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Nouveau Aboriginal ~ Interview with Mike Kershnar

10:47 AM PDT on August 20, 2007


Mike Kershnar's art, be it on a canvas, skateboard, paper, or sneakers speaks to us in a primal way. Not just because he paints a lot of animals-- there's something about his drawings and paintings that goes beyond any one style and taps into the origins of art. You can imagine him drawing on a cave wall 10,000 years ago, or on his math book in junior high in the OC...

TACO: How did you get started making art? First of all, just as a kid, and second as someone pursuing it full time.

MIKE KERSHNAR: I remember really getting into art in second grade. That was the same year I got into skateboarding and rock and roll. I drew the cover of the Guns and Roses Appetite for Destruction cover, and brought it home, and my Mom was a little wary. We were a nice Jewish family and here I am as a little kid with five skulls on the cross. I remember being blown away by the Robert Williams painting that was inside of that GNR Tape. Knife teeth and titties! I couldn't believe art could be like that. I was so curious about art that appeared deviant like the lettering on Corona Extra bottles; the Grateful Dead steal your face icon, and Egyptian art. My first series of paintings that I did for fun, in elementary school were of Egyptian deities. I loved the anthropomorphic characters such as Anubis the jackal headed god, and again it felt sort of deviant because coming from a Jewish background I always thought of ancient Egypt as oppressors and idolaters, but their aesthetic was so delicious to me I couldn't resist the urge to draw it. I think all kids want to rebel, looking back I feel fortunate to have rebelled through art and skateboarding rather in other ways. For instance, though I never touched any sort of drugs in middle school I did tons of in depth methodical drawings of cannabis leaves, mushrooms, syringes, and cartoon spermatazoas with LSD tabs on their tongues. I think I just sort of drew what I was curious about.

Beastie Boys Poster
(click for higher quality image)

As for getting into art as a full time career, it just sort of evolved from being so involved with skateboarding. I was co-founder of Elemental Awareness, which is this really cool non-profit that Element Skateboards is the founding sponsor of. From just being inside of that company I got to see how commercial art was created. For instance I was always so curious how skateboard graphics came out with these rich saturated colors. I had no idea that it started as a black line and then color separation occurred. At the same time my friend Justin Abbink was curating Subject Matter gallery in Costa Mesa and I was so inspired by cats like Saber and Retna who were coming through I just began painting up a storm. I sold my first piece of art to a friend’s mom for $80. I was stoked, then I started selling work for $300 then $500 then $1500. I had a show at 510 in Berkeley and got an article in Thrasher, thanks to Jasin Phares from Deluxe. From there I was an official "skateboard artist" and got invited to paint at Goofy vs. Regular. I painted next to Ed Templeton and then got to do a series for Toy Machine. My friend Nicole got me into a group show at 111 Minna in SF and from there I got picked up by Stewart Kummer Gallery in Gualala. It's like a big cosmic snowball. I'm very fortunate to have come so far in a relatively short period of time of professional involvement. I feel very blessed. Right now I'm getting to draw rock posters like my favorite artist of all time Rick Griffin! I am currently inking a poster for the Beastie boys at The Greek.

Stalking Wolf

TACO: Your animal series is awesome, do you have a favorite? What do our native animals say about SoCal?

MIKE: My favorite animal painting that I have done so far would have to be "A Stalking Wolf" which was inspired by the Apache Elder Stalking Wolf. It sold to wilderness survival expert and author Tom Brown Jr.. When he bought it he told me he was certain I would be a very successful artist. That entire process has given me a lot of fruit and fuel to live.

As for So-Cal I try to represent where I am from and do a lot of animals that live here such as hummingbirds, herons, sandpipers, and even the secret ones like ring tailed cats. Check ‘em out, they live here too.

(click for larger image)

TACO: your pen and ink work is really nice, the patterns are incredible. How did that style develop?

MIKE: The patterns in my pen and ink work developed from simply drawing a lot. None of them were plotted out or conceptualized. They all just derived from endless hours of a pen in my hand from Elementary school through college. To paraphrase one of my favorite artists R. Crumb, "If nothing else, the public school system gives any half talented artist all the time in the world to develop."


TACO: What do you like about making art on skateboards? do you skate, if so on a board you've painted?

MIKE: Making art on skateboards is a dream to come true for me. I always loved skateboard graphics, especially those drawn by VCJ for Powell in the 80's and a lot of Jim Phillip's stuff for Santa Cruz like the Corey O'Brien reaper with the fireball. Skateboarding has been the primary cultural influence in my life and I love he aesthetic that comes with it. In the early 90's when I was in middle school I was vibing off of what Andy Howell was doing at New Deal, just feeling it so hard. It was handmade and so pure and raw. Skateboard artists were my Rembrandts and Raphaels, but unlike the classic guys whom made me feel like what I was doing was out of reach of real art, skateboard graphics taught me that anything goes. So my goals as an artist weren't to master the human figure but to evoke emotion, with style, to people in my own age bracket. I always felt attracted to high art like Dali, Van Gogh and Picasso but the art that really integrated itself into my psyche came from "low art" sources like skateboard graphics, comic books, graffiti, and rock posters.

Over the years I have skated many on many boards that I painted on, right now I have a cruiser that I made myself start to finish with a Narwhal graphic. It's fun to rock your own stuff. I've always liked that.

Mike in his Art Booth

TACO: What are some ways young people can help bring more positivity into the world? did you have a single moment which turned you towards your vision, or did it evolve over time?

MIKE: Everybody has their own path to walk. Being raised Jewish my parents really instilled the principle of "Tikkun Olam" in us which is basically the healing of the world. If I was just drawing things to feed my own ego without trying to serve a greater purpose I think I would feel hollow inside and probably try to fill that hole with all kinds of vice. Some people are born to be teachers and shine light in that way, other people may work construction but they are the person on the job that is constantly filling up others with good energy. Every day we are faced with endless opportunities to shine light or create darkness. Obviously I struggle with this all the time. Today I picked a cigarette butt off the beach, but I was slothful in other ways. Basically I would encourage people to try finding a desire to want to live for a greater reason than the pleasing of their own ego, and then to try to commit to a lifestyle that reflects that in all ways. We all stumble, but if a person can hold that as their guiding light, then every decision one makes feels a little more illuminated.

As for my personal vision, I believe I made a covenant with God early on to try to live a moral, upstanding life dedicated to God’s art, that being all the natural wonders of creation. It's pretty personal, I mean we are talking about the relationship with man and his maker, but I personally believe that my covenant was made before I was even born and I have been conscious of it for as long as I can remember. Some days I ask myself, "Is drawing all of these lines really the best thing I could be doing for the universe?" But when these lines give me a platform such as right now to try to encourage positive change in the world and in mankind, I believe it is. This interview started out by talking about how attracted I was to deviant art, and then ends about trying to be positive. What these two ideas have in common is the society in which we live, and the societal laws in which we are subject to are created by man. It doesn't have to be this way. We can create anything we want... like a blank canvas.

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