In "The Nativity," Kershisnik conspicuously includes two women at Mary's side.|0| These non-canonical midwives assist with the Savior's birth, their hands still bloodied. Mary's close relationship with these women is emphasized as they lean nearer to see the new baby. Mary and the midwives embody Kershisnik's understanding and fascination with sisterhood. He explains: "I grew up in a family with only brothers and married a woman from a family with only sisters. My brothers are now scattered across the country, but I live among all of my sisters-in-law and am fascinated (a polite adjective that describes my feeling only partially) by their interactions. My paintings of sisters are not portraits of the sisters I know. Rather, they are paintings about the connections women seem to have, connections that may or may not include sharing the same parents. All women, it seems, are sisters, but some more than others."
While the women in this scene are intimately involved in the experience, Joseph, although involved with the overall event, is physically separated from the circle of women.|1| The backrest behind Mary creates a barrier between them. As a father himself, Kershisnik may have experienced Joseph’s feeling of exclusion at the birth of his own son, Noah. In "Little Father" (2002), |2| the abnormally small father figure stands perched on the armrest of the chair where his wife sits to nurse their new baby. Although supportive, there seems to be little he can contribute to the situation. This is their mother/child “bonding time” and nothing can replace it. Like Mary, the mother in Little Father, is absorbed in nursing. She is contemplative of her child and what he may become. The father stands a bit awkwardly, ready to do whatever may be needed. But, at this moment his presence is sufficient.
In "The Nativity," Joseph plays the role of supporter while Mary concentrates on the Christ child and her relationship with the midwives. This crucial relationship is reiterated in several of Kershisnik's paintings. "Ten Women with Infants" (1997) is a particularly beautiful depiction of this comradery.|3| Here, women gather on a grassy hill to play with their children and talk. The social nature of the activity is emphasized and serves as an opportunity to share maternal joys. Each woman, even if not engaged in conversation, thrives on the occasion. Like sisters, the women in "Mother and Child with Companions" (2003) share in the joy of the central mother.|4| Whether or not the three women are sisters of the same parents is irrelevant. The care and love they show for the child seems equivalent to that of the mother. Her baby is their baby. They are one in purpose. The care and attention the midwives impart to Christ reflects their personal devotion and admiration. "Woman and Child on Wheels" (2002) may exemplify the surety of women that Kershisnik finds so intriguing -- their intuition and confidence. This mother stands upright on some rudimentary form of a skateboard. With no steering device, no breaks, and no seatbelt, she clutches her child and smiles. She seems to be on a ride that she has no control of, but is at perfect peace. Similarly, "Woman with Infant Flying" (1995) shows a woman on a journey, yet this time she is drifting. She isn't drifting aimlessly, but presses forward with a purpose. She knows exactly where she is going and how she is going to do it. The logical mind knows that flying challenges all sense and reason. Yet, the confidence of this woman dispels any doubt that flying is impossible. Likewise, Mary was asked to take upon the insurmountable task of being the mother of the Son of God. When Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, she simply replied, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" The Angel told her that she would conceive a child through the Holy Ghost. Though illogical to the human mind, Mary submitted to the will of God. Despite the physical exhaustion of Kershisnik's Mary, she realizes the magnitude of her task and remains calm and confident that God will never leave her. She acts according to the promise in Luke chapter one, "For with God nothing shall be impossible."
Joseph's face on the opposite side of Mary's backrest provides a stark contrast with the serenity of Mary. He is overwhelmed by the miraculous event and places his hand on his face in shear awe as if to be saying, "What is happening?" There isn't a lack of faith, but rather the acceptance of something that cannot be understood in this life. In this sense, Joseph represents Kershisnik's experience with women. He paints about not knowing them. As he describes it, "Having grown up in a family of brothers, I painted my wife's sisters [as] foreign, exotic, alien -- an idea seen from the outside." They are something to love and respect, but not necessarily understand. In many paintings Kershisnik plays upon the idea that women are filled with a sort of holy intuition and intelligence. "Giving Directions" (2005) may be one of the most obvious (and humorous) examples of his faith in maternal intuition.|5| The woman in the foreground simply gives direction to the men behind her. Without flinching or second-guessing her instructions, they heed almost mindlessly as if to say, "Of course she's right!" This ironic play on the stereotypical man who will not ask for directions is a statement of the artist's meekness. Like Joseph, the men in this painting do not call attention to themselves, but humbly accept the guidance. What Kershisnik sees as the simplicity of women is further emphasized in "Would You Just Walk" (2003).|6| The man here seems to be complicating life, yet the woman appreciates the humor and lets him know through a small smile. Mary and Joseph repeat this subtlety in their own relationship. Mary, who is herself overwhelmed and has clearly just given birth, places her hand on his as a sign of love and comfort to Joseph. Although Joseph is in a stupor at the miraculous event, he places a hand on her shoulder as if to let her know that he knows this is right. It is the very human and naturalistic elements that remind the viewer that Mary and Joseph were indeed human and it is through obedience that we too can become holy.
Kershisnik also depicts the large mass of angels, crowding the picture and hovering over the holy family and accompanying midwives, in a naturalistic and human light. Unlike the beloved angels of artists such as Fra Angelico or Giotto, these angels are individuals with distinct personalities. Viewers are invited to consider their own reaction to the events. Would I join the chorus in praise, shed a tear in quiet joy, stare in pure awe, or as one angel does, pat Joseph on the head? The veil between mortality and immortality appears thin. As Mary and Joseph demonstrate, we, as mortals on this earth have the potential to become closer to God. Kershisnik's Mary and Joseph share the very human moment of witnessing a birth as concourses of angels sing praises the sacred event.
