MIConversations #5—Brian Kershisnik with Terryl Givens, “Surprising angels”
Maxwell Institute Conversations are special videocast episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, hosted by Terryl Givens and created in collaboration with Faith Matters Foundation.
In this episode Terryl Givens sits down with Brian Kershisnik to talk about art, creativity, and worship.
Brian Kershisnik is an American painter. He studied art at the University of Utah, Brigham Young University, and the University of Texas at Austin. He started a studio in Kanosh, Utah, in 1991 and in 2006 he established another studio in Provo, Utah, where he currently lives. His notable works include a portrait of Leslie Norris, Nativity, and She Will Find What Was Lost.
BLAIR HODGES: Welcome to Maxwell Institute Conversations—special videocast episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, hosted by Terryl Givens and created in collaboration with Faith Matters Foundation.
Does God ever get surprised? Brian Kershisnik is a Latter-day Saint and an American painter who suggests that the answer is yes. Latter-day Saints believe in a God who can be surprised, who can be delighted by the creativity we express. Kershisnik describes painting as a method of discovery and inspiration—like God, an artist can be surprised by her own work.
BRIAN KERSHISNIK: Part of making things is you have an idea, you have a plan, but part of the process is letting what happens show you stuff and teach you stuff and show you something from a new angle that is a delight. And I use the same word, a surprise.
This episode is more visual than usual, with examples of Kershisnik’s art, so audio listeners might want to check out the video on YouTube. It’s Brian Kershisnik talking with Terryl Givens in this episode of Maxwell Institute Conversations.
TERRYL GIVENS: Hello and welcome to another conversation. My name is Terryl Givens, and my guest today is Brian Kershisnik, one of my good friends and one of the great Mormon artists of our day. Truly happy to have you with us today, Brian.
BRIAN KERSHISNIK: Thank you, Terryl. I’m a little startled at that introduction, but I hope that’s true.
GIVENS: It is. I think it is true. We’re going to be talking a good deal about your art. We’re going to be looking at some specific examples of your work. We want to start off by getting to know you a little bit better. Some in our audience might not be familiar with you as a person as well as an artist. So let’s start with a cheerful question, like what might your obituary look like? If you had to imagine just a couple of things that it would be on. If you were to end your mortal life at this point, what would it say?
KERSHISNIK: I hope that it indicates that I died in the middle of a lot of good projects. I aspire to unfinished business, I suppose. There are many things that I want to sum up, but I hope that all the way through that I am engaged with things that I care about and that are troubling me and that are stretching me.
I aspire actually more to being, I hope that I am to be a good human being rather than an artist. Obviously you’re talking to me here because of my profession, but I derive a lot of power I think in my art from a search to deepen myself as a human. I hope that shows up in my obituary. I think, talking to a friend recently, that I considered for the first time that I should maybe write it and keep a current one going.
GIVENS: I’ve wondered about that.
KERSHISNIK: I haven’t done it yet.
GIVENS: We talk a lot about five year plans and ten year plans and I’m not sure that’s really that different in spirit from imagining what you would want the final vida to read like.
KERSHISNIK: What’s interesting in this question for me is I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I have done; I spend more time focusing on what I will do. So I think what I want in my obituary is to include some things that I’ve yet to accomplish. I suppose that I should kind of look back. On the other hand, for an artist that’s a little bit dangerous to look back.
GIVENS: Give us a quick overview of your life up to now.
KERSHISNIK: Just a biography?
GIVENS: Yeah. Just a biography.
KERSHISNIK: My father was a petroleum geologist. Both my parents were born in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Part of the agreement when they married was that they were going to leave Rock Springs. They wanted to get out and see the world. My father was in a vocation that allowed for that. Their first assignment was in Sicily. That was before I was born; I’m the youngest of four boys. When I was born they were living in Oklahoma City, but just very briefly, I have no memories of Oklahoma. They left when I was one, I think.
At five years old we moved to Portuguese West Africa, to Angola. I have some memories before that, but that’s where I start kind of remembering the chronology and the narrative. That was very exciting. My parents loved adventurous overseas assignments, so it didn’t occur to us children to not love them too. When I was eight we moved to Bangkok, Thailand. I was baptized in a swimming pool in Bangkok.
GIVENS: Your parents were LDS?
