Sunday, December 27, 2009

Nativity by Brian Kershisnik

This is a little embarrassing to admit, but when I first walked around a corner in the B.Y.U. Museum of Art and found myself face to face with a myriad of the heavenly host, a mother nursing a minutes-old baby, and a rather grief-stricken-looking father, I didn't realize I was looking at a nativity painting. At least I didn't realize I was looking at a painting of the nativity. There was no identifying plaque on the wall next to the painting. I did, however, immediately recognize it as something very familiar and right away I felt a connection with this work. A legion of angels dressed in the familiar clothing of L.D.S. temple patrons was passing by to get a glimpse of what I saw as the newest of their earthly kin. I saw these angels as ancestors and possibly descendants of the small new family depicted at the bottom of the canvas. To me, it showed the close connection between the birthing experience and heaven. When I went up to the front desk to inquire and was told that the roughly seven foot by seventeen foot oil and acrylic expressionistic painting was Nativity by Brian Kershisnik, I felt a little foolish that I hadn't recognized the Holy Family right away. I returned to the painting and immediately noticed the stable-like setting, complete with a mother dog and her recent litter. Of course I had seen it before, but it simply hadn't clicked. And the traditional blue of Mary's dress. And the attitude of singing praises of those angels who were preparing to fly off one side of the canvas and out into the night. And the tears streaming down many of their faces. Okay, so now the painting meant even more.

I spent quite a bit of time in front of Nativity during two separate visits to the museum. It was interesting to me to see the reactions of people as they rounded a corner and came in contact with this enormous picture. Old people, young people, tiny children literally stopped in their tracks and paid considerable attention to this painting. Because it's so large? That probably has something to do with it. But I think it has more to do with Kershisnik's appealing style; he uses color, line, and texture in a way that makes me feel comfortable and somehow included in his work.

The painting's dominant line is the river of angels flowing basically in a horizontal current across the canvas, containing soft interior curves along the way. Another significant line is found where the “river” diverts up and over the stable's earthly occupants, leaving them enclosed (in the negative space) in a soft, rounded, cozy setting. Some other important lines are that of the fence cutting Joseph off from Mary, and the vertical forms of the stable occupants suggesting that, unlike the visitors passing through, they are staying put---earthbound for the time being. Even these lines have a soft, rounded quality, and it is Kershisnik's use of curving lines that creates the overall warmth that is so inviting.

The color scheme of Nativity is appealingly simple, using mainly contrasting browns and blues. The differing values of brown Kershisnik uses in the basic stable setting, Joseph's attire, the subjects' hair color, and the mother dog and her puppies remind us again that, unlike the heavenly host passing over, this place and these beings are of the earth. Mary, however, gets to wear blue. Blue has been Mary's signature color throughout the history of Christian art. Kershisnik uses the deep blue of the heavens (shown mainly in the top left corner of the canvas) and Mary's blue (in the lower right) to physically give balance to the painting. It also designates Mary as the chosen vessel of the Lord and lifts her to a more divine status; she belongs to the heavens as well as the earth. A lighter value of blue is reflected in the dress of one of the midwives to further balance and give interest to the work. Kershisnik repeats the brown values in the hair color of many of the angels. Not only does this serve to aesthetically balance the lower right stable setting with the rest of the painting, but it also reminds me of the angels' connection with the earth; perhaps it hasn't been long since some of them dwelt on earth as mortals. The balancing act is completed by the use of brilliant white in the robes of the angels. High-key is tempered by the low-key blues and browns, giving an overall sense of balance and unity to heaven and earth.

Texture plays a big part in what makes this picture so enjoyable to look at. Of course the medium itself lends texture to the canvas, especially in the stable; the artist builds up with oil paint a suggestion of straw on the dirt floor. But the more noticeable display is the implied textures in the wonderful array of fabrics that clothe the host of angels. Many common textile patterns are represented and we (especially L.D.S. temple patrons) feel a certain familiarity and sense of identity as we pick up on them. I had to smile when I saw a woman point out a specific angel and heard her say to her daughters, “Notice how the red-headed angel chose this swirly pattern for her dress.” Another texture is seen in the glossy, mosaic-like pattern that makes up the sky. It adds visual appeal and also reminds me of the mosaics of the Byzantine and Christian styles, and seems like an appropriate way to paint the heavens.

