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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
A woman looks at works from Brian Kershisnik's exhibit, "Painting From Life" on display at the UMFA.

Brian Kershisnik's exhibit of paintings and drawings, "Painting From Life," is a revelatory experience.

To see his work — on display at the Utah Museum of Fine Art through July 1 — is to be, what I call "Kershisniked": It draws you up and in, stimulates your sight and mind, then sets you down comfortably, often with a chuckle or satisfied grin.

His talent and success have been the topic of myriad magazine and newspaper articles, and if you Google "Kershisnik," be prepared to spend several hours looking at a prodigious portfolio of images with the word "SOLD" nearby.

What you may not know is that Kershisnik is also one of those rare visual artists who can actually wax poetic while responding to a question: He can be cogent, pithy and gregarious.

Deseret Morning News: My favorite painting in the UMFA exhibit is "Woman with Infant Flying."

Brian Kershisnik: That's a big one, isn't it? That was painted for the show because they have these huge walls. I actually had intended for the bottom of it to be 10-to-15 feet off the ground but there were difficulties hanging it that high.

DMN: My favorite part of the painting is the baby pointing its finger.

BK: That baby's hand kind of turns down, the thumb is down, kind of like the arm is twisted. Initially his arm was out with the thumb up, but it didn't look right, so I erased it and I kind of twisted it down. It's a little bit of an odd gesture, so I worked on the anatomy a little so it didn't look like the twist was hurting him. But you know kids' gestures are weird and unexpected. And a pointed finger, compositionally, carries an amazing amount of weight. There's a lot of energy thrown out the end of that finger.

DMN: Have you ever been tempted to treat the dark side in a painting? Perhaps a little Albert Pinkham-Ryder meets Joyce Carol Oates?

BK: I feel that I do. Take for example the "Rescue," the painting of the man being attacked by a lion, and the boy fighting him off with a shovel. However, even in a painting like that, where I feel like I'm dealing with kind of a dark subject, it's amazing to me how some kind of light always breaks through into it.

A Mogul miniature of a lion attack inspired that particular painting. In my version, when I drew the lion and man on the canvas, they were so large there wasn't any more room for another adult to help fight off the lion. In the initial drawing the guy fighting the lion was bent over so he would fit on the canvas. Well, that looked kind of silly so I just made him into a boy.

Then the narrative of the painting just sort of shifted into a painting of my father's lung cancer, and me being brave and attacking it but with completely the wrong tools. And here's where the light breaks through: In the experience with my father's death from lung cancer, I couldn't make the lion bad. I mean the lion is powerful and the lion is terrible, but symbolically the lion is not the enemy. Aside from my intentions, the painting became more about "who is actually doing the rescuing?"

Anyway, that's an example of a painting where I feel like I've walked into some territory that is frightening and dark for me.

There's a lot about life that is horribly dark and there are certainly painters that try to paint unmitigated darkness, but I don't think it's a good idea; I don't think it's useful; I don't think it helps. I think that there are some things that maybe we refuse to acknowledge or allow into ourselves — but I actually think that an artist who's going to rub your nose into some horror, whether you want to or not, is wrong.

There are artists who have handled dark subjects beautifully and reverently. Any subject has to be approached with a degree of reverence, and maybe particularly the dark ones. But the notion of darkness without God is foreign to my worldview. Even though I experience tragedy and pain and sorrow, I cannot look at those emotions and issues without thinking there's hope in spite of it.

When and if I walk into those territories in my work, I have no interest in ignoring the hope. Yet it's not my intention to paint a sugary view of things, either.

DMN: Have you ever had to alter your vision for commercial purposes or acceptance, or do you always hold true to your vision?

BK: From the very start I realized that I couldn't do commissions. The paintings need to be mine until they are sold. People used to come into the studio and want to purchase a painting before it was done. If it's not mine it's hard to work on it anymore. But there have been times where, for practical reasons, alterations have been made. But I won't do them against my vision. There are times when the practical solution is a good one. But money is not a good reason to go looking for visions, so I suppose the short answer to the question would be, nope and yep.

DMN: You consistently employ the figure in your art. What do you think of the use of the figure in some of today's art?

BK: There seems to be a return to the academic approach to the figure, and I think that's good. My own approach is not academic, it's more fantastical, and by that I mean it's coming from my imagination rather than models. I'm really more influenced by the figurative work of artists that are dead: Chagall, Degas, Modigliani, Klee, Giotto and the artists who painted in the Lascaux Caves.

DMN: Have you ever had a desire to make political statements in your art, especially during these troubled times?

BK: The kind of political statements I have and do make in my art are about the politics of being human. If they're current, they are the kinds of things that would have also been current 300 years ago. I'm not a journalist. I feel like great stories are still important in a 100, 200, or 300 years. I don't want my work to be so fixed in time that it is not useful tomorrow.

You know, we're not all called to go and stop wars in other nations. Some are, but there's also a great deal of work to be done in mercy and forgiveness in our own apartment. (Laughter.) If those attributes are neglected, the conflict will continue. Virtue cannot be neglected — "little" virtue. I think it's in this area where my metaphors emerge.

Yet when I say this, I don't disapprove of people who have grander, more global goals in the way they paint, but I don't believe that "little" virtue is not without its global significance.

DMN: Over the years, what has Kanosh come to think of its resident artist, and what have you come to think of Kanosh?

BK: I'm pretty solitary. I teach (an LDS Church) Primary class, the 8-year-olds. I'm a nice chap; I think people like me well enough. It seems a little strange what I do, but I have pictures that show up in the Ensign (magazine) from time to time, which helps people feel that I'm not too strange. It's sort of validating for them. The town itself gives me a lot of elbow room. It gives me space.

Access to Kanosh is limited. It's 150 miles from Salt Lake, so just the number of people that can visit is reduced by that distance. The downside is, I spend a lot of time driving.

My difficulty is not that I don't enjoy visits, it's that when they occur, I don't paint. It often takes two or three hours after the visit is over to find the groove again. So it's nice to be in Kanosh where I'm further away so I can do the thing I do ... do the thing they like me to do.

If you go

What: "Painting From Life," Brian Kershisnik

Where: Utah Museum of Fine Arts, University of Utah, 410 Campus Center Drive

When: Through July 1

Gallery hours: Tuesday-Friday,

10 a.m.-5 p.m.;

Wednesday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.;

Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.;

closed Mondays and holidays

How much: free (with museum admission)

Phone: 581-7332

E-mail: [email protected]