KERSHISNIK: Yes. My father actually was not until I was about fourteen. I was baptized by my older brother. My father was not a member at that point. My mother actually became a Catholic to marry my father. Her situation growing up was complicated and difficult. Her mother had raised her as a Latter-day Saint but had died when my mother was eight. Things got a bit complicated. In the end, Mom having become a Catholic to marry my father, missionaries knocked on her door and she burst into tears and they didn’t know if they had a lunatic or a golden contact.
Anyway, she decided she needed to come back and to raise her children as Mormons. My father was not interested in the time at joining, but thought they should go to church together. So for my youth he always came, but joined then when I was fourteen. So that was in Texas. After Thailand we moved to Texas. Then for my senior year in high school we moved to Islamabad, Pakistan. I was there during the Iran Crisis, and there were some disturbances in Islamabad where the embassy was burned—
GIVENS: Not your typical American teenage youth.
KERSHISNIK: No, no. I was graduated early because of the attack to our school. We were evacuated. So I found myself done with high school in November of my senior year. My brother was at the University of Utah. So I went to Salt Lake and started school.
GIVENS: At the U?
KERSHISNIK: At the U, yeah. With no notion of what I wanted to pursue as a vocation. I was a curious kid and interested in a lot of things and good at things, but it didn’t occur to me what I would do for a livelihood.
GIVENS: So what did you end up majoring in?
KERSHISNIK: I started out thinking I wanted to pursue architecture. I took just a general education class in architecture from Peter Goss at the U. I thought, “That’s what I want to do.” At the time they had no undergraduate degree in architecture, so I was taking some art classes and enjoying them. So I thought I’d just get an undergraduate degree in art and then a graduate degree in architecture. Turned nineteen, went on a mission to Denmark, decided when I came back I would divide my degree.
So I went to BYU for my undergraduate degree in art, and then determined I would then go to the U for architecture, but got derailed pretty quickly as I pursued my art studies. It became apparent that there was something in there that was trying to get out. So I initially assumed that I would teach, all of my role models were instructors, I had not grown up knowing artists, or ever having been in a studio. So I assumed that I too would become a professor, but in the process just became tangled up in the process of making paintings and such.
GIVENS: You said a minute ago that I’m having you on as a guest because of your professional status and qualifications. That’s not strictly speaking true, because in all of my interactions with you I see you as a holistic individual. Art is one part of that, but it seems to me that it’s integrated into a life in a very thoroughgoing way. I would find it hard to separate out what you do professionally from who you are.
KERSHISNIK: I appreciate that. I very much try in my discipleship, what I do in the studio, what happens at home, I try as much as possible to tie those together, and to have those different things feed each other. My friendships are hugely important to me in the development of all of those other facets and so I appreciate that. I think that there are things that are interesting about my work that emerge very much from my life, from my relationships with my friends and my family and my children.
GIVENS: I mean it’s commonly observed of Latter-day Saints that we are something more than a denomination. Sociologists struggle with this. Are we are a global tribe? Are we an ethnicity? Are we a subculture? There’s a sense that something about Mormon activity and engagement in the church is all pervasive. But that’s not to me the interesting thing that explains the Mormon identity. I think it has more to do with the theology that is all encompassing. You can’t segregate our religious beliefs from our daily engagement, what it means to be human or a father or a child, or anything else.
KERSHISNIK: Without imperiling them. You can, and people do, but it messes things up. Obviously I would by no means maintain that I’m wonderfully consistent and all these things. I aspire to do that. I aspire to integrate those things. Frankly, going to work, it is work, it is sweat, it is labor, it is a difficulty, but it is those things very much like discipleship is. Discipleship is not always the conduit to the heavens opening up. There’s a huge amount of it that is working through current difficulties or current good and bad things.
GIVENS: We’re going to see that in some of your work in a few minutes.
KERSHISNIK: I hope so. Painting is very much like that too. In some ways people have a sense of in examining a religion that they just want all the good parts. I love it that in several sections in the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord is saying to various people, “Cast your mind back to when I spoke peace to you.” I’m paraphrasing. I think that there’s a huge amount of our lives where we need to do that. We don’t live constantly in feeling that presence. We have it, we remember it, we look forward to it, and we sort things out in between.
That is actually a good description of what happens in the studio. I think people have a notion that you go into the studio and the heavens open and you execute something. A lot of it is very much like cleaning out the stables. There’s a Van Gogh quote that I haven’t been able to find where he says, “It’s really more like coal mining than anything else.” I come from a long line of coal miners, actually, so maybe that’s why I ended up in art.
