“When an artist says they’re searching for beauty,
I believe that what the artist is truly searching for is love.”
~ David Jon Kassan
“I want to be thoughtful about things, as a painter who wants to paint feelings. Human emotion and loss and the whole spectrum of what we go through is really interesting to try to capture. The idea of living a life to understand what we go through as humans, as opposed to just being a bystander or consumer.”
~ David Jon Kassan
INTERVIEW WITH CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN PAINTER DAVID JON KASSAN
~ Albuquerque, New Mexico
Typically when we talk about a “beautiful work of art” in the figurative world of portraiture, we think of symmetrical faces and appealing proportions. Youthful ideals of purity and innocence exhibited through lowered gazes and unlined faces as yet untested by any of the harsh challenges of life.
But David Jon Kassan doesn’t think beauty is what either the artist or viewers are truly after.
“I don’t like the term ‘beauty,'” the celebrated American painter told me when I interviewed him over the phone. Kassan, who recently wed his best friend, fellow portrait artist Shana Levenson, in an intimate beach wedding on Caribbean’s idyllic Turk and Caicos Islands, says he prefers a different word to describe the elusive quality he believes artists are truly hoping to capture.
“When an artist says they’re searching for beauty, I believe that what the artist is truly searching for is love.”
Whether painting Auschwitz survivors, intriguing acquaintances, or his own family members, for Kassan it’s all about exploring our own complicated humanity.
“Solemn, the Barron,” Kassan’s tender portrait of a Belgium widower whose chateau he and Levenson rented while teaching a month-long painting workshop, is a testament to enduring love.
“He was super interesting. I loved his hands. He owned a chateau in Southern Belgium, which is the French-speaking area, and he spoke, like, nine languages,” Kassan tells me, his voice becoming animated, just as it does every time he describes one of his subjects. “He had lost his wife ten years earlier, and he had also been through a fire recently where he had lost all but just a few small pictures of her. So I wanted to capture him thinking about her.”
It is this sensitivity to his subjects and his commitment to creating works that reveal more than surface beauty that make Kassan’s body of work stand out.
The portraits Kassan has painted of his own mother reveal a complicated history.
“My mom lives in Florida, and I don’t have a great relationship with her,” he tells me. “She never calls, ever.” Painting portraits of her has been a means for creating connection, even intimacy. “It’s my way of spending time with her.”
One can think of few other activities that would require such an intense level of focus on another person. To capture a subject to the depth that we see in Kassan’s portraits requires a willingness to truly see the individual, to be fully open and present in a way that we don’t always make time for in our normal everyday interactions.
“I was painting my mother’s hands and a friend of mine was over while I was painting, and she was like, ‘Wow, this is great, is it done yet?’ And I was, ‘No, I still have the transition to do.’ And she was like, ‘Well, is the message sent?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I think the message of the painting is sent.’ But for me, meditating on her in this way was therapy, and doing her hands… I had these flashbacks from my unconscious by painting her hands. About stuff that until then I hadn’t remembered.”
An equally sensitive capture, though in an entirely different way, can be seen in the artist’s portraits of his beloved Aunt Dale whom he credits for inspiring him to become an artist and for being “more than a mom than my real mom.”
“Since I was a little kid, you know, every time we’d visit, she’d give me art supplies. I’d sit on their floor and draw. There was a big painting I did in 7th grade of this giant dragon thing, and she used it in her classroom for years and years.”
“She’s like the glue of her family,” Kassan tells me. “She worked with special needs children in a middle school in Long Island. She’s very sensitive and incredible and she just retired and was about to sail all over the world ~ that was her dream ~ and then she came down with this neurological condition in her back that prevented her from being able to travel and it was just really debilitating for her.” Kassan says the painting was his way of recognizing his aunt’s difficult journey. “She couldn’t stay in one place for very long and she was constantly in pain. And so I wanted to do a painting of what she’s been through. Eventually, she became able to travel but she still can’t sit for very long.”
“It’s funny, but I don’t really see myself as a painter,” says Kassan, “so much as I make documents.”
