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A Discussion with John Kissick About Fueling Motivation

A native of Ontario, John Kissick is an artist and art professor at Guelph’s School of Fine Art and Music. His abstract paintings have been featured internationally in both solo and group exhibitions. Aside from his paintings and work as a professor, Kissick is also a widely published author. As a contemporary artist, Kissick is […]

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John Kissick
John Kissick

A native of Ontario, John Kissick is an artist and art professor at Guelph’s School of Fine Art and Music. His abstract paintings have been featured internationally in both solo and group exhibitions. Aside from his paintings and work as a professor, Kissick is also a widely published author.

As a contemporary artist, Kissick is internationally renowned for his abstract works, which often draw from both historical references and today’s pop culture. Over the years, his work has appeared in galleries such as Berlin’s Peter Wide Gallery, Ontario’s Michael Gibson Gallery, and Toronto’s Katzman Contemporary and Leo Kamen Gallery. His most recent solo exhibition “Too Near the Bone,” was displayed at Toronto’s Gallery House between July 10 and August 13, 2020.

With almost three decades of experience in academia, Kissick has held roles at institutions such as Penn State University’s School of Visual Arts, the Ontario College of Art & Design, and the University of Guelph’s School of Fine Art and Music. He also acted as visiting lecturer for the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Ulster at Belfast in Northern Ireland.

Over the years, Kissick has enjoyed praise and recognition as both a prominent contemporary artist and insightful educator. Kissick sat down with us to answer a few questions regarding his career choice and professional achievements.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

Many think that inspiration is something you “find” or that it “finds” you, but any artist who has spent their career creating will tell you that most work comes from a balanced combination of curiosity and persistence. You really have to show up and be willing to do the work.

For me personally, each new piece springs from the completion of a past work. Every finished painting asks its own distinct questions. In that manner, the act of wrestling with a work until it’s completed eventually becomes the energy and inspiration necessary for approaching the next. At the end of the day, there’s no such thing as a muse; there’s only the magic of what happens when you foster your own curiosity and dedicate yourself to the work at hand. New sources of inspiration ultimately come from stepping outside of your comfort zone and allowing your mind to wander. 

What is the most challenging aspect of teaching art at the university level?

Teaching at the university level is certainly challenging, but it’s challenging in the best way. As an artist, I am so incredibly fortunate to find myself surrounded by other artists and constantly stimulated by their energy and unique intellectual freedom. I enjoy showing up to work each day and engaging in thoughtful discussions with like-minded individuals.

Teaching requires me to give constructive feedback on a wide variety of works, which continually challenges me to sharpen my own skills and processes. I’m always listening and responding to newer artists, which causes me to constantly rethink my own studio practice. Over the years, I’ve found this challenging yet constructive environment is crucial to my own work.

What tips do you have for aspiring artists?

This advice has worked for me, but I believe that it also pertains to any venture worth pursuing. First and foremost: create an abundance of work. The only way you’re ever going to get better is if you fully commit yourself to your craft. 2. Experiment fearlessly, assuming that nothing you make is precious; 3. Actively seek feedback to gain a better understanding of how others view your work and take that feedback seriously; 4. Find a community of peers with whom you can participate in group critiques; it’s easy to be overly critical of your work, so I think it is highly productive to allow others to provide their feedback; 5. Read as much as you can about contemporary ideas not only on art but on culture as well; 6. Don’t be afraid to show your work, but be mindful not to place your work in venues that are not conducive or respectful of your efforts. 

It took me a long time to get to where I am, and most of my successes have been the result of trial and error. Continue to pursue what you are passionate about and it will eventually pay off.

How do you break through artistic barriers or blocks?

I’m a firm believer in working your way through blocks. That said, you must be okay with producing a lot of work in order to reach the other side. If you’re exhausted and truly stuck; however, don’t hesitate to take a break. Sometimes you need to separate yourself from your work and concentrate on other things in order to fuel your motivation. That being said, it’s perfectly okay to step back for a day or two to clear your headspace.

Reading widely, experiencing new things, and pursuing conversations with individuals outside your artists circle can provide a wealth of new ideas and perspectives. Never be afraid to push through boundaries and try new things.

What considerations factor into organizing your own gallery showing?

For most of my career, I have constantly “painted towards shows,” meaning I always have a show on the horizon. Consistently having an upcoming exhibition prevents me from resting on my laurels or stumbling into navel-gazing.

Given the larger scale of my paintings, I usually set a benchmark of around 5-6 large works for each solo exhibition, often with a few more small pieces as an aside. I always envision the exhibition itself as a work—the paintings function as a series that play off each other within it. This takes the pressure off, freeing me from small-scale perfectionism. Instead of obsessing on the minute details of any singular piece, I’m focused on the statement they create as a whole.

Once I’m about halfway through, I always invite my gallerist or curator for a studio visit to gauge how the series will be received. Inevitably, I enter a creative panic as the show approaches. This; however, is a self-imposed feature of my process. Like most artists, I tend to procrastinate—establishing deadlines is my way of forcing decisions and self-inducing productivity.  

Are you currently working on any new exhibitions?

About a month ago I finished a solo show with Gallery House—so I’m in the beginning stages of another ramp up. I have some exhibition opportunities in Germany over the next year that I’m looking forward to, along with a series of prints I’ll be producing in collaboration with Stu Oxley at Riverside Studios.

Why did you decide to focus on large pieces over small to medium sized works?

I’ve always gravitated towards larger formats for my work, even when I was in art school. I think it has something to do with the work’s relationship to my body rather than just my wrist or my arm. It feels more natural for me to produce gestures and create spaces; they seem alive and open, whereas smaller works tend to feel like windows, removed from experience. As you grow as an artist you will inevitably discover what works best for you, your style, and preferred mediums. 

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