GIVENS: Okay, let me ask you this question. I generally reference William Wordsworth and some of his works that I love when he refers to the fact that there are in our existence spots of time. He goes on to say that there are these moments that have this power, this transformative kind of catalyzing influence in our lives that give new direction or shape to who we are, spiritually, professionally, emotionally. Can you think of two or three moments in your life that just stand out where a window opened to new possibilities?
KERSHISNIK: Yeah. I remember actually one that comes to mind as a missionary. I had read the scriptures, I was a dutiful seminary student and I had read the scriptures, and loved them I would say, and had a testimony of them, but on my mission was diving into them differently. I remember this one experience in reading in the book of Ether and I have of course my missionary scriptures and they’re all marked up, and most of the things I don’t now know why that was interesting to me at the time, but I remember this kind of remarkable kind of revelatory experience reading in Ether 12. It’s a scripture we quote all the time about, actually it is often quoted as a weakness as becoming strengths, but that’s not what the scripture says.
I remember kind of feeling like I’m having this conversation, or I’m present somehow with Moroni as he is lamenting to God about the weakness of what he’s writing. He says the Gentiles are going to laugh at this because of this, we stumble because of the placing of our words. He says, “You make it so when we speak we can speak by the spirit, but when we write it’s a problem.” I was very much with Moroni in saying no, no, no you’re doing great, this is wonderful. God answers Moroni in that chapter by essentially saying, “Yeah, ouch. Fools mock, but they’ll mourn. If they don’t acknowledge their weakness then they won’t take advantage of your weakness. He essentially says to Moroni, “Yeah. There are problems with it. But if they acknowledge their weaknesses then weak things,” I would maintain this book, would become strong unto them. When I realized that and realized that becoming an active and important participant in the world does not… that it can happen without my having to become this perfect thing. If we engage together as humans in a way that where we acknowledge our own weaknesses then we can become strong to each other. The Book of Mormon, which I hold to be scripture, there are problems with it, but that’s okay. Moroni acknowledges that.
GIVENS: It sounds to me like you’re making an important distinction which I would make too between weaknesses and weakness. In other words, do you think that part of what is being described here is a generalized condition of inadequacy? I think sometimes we think that, “Oh, God gives me a tendency towards alcoholism,” or “He gives me this tendency towards moral flaws or failings.” I get the sense, no, what God is saying is you are constructed in such a way, I put you into a moral context in an embodiment such that you’re inadequate. Now what do you do from there because I will sanctify you in spite of those things, not contingent upon some kind of perfection that you achieve.
KERSHISNIK: Yeah. One thing I find often in conversations about God is the doctrine that he created is often discussed like he built us from a kit, rather than something more like a father that, like you say, a tendency to chew my fingernails was not a piece placed in there to see what I would do with it. I am in a condition. And also in this fallen world, in a broken condition, and so it is important in that circumstance the way to maintain an appropriate amount of humility is to acknowledge that myself, and be careful about the demands I make on the people around me. I feel like Jesus’s injunction to judge not and be not judged is essentially him saying, “Don’t judge because you have no idea.” Not that judgment is bad, but you gotta be really careful about making determinations because you’re really operating in a very limited circumstance.
GIVENS: So this insight that you come to, what at the age of twenty or so? On your mission—
GIVENS: About the inadequacy of ourselves, our failings, and the messiness of the human condition. Is that part of what you think is pervading your art as one of your themes?
KERSHISNIK: Yeah, I think so. One thing that I feel like began to be introduced at that instant is because of our love and affection for truth and for God and the gospel, we tend to try to imagine that they’re a little cleaner than they actually are. That leads to some difficulties. To kind of acknowledge that no, no, no, we’re working in a circumstance that is broken in many ways, that we are being redeemed from a broken circumstance and we should do our best. We should do our best and we are weak. We behave in weakness. So I need to be careful in including that in pictures, but that way it shows up is that I want to paint people that are very human. When I paint dancers these are heavy-footed dads. These are not trained–
GIVENS: Degas ballerinas.
KERSHISNIK: Yeah, that’s right. I love his work, but I’m kind of looking at another thing. But even Degas, in those paintings, would often paint them backstage, or paint them when they’re not being picturesque, when they’re scratching their backs and stuff. I think that those actually were very influential in my dancer paintings.
GIVENS: Yeah, I want to go off on a tangent here for a moment, because you’ve used the word “brokenness” four or five times. Of course, Fiona and I have spoken a lot recently in our work about First Nephi 13, the original translation–
KERSHISNIK: I love that insight.
