Jan 26

Painting God

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.  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?

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.

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 post 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.

Interview in Standard, June-July-August 2006
with Gaspard Koenig


How would you describe the Mormon community you are living in? Do you feel part of it?
Do you have a special function there because you’re a painter?

I live in a very small village– only 500 residents–and although they are not all Mormons, there are about 350 in attendance at church services every week.  As is typical with Mormon congregations, almost everyone has an assignment as do I.  I teach the six year old children in a kind of Sunday school.  My being a painter is thought to be somewhat exotic and my wee brushes with notoriety are a source of pleasure to some in my community, but I have no special function as a painter.  I am more useful to my community when I help someone get a roof on their house or to get their horses or cows back in the pasture.


I read that you loved to discuss theological matters with one of your friends, Dave Williams.
Is your relationship to God something quite theoretical, fairly related to the thought and the meditation, or is it rather an event you experience in violent, passionate, irrational way?

I would have to answer that my discipleship to Christ does and must occupy both realms necessitating an active stretching of the mind toward a unified –though always in this life an incomplete–understanding, and at the same time actual, startling experience with God and his otherworldly messengers.  “Violent” does not describe a typical experience, but such experiences can be quite unsettling.  More often however these experiences are grounding and solidifying, comforting and leading to a sense of resolution even if that resolution is completely unexpected.  Although God’s ways are higher and deeper than ours, in my theology He is acting rationally.

Your paintings often represent, directly (Disheveled Saint) or indirectly (for instance, your “burden” series), religious subjects. To this extent, it seems to me that you belong to the very classicaltradition of western painting. How do you feel about this?

My paintings are religious to the extent that I am religious.  Paintings that emerge from a religious life will be so themselves unless considerable artificial means are used to counteract this.  I  believe that one of the by products of any artist’s work is to reveal the interior “religion” of the artist, whatever her/his outward objectives may be.  It is one of the mortifying aspects of this craft.  It is unavoidable really. 


Do you consider yourself in reaction against “modern” art, as defined by Kandinsky for instance?

Oddly perhaps, no.  Because I believe that the source of power in art is spiritual, I have much to gain and to react against in any movement.  The rhetoric of many artists has little to do with what they are actually accomplishing.  There is much in Modern art that attempts a somewhat cold pure order that I think is foolishness.  I simply yawn and quicken my pace past such heartless work.  Purity is not cold.  If Modern art has helped me realize this through a disproportional number of “bad examples” then it has done me much good, but you cannot call Picasso, or Klee, or Rothko “cold”.


What do you think of the “abstract” kind of  spirituality? (Rothko…)

See above.  I think it is wrong to try to strip too much away in order to find purity.  I do not find more beautiful abstract marks than on the Sistine chapel ceiling, but to ignore the participation of content is a cul de sac. Rothko, when he hits home, startles me in his warmth and his access to an otherworldly narrative.


Your characters are often involved in some difficult effort, or dangerous exercise. Does this
permanent strain characterize your faith?

Faith is always present tense and needs attention and cultivation and most importantly action.  Faith you had, or will have, are not alive and faith must live.  Perhaps you find it odd that I don’t think about such things at all while I am painting.  I just try to participate in making good pictures There are of course stories I want to tell, but there are stories also that are trying to be told through me .  Painting is a process of negotiating (usually between friends–but not always) to make something formally and narratively worthwhile.  Perhaps I am schizophrenic but I don’t think so (of course I wouldn’t!).  I feel almost part of a team.  A team that trusts each other, but does not always agree.  The metaphors and narratives that emerge are edited and influenced by me but not despotically determined.  I feel that artists succeed when they gain access to The Story which is much larger than their own little one.


Your paintings reflect a sense of humor which sometimes remind me of Magritte. A philosopher like Kierkegaard, in the XIX century, described the true faith as related to the capacity of irony. Do you share this statement?

As I mentioned before, God’s rationality does not easily accommodate our very limited views.  I like Kierkegaard’s description very much.  Artists are perhaps nosing in on matters that are far above them.  This can have very funny results, not unlike when a child participates in an adult conversation.  Also I think that just as my religion is reflected in my work, so is my humor.  I like to be surprised by my work.  Often that surprise is laughter. I laugh a lot with my children.  I laugh a lot with my God.  I laugh rather a lot with everyone.  God is very funny. 


Does the concept of “true faith” make any sense for you?

Yes it does.  We are very imprecise beings, but we must try to make our faith as precise as we possibly can in spite of a broken world.  “True faith” even in a community of believers is quite rare.  Faith only exists in the presence of truth.  Far more common is a “positive mental exercise” which is hopefully leading towards faith. This exercise is by no means bad, but it is no more faith than having your feet in the water is swimming. We often call it “faith” in order to be encouraging and they are on the same continuum but they are not the same thing. 


Are you prone to doubt and crisis, about your work as well as about your God?

About my work? Yes.  Constantly.  This is partially due to a degree of manic depression that many artists experience but I am learning to accommodate it fine.  About God? No.  I have worked for Him for too long now.  This is not to say that I am somehow out of danger of  a crisis of faith.  No one ever is.  But it is not a usual part of my working life to be in crisis about God’s love and interest in mankind.  Many such crises are brought on by asking Him the wrong questions and I think my questions are getting better and my relationship more steady.  I have also come to see holiness in very messy parts of life.  Birth and death for example make big messes.  Love and children too.  My life has lots of holy messes.


I would say that your pictures are mute (similarly, your musicians are asleep…). Is silence a kind of prayer for you? 