In addition to his use of line, color and texture to draw us into his work, Kershisnik masterfully depicts emotion through the faces of his subjects as well as through symbolism. While Mary and the midwives emote a sense of peace and an admiration for the newborn Christ, and the angels display various emotions on their faces, it is Joseph who stands out individually. The conflicting combination of relief and grief and despair clearly comes through. I can see what Joseph is feeling. He is physically separated from Mary by a section of fence. The placement of the fence symbolizes what I think all men must feel when their wives give birth; in spite of being present, Joseph cannot fully be a part of it. He has seen the pain and the endangerment to life and, as a man (the protector), he naturally feels like he should have been able to do something to help. He is also feeling the magnitude of being responsible for this special child, the Son of God. I think it was Joseph that originally threw me off about the content of this work; we don't usually see Joseph depicted the way we see him here. With one hand on his grief-stricken face, he reaches through the fence to attempt to comfort Mary. She places a hand on top of his and is actually the one doing the comforting. It is amazing to me that an artist can convey these emotions so clearly and so strongly. I can also read meanings on the faces of many of the angels, one of whom seems to be noticing me as the viewer and giving me a look that says “I hope you realize how important this is.”

Brian Kershisnik's Nativity expresses his vision of and his feelings about the birth of the Savior with real emotion. His amazing use of the elements of art results in a unique warmth, a welcoming spirit, and openly invites anyone who sees it to actually be a part of it. I, as the viewer, have had a phenomenal experience with this painting. I have felt an overwhelming sense of somehow belonging to this picture and feel like I now have a whole new and more meaningful perspective of the birth of the Savior.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Lights

We have one very selfish Christmas tradition that I just love. We put Christmas lights in our backyard. We have big windows across the back of our family room. That's where we spend most of our time. It's really nice to be able to look out and see strings of colored lights adorning our kids' fort and the pine tree right next to the house. In the front yard, we just do the simple New England thing - wreaths and candles in the windows. I think it's beautiful. The kids think it's boring. Kent is working on building a new shed in the backyard. Next year I'm going to decorate that as well. Maybe turn it into a gingerbread house. Some people collect those miniature Christmas villages and set them up around the tree. I'm thinking of creating a life-sized Christmas village in our backyard. Okay, maybe two-thirds scale. Some of those reindeer made of white lights that move their heads up and down like they're grazing, a big snowman that waves to us as we watch him through the window, a pond with skaters... Someday we'll have grandkids. Wouldn't they just love it? I think I'd better hit the post-Christmas sales.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Day in the Morning

So you get up early on Christmas morning, charge into the family room and rip open the presents. Then what? It’s all over. Our kids figured out when they were still quite young that it’s better to stretch out Christmas morning as long as you can. They developed a Christmas morning ritual. They force themselves to sleep in as late as the oldest two decide. This about killed our youngest son for several years. Then we all get up and go downstairs. The kids open their stockings while Mom videos and Dad takes pictures. They look under the tree to see more wrapped gifts than were there before they went to bed the night before. He came! But nobody can touch. Believe it or not, we all go and shower and get ready for the day. Then we gather for Christmas breakfast. When the breakfast mess is at least cleared away from the table, it’s finally time to open the presents. But we don’t just rip into them. We alternate each year, starting with either the youngest or the oldest (somehow the kids keep track of which year it is), and open the gifts one at a time. In this way, we manage to stretch things out until at least ten-thirty or eleven. It seems to make it all much more exciting.

This has been our family’s favorite Christmas breakfast for the past few years. It’s also great for the Fourth of July.

1 loaf French bread
3 eggs, beaten
1 ¼ cups milk
3 T sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup blueberries (frozen blueberries are fine)
½ cup flour
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
¼ cup butter
1 package frozen strawberries in syrup

Cut or tear the bread into small cubes. Arrange cubes in a buttered 9 x 13 baking dish. Combine eggs, milk, sugar and vanilla. Mix well and then pour over the bread. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. In the morning, sprinkle blueberries over the bread mixture. Combine the flour, brown sugar and cinnamon. Cut in butter with a pastry blender until crumbly. Sprinkle crumb topping over the blueberries. Bake at 350 for forty to fifty minutes. While it’s baking, thaw and heat the strawberries. To serve, cut in squares (big squares) and top with strawberries. We’re actually going to use raspberries this year, as one family member has discovered he’s allergic to strawberries. Maple syrup is also good.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

One Neti Pot For Sale - Cheap

I bought a sinus irrigation system a few days ago. I have some sinus issues so naturally I’ve been self-diagnosing on the Web. I read about these sinus rinse products that are available. So began my quest for pristine sinus passages.