GIVENS: There’s this woundedness. You haven’t used the word sin when you talk about brokenness or when you talk about weakness, which I think is important. I think sin is real. I think the reality in which we are immersed is not a primal condition of sinfulness as much as it is an earthly condition of brokenness.
I was reading a new translation of the New Testament recently and Luke 4, where Christ announces himself in the synagogue, which I think is a crucial scripture, because that is how Christ presents himself. “This is who I am. You want to know who I am? Here are the words of Isaiah.” We are fully rendered, I think, in a better rendering of the Greek. He says, “I am come to liberate those who are broken by calamity.” It’s that phrase, “broken by calamity,” that really speaks to me. I think this might be a good time to refer—
KERSHISNIK: How is it in King James? Bind up the wound—
GIVENS: Bind up the wound… something of the broken hearted, and break the captives. But this might be a good time to refer to one of your paintings, which is one of my favorites. It’s one of a series I think, is this right? “Jesus and the Angry Babies”? Do I have that right?
GIVENS: I think that we have a visual that we can show here for those who are watching. I can see it here in the studio. I don’t know how you can look at this painting without just erupting in a delightful kind of laughter. Part of it is because of—
KERSHISNIK: A slightly irreverent laughter?
GIVENS: A slightly irreverent, but it’s an appreciative laughter. There’s nothing mocking about it. There’s kind of this look of consternation on the face of the Christ as he holds the babies, who are fussy and upset. One thing I love about your art is there’s a whimsical quality to it, but there’s a deep profundity which underlies that whimsy. Can you talk a little about this painting? How it speaks to you?
KERSHISNIK: Well initially, I have a good friend I play music with, Steve Vistaunet, and we draw, he’s a graphics designer, he’s an artist and we draw together just in our sketchbooks. I always have my sketchbook handy, just because—maybe we’ll talk about this a little later—but most ideas are bad, and so a sketchbook is kind of a way to make a note and then decide later if it’s useful. So in one of my sketchbooks like this I, just to entertain Steve, I’m making a bit of a pun on all of the paintings with the cherubic well-behaved children on his lap, I drew… it’s just a little tiny thing, what these irate—
GIVENS: Painted by people who have never worked in an LDS nursery. Obviously.
KERSHISNIK: And initially we just laughed because we thought it was funny. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, I believe that Jesus took the children on his lap, and I know children. They weren’t all happy about it. For some of them it was mom’s idea, you know. It felt to me like a much better metaphor for my experience with discipleship and with other people to put a lap full of fairly unruly babies on Jesus’s lap, that he continues to deal with us, he continues to work with us, he continues to remember us even though we are for the most part not well-behaved. I know children and I know that they weren’t all picturesque instances.
GIVENS: So you’re kind of de-idealizing the sacred in some ways.
KERSHISNIK: Well I’m trying to warm it up a little bit. There’s a certain kind of laughter, I mention that when you talked about the humor in this painting, and I used the word irreverent, and there’s a kind of delight and humor that happens because of a certain irreverence that children introduce in our lives, and certainly in our discipleship, I remember little inappropriate things being yelled out during the passing of the sacrament or something like that, that having children brings a certain unruliness to our existence.
I think it’s healthy as disciples to think of ourselves in relation to Jesus as children. As you have mentioned, we are of a species, we are related to him. Heavenly Father is referred to as our father because he is our father, he is an ancestor. So I like to, when I paint Jesus, I certainly have no intention at all of being disrespectful to the Lord, but I like to remind us of the warmth of the fact that he came into one of these. He became one of us. Even though in pictures and literature we make it so everything happened almost according to some divine script, I believe in a Jesus who was surprised by events, and who reacted to events, and who became annoyed at his disciples because they didn’t understand. I feel like it’s important to include that.
GIVENS: See, I think I would characterize what you’re doing maybe a little bit differently. I think what you’re doing is you are re-inscribing a new definition of the sacred.
KERSHISNIK: Yeah, okay. I like that.
GIVENS: And here’s what I mean by that.
KERSHISNIK: To include some other things.
GIVENS: Exactly. Exactly. Phil Barlow, who I have to have on sometime just to talk about this one idea, but he said something that caught me up short. He said, “Don’t you think at times that we err in making Christ or the atonement into idols?” I thought well how can you make that which is most sacred into… but I think this is in part what he means, is that to strip something of all of its rough edges isn’t to sacralize it. It’s to denote it of that which makes it real and sacred.
