That Time Brian Kershisnik Answered My Question

Now that I finally have a moment to sit down and write that one story I’ve been intending to post since last summer, my notes are in a notebook in a storage unit in Orem and I am hiding my cough from the heat with a box of Kleenex and some rooibos tea in an apartment in urban Taiwan. But it’s worth relaying the story nonetheless, so you’ll have to just trust me on the specifics.

Last summer I was very posh and attended frequent lectures at The Bridge Academy in Provo. If you’re not wealthy enough to take classes at the Bridge, I at least recommend attending their guest speaker and workshop events. It’s honestly kind of the best thing Mormon art has going for it.

Christopher Young was fantastic, James Christensen was inspiring, Walter Rane was lecturing the weekend I was leaving the country (fie!), but my favorite moment so far was getting to attend a presentation by Brian Kershisnik. And the moment I had been waiting for came at the end when he opened it up for questions and answers.

See, I’ve had this connection with Brian Kershisnik’s paintings for years. There’s something about his world inhabited by industrious, angelic Mormon women that just fascinates me. It connects to this Mormon quality that I saw in families in the ward I grew up in in Colorado, but has been harder and harder to find in recent years. I know a lot of Mormons, a lot of faithful people, but there is a certain quality in Mormon women that seems harder and harder to come by. I don’t know what exactly the quality is, but it’s shared by Mormon women who grow their own zucchini and/or wear their hair in one really long braid and/or dress their children in holiday-themed fabric from the discount rack at JoAnn’s and/or have those needlepoint covers for Kleenex boxes in their living rooms. Do you know what I mean? The quality isn’t defined by any of these practices of course, but it seems to be present in women who do those sorts of things. Women who have some sort of earthy connection to the divine, and you would almost think it’s just small-town fundamentalism but it’s not because these women also watch the Discovery Channel. Maybe it’s just some sort of surreal Southern Utah mineral that he eats and extrudes in his paintings somehow, and maybe the women in his life that he paints are just nutritionally primed to emit whatever serene righteousness rays it is that I’m picking up from his paintings. But there’s something behind it, and Brian Kershisnik knows what it is because he paints it, on purpose, over and over again.

Well, now was finally my chance. Here I was, with the man himself, and it was time for me to ask the question that had been burning within me: “Why do all the women in your paintings wear dresses?”

He looked startled. His eyes darted back up to the screen he had been displaying images on. “Do they?” he asked.

“Yes! They all do! I always imagined there was some sort of cultural message buried there. I’ve been wanting to know for years why your women look so Super Mormon; suspended between centuries.”

He flipped through a few slides, verifying that all of his women were wearing dresses. “Hmm,” he said thoughtfully, “it looks like they do.” He paused, and I sat breathlessly waiting for him to continue with his grand revelation. “I think it’s because I like to paint patterns and a dress is a big open space to paint a pattern.”

He smiled beneficently at me and then took the next question.

11 thoughts on “That Time Brian Kershisnik Answered My Question”

  1. Proof positive that art historians can talk and write and talk and write and talk and write,…..but chances are, they really have no clue what the artists are up to. Artists have reasons for doing what they do, and these reasons usually have nothing to do with “social constructs,” “Freud and Jung,” or “false dichotomies.” Most artists I know don’t care a thing about Derrida or Lacan. They just like what they can do with materials.

  2. Of course, if the art history or criticism of any kind is done well, it’s a beautiful, thought-provoking performance in and of itself and it may or may not matter what the artist intended. That said: any criticism that focuses more on the materials and craftsmanship rather than Lacan (Derrida has some things to say about language that are worth considering — and he gets very misapplied by American critics) and social constructs is much more interesting to me.

  3. Great story. I am a Kershisnik fan too. His answer makes sense on a level. After all, patterns in dresses, wallpaper, etc., etc. are a recurring motif in his work. And it safely avoided discussing your insight! I think artists staying out of critical discussions about their own work is probably for the best.

  4. any criticism that focuses more on the materials and craftsmanship rather than Lacan […] and social constructs is much more interesting to me

    I think a marriage of the two approaches is quite useful, but any interpretation IMO should be centered in and defer to the text itself. Otherwise criticism just becomes a game of anything goes.

  5. “Otherwise criticism just becomes a game of anything goes.”

    Every so often an anything goes interpretation is pretty awesome. But I largely agree.

  6. Re #5:

    Yeah, commissions for J. Kirk Richards and brian Kershisnik (along with a number of other LDS artists) are part of my $20-40 million Mormon arts endowment plan (well, not so much a plan as wishful thinking).

  7. I went and visited the new downtown SLC Deseret Book and was pleased (and a bit surprised) to see a number of Kershisnik works for sale. Even the awesome nativity painting that shows the barest bit of exposed breast as Mary nurses the infant Jesus. I also saw Shannon Hale’s The Actor and the Housewife among the fiction titles. Surprises all around!

  8. I’ve been incredibly blessed to have had a number of encounters with Brian and his lovely family. If you have a chance to ever visit his studio during an open house, do.

    As for that ethereal quality you speak of “¦ his older daughter has it in spades. She has this “I can walk across the country” air about her, and she comports herself with a certain joy and light.

    Though she was too young to model this for the lion share of Brian’s pieces, I have no doubt that his whole family channels this spirit.

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