Even in the case of the Auschwitz survivors Kassan painted for the Facing Survival exhibit at the USC Fisher Museum of Art, it was the individual personalities of each of his subjects that the artist sought to capture, “not just the atrocities of the first portion of their lives, but rather the 75 or so years afterward when they actually had control of their lives.”
“I wanted these stories to be very much about how they’ve taken control and have thriving businesses and thriving families. And that’s where I think the triumph within these paintings lies.”
Not that the concept was an easy sell at the beginning. At first when people heard about the artist’s idea for the “Facing Survival” project, which received support from the USC Shoah Foundation, Kassan says there were some who expressed concern that such an exhibit would be too hard to look at.
“Some people were like, ‘You paint Holocaust survivors? Aren’t you always depressed?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I’m completely inspired by these people’s lives.’ You know, despite what they’ve been through, how much success they’ve had. All the coping that they’ve had to do, the guilt that they have, and how they’ve turned that around. At points in their lives they were told not to talk about the Holocaust. And to keep it bottled up inside. And they love how now we want to hear their stories. And how the public needs to hear them.”
On the website Kassan created for his project, Facingsurvival.com, visitors can not only view Kassan’s survivor portraits but also read excerpts from their individual stories. In Hanna Davidson Pankowsky’s narrative, for instance, we learn that it was her mother’s occupation as an artist that placed her family in danger:
“Leaving Poland was a life-saving decision because when we came back, the doorman of our apartment house told my mother that half an hour after we left, the Gestapo came to arrest her because she was an artist. At that time, Germans tried to eliminate all the scholars, scientists, and Jewish writers and artists. If we had stayed 30 minutes more, I wouldn’t be here.”
At what point, I wondered, did Kassan realize the weight that could accompany being an artist and that this was a calling he himself wanted to take on?
But Kassan is quick to downplay any lofty intentions.
“I never thought of it as being a greater service to anything other than just me trying to figure out stuff. I just filtered my way through it, trying to find what I felt was important in life to portray and understand.”
The idea for the “Facing Survival” project Kassan says came about from simply wanting to gain a deeper understanding of his own grandparents’ journeys.
“My grandfather escaped ethnic cleansing in 1917 to come to America from the border of Ukraine and Romania. He wanted to escape the pogroms that were going on at the time by the Cossacks. But this was something that my dad never talked about. And so [the project] came about through me wanting to learn about my grandfather’s story that I never got to hear.”
As for his grandmother’s side, Kassan recalls “stories about how she went back to Poland only to find that all of their villages had been wiped out.”
Lacking any more information than this piecemeal of family anecdotes, Kassan began researching his family history. The project expanded from there.
“I get survivors’ relatives who want me to get their relative’s story before they pass away, and it’s hard for me to say no to that because I want to be there to hear the survivors first-hand, in their own words and to talk to their families. That’s the only way that I can make a painting that I would want to put out there, you know what I mean? That’s grounded, and authentic.”
“She was just incredible,” he tells me, his voice rising again in excitement. “She had a dual major in painting and literature, and before we even started a painting, she would have us sit down and write our landscape from when we were a kid: You know, what was it like to run through alleyways, and jump curbs on our bike, or sit on the grass, or sit by a pond to go fishing… What the air smelled like back then… All those details I still have concrete memories of…”
Kassan says he uses the same technique now when he paints.
“Instead of going to Italy to take photos, I bring my paint set. Even though I’m not doing the best painting; I’m making concrete memories of being there. So…what the air smells like; what the construction going on in the background sounds like; what’s going on over there with people ordering coffee behind me, you know, all those things really remind me of what it was like to be in Assisi and painting this castle. Rather than just taking a photo and moving on.
“I always think of painting as a way of living. As opposed to making a living. I’m not there to make a product that I’m so stressed out about; it’s not like I’ve got to make this thing great, or am obsessing about how to pull off the technical aspects. I’m more about just being there and having that experience.“
It’s been important to Kassan to support other artists just coming up in the same way that teachers like McCoubrey impacted him.