I’m thinking for example of John chapter eight, that moment where the woman is caught in adultery, and Jesus says, “If you are without sin go ahead and cast the first stone,” then he kneels down and he writes in the sand, and you’ve got centuries of commentators saying, “Oh, he was probably writing some profound cryptic and godly message.” I think he was doodling in the sand. That’s a human thing to do. While you’re waiting for people to make up their minds what they’re going to do. But we don’t want to see that. That’s too human. That’s too real.
KERSHISNIK: It sounds like, from the text, that he is distracted at what he’s doing. He stands up and says, “Oh, woman, where are thine accusers?” It does not sound like he continues to engage them with mysterious things on the ground. Again, I’m supposing just like these people for centuries have been supposing, but I am comfortable with the fact that it may have been just drawing something there.
GIVENS: So I’ll give a name to what you’re doing here. I will call it “de-sanitizing the sacred.”
KERSHISNIK: I feel like the advantage to that, if people can not be offended by it, is that when we tend to scrub the sacred in the past, and I feel like it robs us of experiences of the sacred in the present, because our current sacred experiences also have messy elements. I think that sometimes we tend to diminish them because that’s not what happened to Joseph, or that’s not what happened to Jesus, or that’s not what happened to Moses. I think it is what happened to Joseph, and Jesus, and Moses. I think their experiences, someone walking by in Jerusalem, would not have known that it was Jesus because he was glowing and beautiful and perfectly kept.
GIVENS: Doesn’t this same tendency come back to bite us when it comes to how we idealize our own prophetic legacy? I’m thinking for example of Bushman’s book Rough Stone Rolling and the various responses to that book. I was with him at one fireside where somebody said, “Thank you for writing that book because it helped me leave the church.” Of course that’s the kind of thing Richard obviously hates to hear, but then you have the response of my son, who at the time was on a mission, who went through a very unorthodox, un-ensign like trajectory in his own life, and he wrote me on his mission and he said, “I read Rough Stone Rolling and it was the most inspiring thing I’ve ever read, because I thought if God can work with that then he can work with me.”
KERSHISNIK: That’s the miracle that I think is indicated in Ether 12. I think you’re right that we do these great people a disservice by carving them in marble and not allowing them errors, or not allowing them flaws in any way, that I think that we then kind of suppose that we ourselves are somehow excluded from participation in certain sacred events because we certainly know we are not perfect.
GIVENS: Let’s segue from that picture then to one that I think in some ways is influenced by the same sensibility, which is the “Descent from the Cross,” which is not whimsical but it also in some ways de-sanitizes the sacred in the same way. If we could look at that picture now. “Descent from the Cross” of course is a well-established theme in religious art that goes back many, many centuries. I think some of the greatest religious art ever done is on that theme. Yours breaks in many ways with the tradition and introduces some novel dimensions and perspectives. Can you talk a little about those?
KERSHISNIK: Well of course I couldn’t address a subject like that without being very much aware of Caravaggio and Rubens and Rembrandt, and trying to go to a subject like that without being intimidated by the burden of the other great artists dealing with it. We talk now about two paintings that both have Jesus in them, which describes a very small percentage of my total output. I feel like my work is religious, even though it seldom illustrates something from the scriptures. But these two of course do, Jesus with Children, and Descent from the Cross. Having painted that large monumental “Nativity” painting, it’s eighteen feet long or something, I mean, it’s big. That painting was the first monumental what I call a sacred subject when it’s something from the scriptures, or from sacred history. So the first time I tried a monumental sacred subject, it worked surprisingly well. I was surprised by it.
GIVENS: Is that in the Springville museum?
KERSHISNIK: No, that’s at BYU. They own it. It was purchased and donated to the BYU museum. That painting is generally looked at as being so optimistic. Certainly birth is a time full of promise and optimism and such. I feel like “Nativity” is a little more complicated than that, than just giddy delight and optimism.
GIVENS: Especially if you consider the cost of the babes of Bethlehem.
KERSHISNIK: Yeah. Well, and for example there are some of the angels in that painting that are crying, and people say, “Oh, they’re crying for joy,” and I say, you know, they know the stature of the being that is now compressed in this little purple, hungry, uncoordinated human, the miracle of the nativity.
GIVENS: The condescension.
KERSHISNIK: Yeah, the condescension is that he came into our dirt and our milk and our blood and our sweat. He came here. He came. I feel like that would be, in the moment, even if it was our only chance, it would still be kind of upsetting for the angels who knew the contrast. Are we sure this is a good idea?