Yes of course, but also art is very tiring.  There is nothing good that is not constantly being fought for.  We try to maintain a balanced life by attending the ballet from time to time but it is not a balanced life that put that ballet on the stage is it?  One of the places where I go fishing for metaphors is just before and just after things have happened.  Those are often quiet places.

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.

Mormon Artist Interview – 2010
with Corey Strange


What attracted you to art?  Were you always attracted to art?

I always drew a lot, but as play, not as a disciplined pursuit.  My knowledge and attraction to art was pretty typical, I think, until college.  I excelled in my art classes growing up, but it never occurred to me that one could be an artist.  I became interested in architecture and decided to get an undergraduate degree in art before a Masters in architecture.  Almost at once my world changed, and art it has been ever since.


Ditto for painting…

My initial interest was ceramics and, while at BYU, I met Joe and Lee Bennion.  We arranged for me to work in Joe’s Pottery in Spring City for a summer.  That summer I learned that I am not a potter.  Lee suggested I mess about with her paints in her beautiful studio that was, at that time, in the old schoolhouse.  I did a few paintings, all bad, but it was apparent to me that we were on to something.


What are your working processes – beginning, middle, end.  How do you know when a painting is finished?

Work a lot, try a lot, follow a hunch.  My studio is large so it accommodates my working on 50 to 100 paintings at a time, along with drawings, monotypes, woodcuts.  I don’t wait for fully fledged ideas to descent upon me.  I look for them with my fingers and my gut.  Most ideas are not really that good — at least not good enough yet.  They need adjusting and editing so I must give myself something to adjust or edit.  I have started many paintings which I never finished, but I have yet to finish a painting which I never started.


Philosophy on work (making art)?

I believe in a cosmos in which art, though vital, is not the most important thing.  An external moral compass is critical for the art to participate in the great human drama in a significantly constructive way.  That external moral compass is not always obviously quantifiable, or even comforting.  It is the sum of what truly is.  We humans (at least this one) are horribly imprecise and things that move us any closer to the center of the nature of things is good.  If something is truly, authentically true, it is bigger than I am and independent of me.  I wade in the shallows finding amazing shells which evidence something much bigger than this present experience.  many of the shells are fragments and shards, but some are complete and fantastic — but only the beginning of real answers.  Art would do us all a great deal more good if rather than criticizing, whining and bickering, or even attempting to provide the answers, it helped us refine our questions.


What things inspire you?

Right now?  Food — bacon particularly.  Paper planes.  Always people.  My collection of life and death masks.


You’ve been making art for a long time.  How do you keep things fresh?

Fresh?  I think I just work on what feels vital to me.  I don’t think about freshness.  I don’t think vital things get stale.  I don’t always find the vital thing but I am always looking for it.  That way I am always at least just a little bit terrified.


How do you balance home and work?

I make no claim to such a balance.


You have a strong connection to Motherhood.  Could you explain your fascination for us?

No, I can’t explain it.  It is too near the core for me.  I just don’t fight it.


Your work has a slippery familiarity about it.  The images conjure up things that seem almost familiar, maybe forgotten.  How do you do that?

They feel that way to me too.  That is what I am feeling for, searching for.  Why it occurs, I cannot say.


Your work is often very sensitive.  How do you keep it from becoming overly sentimental?

I believe myself to be extremely sentimental and staggeringly romantic, but I feel an urgency to not lay it on too thick in my painting.  I let those tendencies draw me deeply into an idea, but try to exercise enough wisdom and restraint to not bludgeon my audience.  I think in a way it is utilizing a handicap to a useful end.  And, of course, I don’t always get it right.  The metaphors perch  rather precariously on pretty delicate structures.  Occasionally I indulge myself in a reverie of sentiment and sometimes it works.  I think the danger lies in the work dictating a specific emotional response.  Your emotions are not my toys to manipulate.  To do so would be irreverent.


As a musician, how do these art forms work together or against each other?

Different ways to examine and explore similar things.  Also, I rest from painting by playing music.  They are both performances that require courage and skill.  They don’t feel very different to me.


Perhaps (maybe) being LDS, what thing, person, experience, etc. has had the most impact on your art?  How have you channeled that into the work?

Discipleship is a conversation not an event.  It is ongoing and influences everything.  I actually choose to let discipleship influence the work as it will, and don’t set expectations of how they are to work together.  I have loved, and been loved by, too many great examples of discipleship to name them.  I feel that all of my work is religious – very religious – but not because I set out to make religious work, but because I set out to be a religious man.


What reception have you had outside of Utah?

Very good.  I believe that more than half of my work leaves Utah.  There is no doubt that I have a great base of collectors here, but the response has been positive elsewhere too.


Do people (not LDS) have spiritual experiences with your work?

Interestingly, yes.  Although I said my work is religious, it is not usually specifically doctrinal and many people respond to it.  It is a very human sort of religion in my work and so far, to my knowledge, every collector has been human.


How do you see your work building up the Kingdom of God?

I believe that if I seek to be good, and true, and honest, and virtuous, and hard working, it will be my privilege to participate in God’s Kingdom, but I try to be very careful about not dictating how my contribution will be useful.  I have seen artists’ convictions dashed on the rocks of their own inflated notions of usefulness to God’s Kingdom.  I talk to God all the time.  We have a very happy working relationship.


How can people see more of your work?

The website, www.kershisnik.com, the book Kershisnik: Painting From Life.


Is there anything else, more, different you’d like to share?


Stewardship and the Leak

Brian Kershisnik
January 2002

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.



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