“I always want to be the kind of teacher I needed. I also want to be that philanthropist in a small, small way, that I would have needed when I had no money, you know? To help me through school and through studying.“
Kassan says he himself lucked out by being awarded grants to travel to Italy and grants through the Art Students League to study, which he now wants to continue forward. “It doesn’t have to only be the wealthy people out there who can donate. It can be working artists who can set aside money out there as well.
Otherwise, if one is not careful, says Kassan, the making of art can become a rather self-absorbed occupation.
“I ask myself how I can make the process useful so that it affects other people in a positive way and not just be about the artist. There’s this saying that goes, ‘A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats.’ And I think if other successful artists did the same thing…I think if any change is going to happen, it’s going to happen from within. And it needs to be all of us pitching in so we lift up the level of all artists.”
As it turns out, it was because of a scholarship fund Kassan set up to help other artists that led to him meeting Shana Levenson, the woman who would eventually become his wife.
“She actually donated to a foundation I was running. I used to travel a lot to teach, and at my workshops, I would auction off my demos. Sometimes the bidding would go up to $50, and sometimes it would go up to a couple thousand or more. And I would take all that money at the end of the year and give it to a teacher, a sculptor, and a musician every year. I’d give about $5,000 each.”
Levenson heard about Kassan’s scholarship fund and donated $600 of her own money.
Later, at a Portrait Society conference, Levenson approached Kassan during one of the breaks in his demo to tell him she was a fan of his work and that she had donated to his project. Kassan says he was “blown away.” He chuckles softly. “I mean, nobody had ever donated before!”
I ask Kassan if in the same way that he sought to be the kind of teacher and philanthropist he would have appreciated in his early years, if he found himself compelled to create the kind of artworks he himself would like to see more of? Was this a guiding factor in what he chose to paint?
Actually, Kassan says, he prefers works that are unique to the vision of the artist and are often very different from what he himself chooses to paint.
“My painting speak to my temperament, to what I’m trying to say and what I’m trying to do. But I think that if I was only looking at paintings that were my temperament, what I like to do, that would be such a small box, you know, of loving art, that it wouldn’t be nourishing for me.”
Kassan says he has encountered artworks that he finds meaningful even as they might not have been as skillfully executed.
“I get nourished by those too. I also get nourished by fluffy paintings that don’t have any deeper meaning but are painted beautifully. And I love conceptual art; I love abstraction… As long as it’s got no bullshit and it’s honest and authentic, I tend to like it. If it’s coming from a place where the artist actually means it and you can tell. I think that’s what makes the difference. So yeah, in that way, I want my art to have that authenticity. Something that’s real and important. But it doesn’t matter about style, I guess, or how the message is sent.”
David Jon Kassan (born February 25, 1977) is an internationally recognized contemporary American painter best known for his lifesize representational paintings. Kassan’s work is best classified as Social Documentary Painting, due to the importance and relevance of the subjects he chooses to represent.
In 2014, Kassan turned his attention to painting and documenting Survivors of the Holocaust, with the development of the EDUT project (“edut” being Hebrew for “living witnesses”) as a way of connecting with his grandfather’s traumatic history of escaping ethnic cleansing on the border of Romania and Ukraine to come to America in 1917. The EDUT project’s mission is to meet with as many living Survivors to the Shoah as possible and to document them in filmed video portraits and in paintings and drawings.
While many survivors have already told their stories on video (as in the Visual History Archive developed by the USC Shoah Foundation) or in memoirs, Kassan believes painting offers viewers a different kind of connection to the survivors, one that puts a personal face to the sometimes abstract idea of the Holocaust.
In 2017, David Kassan partnered with the USC Shoah Foundation and the USC Fisher Museum of Art to develop the EDUT project into a Resilience Exhibition that opened at the Fisher Museum in the fall of 2019 in Los Angeles.
Kassan is a much sought after drawing and painting instructor because of his steadfast commitment to the age-old discipline of working from life and creating compelling expressions of the human condition. He has given painting/drawing seminars and lectures at various institutions, and universities around the world. In 2013, he founded the Kassan Foundation in hopes of giving grants directly to underprivileged talent in both the visual and musical arts.
Kassan currently lives in Albuquerque, NM.