So it was years before I tried another monumental sacred subject. I wanted to go to the other end of the story, so I chose the dead Christ. I feel like when we read the story at the conclusion of the gospels that you and I know how it’s going to end, we’ve read it before, we’ve heard it before. We know what’s going to happen in a few days, and of course Jesus had prophesied to them too what was going to happen in a few days, but this had never happened and they were not thinking about that. As they were taking down his dead body, which is also a little peculiar to me, that the Romans would have allowed that to happen, I think that’s kind of a beautiful thing, that they let the family deal with the body. The Romans would have just been in a hurry and bones breaking and such as they take the corpses down. That they let his family do it.
So as I painted it I’m thinking about the difficulty, just the work involved of dealing with the corpse of their fallen hero, and for them at that moment I imagine they can’t perceive how this can end well, how this can be resolved, how this can be included in what they thought was the redemption they were looking for through this Christ. So as I painted it I kept on saying, “It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay,” but they don’t know that. We rob Jesus of an amazing amount of courage and creativity and brilliance in his fulfillment of that sacrifice because we know that it succeeded. I don’t read Jesus in the garden pleading with the Father that if this cup can pass, I don’t read somebody who knows exactly what’s going to happen, he’s just got to go through the motions, I see someone who is advancing with unspeakable courage in the midst of a real abyss that is upsetting to him. So I feel like in some ways the good news of the resurrection doesn’t mean anything unless it emerges from his death, and they are in the midst of that. We spend more time in our lives in the midst of a problem that we don’t know how it will be resolved, then we do giddy about the resolution. I wanted to go right to the point of the death—
GIVENS: C. S. Lewis says something really pertinent in this regard in one of his books where he’s talking about the fall. He says God can make use of all that happens, but the loss is real.
KERSHISNIK: I love that. I think that knowing that Jesus succeeded in the atonement, I think that the way I try to describe it is imprecise, I’m limited to human language and I’m trying to examine a cosmic theme from a human perspective, but I think we must not take out of it completely the amount of risk that was being undertaken in our behalf. I don’t know if I’ve described that accurately or with the right words but—
GIVENS: You see not just the apostles who are grieving and mourning as one might expect, but the angels themselves are shattered.
KERSHISNIK: Yeah, and some people in looking at this painting, and I don’t make ultimate decisions about who knows what, even in my own pictures, but they’ll say, “Oh, why aren’t the angels rejoicing?” And I don’t know that the angels knew how this was going to work out either. I am confident that the Father and the Son were on it, but that it wasn’t broadcast or else his enemies would know and would counter. I think Lucifer killed him thinking he could take him out of the game, thinking that he could do this and that would prevent him from accomplishing what he needed to do, and I think the Father and the Son saying, “We will apply these cosmic legal precedence, and these things,” and that final act of murder will actually complete the atonement part of his mission.
GIVENS: Well, it’s a magnificent work.
KERSHISNIK: Well, I appreciate that.
GIVENS: It truly is. Angels. I want to talk about angels. They figure so prominently in so much of your work. I have one delightful rendering here, which is called—
KERSHISNIK: “Sometimes It’s Hard to be Dead.”
GIVENS: Right. Can you read it?
KERSHISNIK: Yes. This image came from another sketchbook drawing when I was doing research in Slovenia with my mother for family history research, and this deceased spirit here is saying, “I love you and appreciate what you are doing, but you are often very stupid and it aggravates the crud out of me.” He’s saying it to this researcher down here. My sense of our interactions with other worldly beings is also something I in my work try to un-scrub a little bit.
GIVENS: Can I set this up a little bit maybe?
KERSHISNIK: We just make it a little more human of an interaction.
GIVENS: I just want to give a little historical context here to highlight what I think is really significant about what you’re doing here. It strikes me as terribly significant from a Mormon perspective if we realize that the very, very first thing that the Protestants did to the Book of Common Prayer was to strip from the Book of Common Prayer all references to the dead, all prayers to the dead, prayers that were said for the dead, because one of Luther’s principle preoccupations was that we need to sever, to sunder the connection between the living and the dead. Once you pass the veil of death, that’s done. You’re done and we’re done with you effectively. Our preoccupation is only with ourselves and with the living.
So in some ways, contrary to this Mormon myth that the reformation was a kind of grand prelude to the restoration, the restoration is first and foremost redressing what the reformation had done, which was to sunder these into two completely discontinuous realms. One question that I think some of us should be asking is, other than the obvious talent manifest in your work, why is it so popular in Mormonism today? I’m thinking especially probably your most popular one, “She Shall Find That Which Is Lost.” Is that right?
