people are having about it, agreeing or disagreeing. I feel like--Faith tells me that I'm misquoting Rumi in a certain poem, but she feels like Rumi would approve of my misquote, if I am in fact misquoting him--but he talks about different levels of communion, that prayer is at one level, and above that is meditation, and above that is conversation. And I perceive that to be what you and I are doing right now, that there is something about fathoming the universe that happens when humans are just talking to each other, and reaching for ideas, and trying to articulate what they mean and what they're trying to give shape to. That is one of the holy ways we have of connecting to the universe. And I think Faith has a good case that it may be talking about communion with God.
Glen Nelson: But you're not against that.
Brian Kershisnik: I'm not at all against that. However, I have found that my world has been changed much more often by community, by conversations than by... That most of the revelations that I feel like I've had from God are some variation of, "I love you. You're going to be fine."
Glen Nelson: Yes.
Brian Kershisnik: I mean, there's some version of that. They're a connection, a confidence, "Keep going, keep trying," you know. I have had some but I don't have a lot where there's a conveyance of understanding or where something is told me so now I understand it. Those almost always emerge from conversations.
Glen Nelson: Well, I'll speak for many, many people when I say, "Yes. Keep going."
Brian Kershisnik: Okay.
Glen Nelson: I want to thank Brian for sitting down today to chat about his work. His book, Looking for Something is available on Amazon. The Neal A. Maxwell Institute published a study edition of the Book of Mormon, with Grant Hardy, editor, a few months ago, we didn't even get to talk about that, with Brian's images throughout. That's also available on Amazon. Also check out the earlier monograph, Kershisnik: Paintings from Life, with authors Leslie Norris and Mark Magleby. And the music Tiny Bicycle Parade, check that out on YouTube, Spotify, and CD Baby. His gallery representation includes the Meyer Gallery, David Ericson Fine Art, New Vision Art, Cocoon works on paper, Saatchi Art. And beyond that, exhibitions of his work appear in multiple other venues. His works hang in museums and public collections, as well. This is getting quite long, this thing of yours; you need to slow down a little bit. Brian's website is kershisnik.com. You can register there to receive announcements and updates on what you're up to. Are you pretty good about letting people know what's going on?
Brian Kershisnik: Yeah, I have I have an assistant who kind of helps keep that going, 'cuz I'm bad at it.
Glen Nelson: The website itself has a tremendous amount of his work, as I think you all can imagine. Did I cover most everything?
Brian Kershisnik: I'm not thinking of anything else.
Glen Nelson: You're a busy man, Mr. Brian. On behalf of the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts, I thank you for listening, as well. Brian's on the Center's Advisory Board, which I could not be happier about. And I couldn't end this without thanking you for everything you're doing. It's just incredible.
Brian Kershisnik: Thank you.
Glen Nelson: For more information about the Center, visit our website: centerforlatterdaysaintarts.org. See you soon. Bye.