I bought this device called a neti pot – a cross between a little personal-sized teapot and a genie’s magic lamp. Neti is an Indian word for nasal. Apparently, people in India have been irrigating their nasal passages for centuries as part of practicing Yoga. I tried Yoga once. It was painful. My neti pot instruction manual assured me that irrigating my sinuses would be a soothing and enjoyable practice.

The neti pot comes with little packets containing just the right amounts of sodium chloride and sodium bicarbonate. When mixed with eight ounces of filtered water, they produce the perfect saline solution, guaranteed not to cause stinging or burning sensations in the nasal passages. Well, that's a relief.

So the idea is to pour the saline solution out of the neti pot through the spout into one of your nostrils. The solution goes up and over and comes out the other nostril, flushing away all your sinus problems. The booklet gives helpful hints on the whole process: use lukewarm rather than hot, boiling, or cold water, perform the procedure over a sink, since a whole cup of water is about to pour out of your nose, and my favorite tip, and I quote “Do not hold your breath and, if possible, make the sound ‘KHA…KHA…’” I loved this part. For the rest of the day, as each family member came through the front door, I ran to get my little neti pot booklet. After a quick explanation of nasal irrigation, I’d show him this part.

“Mom, you’re a freak,” they each said, but they couldn’t suppress the grin.


That evening, I was ready for my first treatment. I gently warmed some filtered water in the microwave, making sure there were no hot spots, and poured it into the neti pot. I added the contents of one packet and, with my thumb over the spout, shook to dissolve. I then carried the pot and the instruction booklet into the bathroom. I gave the pot a little rub for good luck and imagined a sinus genie rising up out of the spout and granting me three sinus-related wishes.

“Standing in front of a sink, bend forward to your comfort level and tilt your head to one side’” I read. Here goes, I thought.

I poured. Some of the solution did start coming out the other nostril, but the rest of it was suddenly filling up my mouth. I quickly tried to make the “KHA…KHA…” sound and nearly drowned in the attempt.

After recovering, I looked at the booklet again.

“It should not come into your mouth unless you are tilting your head backwards.”


I tried it again, positioning my head more carefully, but I skipped the vocals. I’d decided that the KHA… KHA… must have some kind of mystical yoga benefit that was way beyond my experience.

This time it worked fine. I wouldn’t have called it soothing or enjoyable, but I was hopeful that all my sinus issues would soon be resolved.

Within a couple of hours, I had a terrible sinus headache. It lasted all night. And I must have washed away some brain cells, because the next day, after the headache had subsided, I irrigated my sinuses again. Well, it could have been a coincidence, right? It wasn’t. I was almost immediately struck with the worst sinus headache of my life.

My face hurt.


For two days.

And so ended my quest for pristine sinus passages. If I want to cure my symptoms, I’m going to have to do it some other way. Better keep searching the Web.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

In-n-Out and Krispy Kreme

The recent In-n-Out Burger craze in Orem, Utah reminds me of the Krispy Kreme Doughnut craze that occurred just down the street about a decade ago. At that time, I wrote the following piece. I’ve been to In-n-Out Burger in California. The hamburgers and fries were just like the cheapest burger and fries I’ve ever had at any fast food place. At least Krispy Kreme brought back fond childhood memories.

Kind of long, but I hope you'll read it anyway!

Crusty Crisps? Crispy Whats?” I intentionally get it wrong.

Krispy Kremes!” my kids chant. “They’re the best doughnuts in the entire world!” they exclaim.

Sounds like a lot of hype to me.

“How do you know?” I ask. “You’ve never had one.”

Well, so and so, they assure me, had one while visiting cousins out of state, and he says it’s true.

“Maybe it’s kind of like The Emperor’s New Clothes,” I suggest. “People just want to be popular. They go along with the crowd so everyone will think they’re hip.”

“What’s hip?” they ask.

And so go our conversations, at least once a day during the week of the grand opening of the first Krispy Kreme doughnut store in our state, which happens to be in our town.

“Forget it,” I say. “No doughnut could possibly be so much better than any other doughnut that it would warrant standing in a line for three hours. Let alone camping out over night in a parking lot… And I have a new theory. After you stood in a line for three hours for a doughnut, would you admit that it wasn’t anything special?”