KERSHISNIK: I actually start to forget. I actually call it “She Will Find What Is Lost,” but I think “That Which Is” may be in there too.
GIVENS: “She Will Find What Is Lost.” My wife has a copy. She has a print of that in her study, which is again a heavenly host of an assorted angelic beings hovering over a woman. So my sense is that part of what you are doing is celebrating what I think in many ways is one of the greatest miracles of the restoration, which is to say, no we’re still connected. So can you talk a little bit about that and how you’ve experienced that in your personal work?
KERSHISNIK: When you asked me the question initially about my obituary I was going to say then that I think a lot about death and about the dead. Not to the point where I have written my own obituary, but I collect death masks, I feel a connection to my ancestors, particularly ones that I have sought out. What’s interesting to me is in doing the research there are certain individuals that are doing the counterpart to that research on the other side. I think everyone is interested, perhaps I hope, but Florian Kershisnik and Leonard Durling, I mean their names, they just appear differently on the page and they are doing something on that side as we are doing something on this side. I don’t know what it is. I think our understanding of what happens on the other side of the veil is very limited and we fill in a lot of the blanks but I do feel very much that the witnessing of the events in our lives and the influencing of the events of our lives by other worldly beings is almost constant, and they’re not all the good ones.
I’ve also had plenty of experiences where the studio that—I neglected to mention in my biography part that I lived in Kunach for fifteen years. I still have a studio there. The building that I got was very full of spirits that needed to go if this was going to be a productive place to work. What was interesting to me is the sense that I had is these people, this is where they hang out. They’re kind of dead-ended people, the kind of spirits that I want to interact with don’t just hang out in dark houses. They have stuff to do. These people have nowhere to go. So as I worked on the building I would just say, “New management.” I’d just talk out loud while I was driving nails. I’d say, “I’m a disciple of Jesus. Anything that happens here, spiritually and physically, is going to be consistent with that, so if you need to find a new place to be, go. And if you give me trouble I’ll get out my guns.”
GIVENS: See, Brian, this is one reason why I admire you as an individual, as well as an artist. One of the greatest, maybe the greatest, British scholar of Mormonism said to me one time, “Terryl, Mormonism is never really going to achieve its potential and achieve worldwide respect until you learn to mythologize your scriptures as we have. You’ve got to be reading the Book of Mormon as allegory, you’ve got to be taking these sacred texts and turning them into metaphor.” I said, “It’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen.”
I think you represent a kind of spearhead of this resistance to that, saying, no we take these things seriously. We’re not going to make excuses for our belief that God literally spoke to prophets in our age, and that these encounters with the divine are not just mental phenomena. They’re real. You celebrate this in your canvases in a way that I think Mormons really rejoice in. I think that’s one reason why you’re such a loved artist in our tradition.
KERSHISNIK: I hope so.
GIVENS: The fact that you can do it both with feeling and also with gentle humor, because certainly not all the dead are happy at what they see us doing I’m sure.
KERSHISNIK: No, but I also believe in a God who laughs, and I think that just the way we interact with our children and they do something funny or say something cute and that’s surprising to us, I think that is a part of God’s experience too. I have the sense, this maybe is, I could be reading this wrong, but I have the sense that in working on things that the spirits and the people who attend me are surprised by what I do, that life is not just a matter of tapping into the ticker tape instruction and execution that we are obligated, I perceive, by section fifty-eight and other things, to participate creatively and actively in doing good, and that there are times when I think I have surprised the people assigned to help me out, and they say, “Oh, look how he’s doing it. This’ll work well. Okay.”
GIVENS: I wouldn’t want to worship a God who couldn’t be surprised, or feel I can do something that is unexpected.
KERSHISNIK: My tiny little notion of creativity, creativity cannot exist without an element of surprise. Now I choose to read in the scriptures when God says, “And he saw that it was good.” That is a grand ancient way of saying—
GIVENS: It turned out well.
KERSHISNIK: He really liked it, yeah. Maybe I’m reading too much between the lines but those are kind of examples of God saying, “Have you checked out the fjords? I mean, they are amazing. Check this out. Who did this? This is great.” Part of making things is you have an idea, you have a plan, but part of the process is letting what happens show you stuff and teach you stuff and show you something from a new angle that is a delight. I use the same word, a surprise. The way I think now I can’t imagine an existence in which that stops happening. I can’t. I don’t believe in it, an existence where that stops happening.
