Interview in Standard, June-July-August 2006 with Gaspard Koenig
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?
KERSHISNIK: 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.
KOENIG: 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?
KERSHISNIK: 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.
KOENIG: 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 classical tradition of western painting. How do you feel about this?
KERSHISNIK: 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.
KOENIG: Do you consider yourself in reaction against "modern" art, as defined by Kandinsky for instance?
KERSHISNIK: 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”.
KOENIG: What do you think of the "abstract" kind of spirituality? (Rothko...)
KERSHISNIK: 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.
KOENIG: Your characters are often involved in some difficult effort, or dangerous exercise. Does this permanent strain characterize your faith?
KERSHISNIK: 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</strong> <strong>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.
KOENIG: 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?
KERSHISNIK: 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.
KOENIG: Does the concept of "true faith" make any sense for you?
KERSHISNIK: 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.
KOENIG: Are you prone to doubt and crisis, about your work as well as about your God?
KERSHISNIK: 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 ofa 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.
KOENIG: I would say that your pictures are mute (similarly, your musicians are asleep...). Is silence a kind of prayer for you?
KERSHISNIK: 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.