“What’s warrant?” my kids ask.

A couple of weeks go by, and one day I’m struck by one of those rare moods of generosity mothers like me get struck by about twice a year. I’m on an errand with my eleven-year-old, in the part of town where Krispy Kreme is located.

"Want to go to Krispy Kreme?” I ask. “The lines are probably normal by now,” I say naively.


Why don’t I try to be this nice more often, I wonder. Because if I did, I remind myself, I’d never get this kind of reaction. We turn the corner and my chin drops. Cars are parked on the street for 100 yards in both directions. The parking lot is completely full. The parking lots of neighboring businesses are completely full. The drive-thru line circles the building at least three times. We peer inside as we creep past. The line snakes around several times before heading out the door and down a flight of steps.

“NO WAY!” I holler. “Who are these people? Who would be STUPID enough to stand in line for that long for a DOUGHNUT?” I rant.

So much for my generous mood.

“Kurt,” I tell my son, “those people have got to be idiots.”

I tell him, “Sorry, Bud.”

We go to Einsteins and get a dozen bagels.

Several weeks go by. The kids bring home report cards, along with rumors that Krispy Kreme is giving out free doughnuts for every A.

“That’s crazy,” I tell them.

“No, Mom! The principal even said so on the announcements!” they insist.

The principal?

“Well,” I tell them, “put your report cards on the dashboard of the car. Sometime when I’m in the vicinity maybe I’ll stop in, if there’s no line.”

“What’s vicinity?” they ask.

I’m out doing some shopping one day soon, in the vicinity of Krispy Kreme. It’s about 10:30 a.m. A couple of months have gone by since the grand opening, and there are only a few cars in the parking lot. I park and go in. Only two other customers. I verify the free doughnut rumor, feeling a little silly as I ask. It’s true! One free doughnut for each A up to six per report card. I present four report cards and walk out with two dozen fresh, hot Krispy Kreme Original Glazed Doughnuts. I get in the car.

How can I resist? I’ve got to know what all the hype is about, and besides, if it weren’t for old Mom, making them do their homework and study for tests, there might not be free doughnuts, right? I lift one out of the box and take my first bite.

Have you heard it said that smell triggers memory? Well, taste does, too. Suddenly I’m a kid again, at the Kennedy Memorial Ice Skating Rink in Hyannis, Massachusetts, eating a honey glazed doughnut from the snack bar. We all ice skated when I was a kid. Not only at the Kennedy Rink, but on flooded cranberry bogs and neighborhood ponds. We all skated, whether we wanted to or not. I didn’t even really like ice skating, but I wouldn’t have dreamed of staying home. I didn’t like it because my feet always froze. We traded sizes around the neighborhood every year until everyone had a pair of skates that somewhat fit.  No matter how many pairs of socks I managed to cram on my feet under Sarah Carpenter’s hand-me-down skates, my toes would be numb after only a few times around. We all took lessons, too. I only made it through the beginners’ class. Every week I bawled all the way home in the car as my feet thawed out. My mother didn’t sign me up for the next level. I kept going skating though. I could skate forward and backward. I never got the hang of stopping; I’d just crash into the boards. Even my little brother would plod along on a pair of double runners. He was a wreck at sports. My parents had him convinced that Bobby Orr wore double runners. My sister got pretty good. She kept up the lessons. She could do all kinds of spins and jumps. She even danced the Mexican Hat Dance on skates one year at the annual ice show in a big sombrero and a bright colored poncho trimmed with orange ball fringe. I bawled through the whole performance, sitting in the stands with my parents. My feet were frozen.

We all skated at the Kennedy Memorial Ice Skating Rink, and we all bought the honey glazed doughnuts and the steaming hot chocolate at the snack bar. The hot chocolate was always too hot to drink (today they’d be sued), but we loved the doughnuts.

I pop the last bite in my mouth, lick each finger, and fasten my seatbelt. Wait till I tell the kids. Krispy Kreme doughnuts are nothing new to me. I’m certain they’re made from the same recipe as those doughnuts at the skating rink. I wonder if there’s a Krispy Kreme where my sister lives. I’ll tell her I don’t really know if these doughnuts are that much better than any other doughnuts. I’ll tell her I don’t know if the taste warrants standing in a long line for hours. But it might be worth it just for the memories.