The personas of Mary and Joseph are based on the artist's understanding, or desire for understanding, of these fascinating human relationships. Despite the differences between men and woman, he recognizes their dependence on one another to become holy. Kershisnik's nativity personifies relationships, as he understands them. His understanding of women -- their mystical sisterhood, maternal intuition, unwavering faith, and potential divinity is found in his depiction of Mary. Joseph's character stems from the simple awe and holy confusion Kershisnik may have experienced as a witness to the birth of his own children. The inclusion of these very human qualities within a sacred event reminds the viewer of their divine potential to one day become holy and literally fly as an angel.
more of Brian Kershisnik's work availabe at his website
In Memoriam: Salt Lake City
Dancers, mimes, actors
Theodore Milton Wassmer: 1910-2006
by Frank McEntire
"I have lived to bridge the two worlds of the horse and buggy and the automobile," Ted told me during an interview for The Salt Lake Tribune in March, 1994. "I drove a buggy as a young boy until my dad bought a car in 1916. He continued to drive until his mid-8os."
It is not only buggies and cars that Ted has driven. "All my life," he said, "there has been a drive to experiment, a drive to express, a drive to work out frustrations, or some concept that I have to get out."
He also was driven to work -- as a husband, artist, collector, and for 17 years, "sitting behind a desk doing accounting so I could afford the luxury of being a painter."
Ted said he first wanted to become an artist when he observed Frank Zimbeaux, father of Francis, selling his paintings in front of the old Salt Lake Theatre. Seeing Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" on a visit to the 1934 Chicago World's Fair cemented that aspiration. Ted returned to Salt Lake City and began holding a series of "soirees" at his "bachelor digs" -- a small apartment on the Avenues dominated by his grand piano.
Even more important than his art, being a husband was "an enormous factor in making Ted what he was," according to his friend, Ann Poore. His wife, Judy Farnsworth Lund (1911-1996), was "amazing in her own right." And, if you wanted to stay on Ted's good side, you needed to acknowledge Judy's legacy.
Judy was a distinguished executive and community leader, as well as an accomplished painter. She was the first student to receive a Master's Degree in art from the University of Utah. She promoted artists' work and Utah's cultural development in many capacities, including serving as the executive secretary of what is now the Utah Arts Council. As the director of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), and later as the director of the Utah artist's project for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), she "kept artists and their families from starving during the Great Depression of the 1930s," according to Ted's obituary. One of her many accomplishments as the FERA director was completion of the murals in the State Capitol Rotunda in 1935, now under restoration with the rest of the building.
Again, Ted's obituary reveals how Judy was an influence and formidable companion for Ted. They married in New York City and "studied four years at the Art Students' League...They spent long days together in city museums copying the work of master painters to develop their expertise and also painted portraits in their Carnegie Hall studio for two years before moving to the art community of Woodstock, N.Y., where they not only painted and exhibited, but purchased and traded art for the next 33 years..."
Ted and Judy funded most of their extensive travels through sales of their paintings. Their most fertile commercial opportunities were in Salt Lake City, especially through exhibits in the ZCMI Tiffin Room, where Ted had his first showings as a budding talent in the Alice Merrill Horne Gallery. Ted would later say that he "started with Alice and ended with Karen." Karen is Alice's great-granddaughter, a painter and proprietor of Horne Fine Art, the gallery where Ted directed most of his work in his final years. Alice, elected in 1898 as the second female member of the Utah House of Representatives, was the driving force in the formation of what is now called the Utah Arts Council, the first legislatively mandated state arts agency in the country.
In 1985, the Wassmers returned to Utah for good. They gradually donated their collection of over 1,500 works of art and sculpture to seven major Utah art museums, along with 1,700 volumes of art and literature.
Wassmer often stressed the importance of good health, swimming "every day" and keeping "active in the arts." Until the last few months of his life, he painted nearly every day. Collectors visited his studio regularly. "They think this old man is going to die and they should get my work for cheap while I'm still making it." He said such visits gave him, "a good feeling knowing people want my work."
Wassmer didn't use models for his figurative paintings of dancers, mimes, actors, and street festival characters. "Before I start," he said, "I just throw some paint at the thing and what evolves, evolves. I can't explain how it works. I get rid of something in me that has to be expressed." He also used this process for his abstract paintings and watercolors.
His work revealed itself as the colors began to flow.
"Hell's fire!" he exclaimed, "You can't explain art anyway. With me, it just evolves. My pieces are not all good and many are worthless. But some succeed; some come out with a semblance of art, a sense of mystery."
At the end of our interview, Wassmer bragged that he had outlived five Salt Lake Tribune art critics. That meeting in his condominium near the University of Utah was the beginning of a twelve-year friendship. Our time together was spent with occasional lunches at close-by restaurants, previews of his new paintings, and howdy-dos at art openings where he sported his silver toupee and very short white shorts.
Wassmer's 70-year art career, generous philanthropy, and prolific letter writing (he sent me a letter about every month or so for the past dozen years, several included drawings and watercolors) came to an end a week after Thanksgiving on November 26, 2006. He was 96.