GIVENS: Well let’s round this out with a couple of final questions. What as a people, and as a church, do you think we do particularly well?
KERSHISNIK: The friendships that I develop in the process of functioning as a Latter-day Saint are very meaningful. Obviously we get assigned to be home teachers, but sometimes that sets you up to connect profoundly with a human that you would not have sought out, that would not have made sense. I think that there are affections close, warm, life-changing affections that I have, connections I have to people because the structure set that up. If there was not that structure then I think it never would have happened.
GIVENS: Beautiful. What can we do better? Where are we deficient?
KERSHISNIK: I believe that we could be much better at allowing people to participate with us with their troubles and their doubts. I think that there’s a lot of departure from the church, some of it might even be necessary, where people are at such odds, but I think there’s too much of it that happens because we as a people culturally don’t know how to accommodate people who are having trouble with something. That is unnaturally and unnecessarily exaggerated. There’s a kind of intolerance for trouble that leads to unnecessary conflict.
GIVENS: Yeah. I’d say amen to that.
KERSHISNIK: I actually feel like to be a disciple at any time in any age has been to accommodate certain things that don’t quite make sense to you. We don’t emphasize that, that’s not what the stories are told about, but in almost every age there’s been an issue or multiple issues that have been hard to carry.
GIVENS: That’s why we have that example I think in the Book of John, where the disciples hear him teaching about eating his flesh and blood.
KERSHISNIK: I love that because they don’t say, “No, it’s no problem.” What I hear them say, maybe I’m using too much imagination, although I think imagination is a useful thing in the scriptures, but they are essentially saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but this I know. So where would we go?” This is—
GIVENS: That’s not a powerful affirmation, “where else would we go?”
KERSHISNIK: Yeah. Right?
GIVENS: They’re saying, “Well, if there’s something better, maybe.”
KERSHISNIK: Yeah. It’s beautiful. But I think that what’s beautiful about that is if we don’t scrub it too much it allows for that very human reality of, “Yeah, I am part of something where there are some difficulties.” I feel like this is changing culturally in the church, and I do hear more voices of people not taking shots at policies or anything like that, but acknowledging that “I believe, I have a testimony and it’s okay if you know that I’m struggling with this.” I feel like that will allow more people to not feel like they have to stay away if they’re having trouble with this or that.
KERSHISNIK: So anyway. I’m trying to be a part of that solution. I have a long ways to go myself, too.
GIVENS: Last question, holy envy. Do you have holy envy of any other faith tradition, denomination, culture?
GIVENS: Something you’d really love to see us appropriate and make ours.
KERSHISNIK: Yeah. I feel like with the restoration there were so many things that were nebulous and mysterious that became solid for us. God has a body of flesh and bone. That’s a remarkable and amazing revelation. I think we’ve erred on the part of simplification that when eternal life is to know the Father and Jesus, if that is eternal life, then there’s got to be more than knowing that he has a physical body, that there are aspects of unfathomable mystery about godliness that I think we would do well to open ourselves to. I think that there are aspects of that that Buddhists do better and the Catholics do better than we do. I have been raised all over the world in having mostly being my friends were Muslims and Catholics and Protestants and such. There are great aspects of the whole truth that there are some disciplines that—
GIVENS: Make more room for wonder.
KERSHISNIK: Yeah. I think so. I really think so. I think that, this is actually a story that Faith found when we were doing some research on a project of the five blind men and the elephant. You know the story of the five blind elephants and the man?
KERSHISNIK: That the five blind elephants want to experience man and so the first one comes up to man and feels him and says, “Man is flat.” So the other five elephants come over and they say, “Yeah, he’s flat.” We do that to truth a lot of times. We smash it down and flatten it and make sure everyone agrees.
GIVENS: Took me a minute to get the “man is flat.”
KERSHISNIK: Yeah, the elephant feels man and he’s flat. I think that it’s okay for me to sit next to you in high priest group and say, “His experience of this is different than mine. That doesn’t mean I’m right and he’s wrong.” This is a big enough thing that it can have multiple facets and I would do well, even if I don’t agree with every premise you make, that there are things I have to learn about this larger thing by other angles being taken at it.
GIVENS: Right. Well, Brian, thank you for your life as a disciple and as an artist. Keep amusing us and keep provoking us.
KERSHISNIK: Oh, I hope so. Thank you very much, Terryl.
GIVENS: Thank you. Thanks for being with us..
The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for
Brigham Young University
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