A slight figure in a hoodie and black baseball cap pulled low, Brooklyn resident David Jon Kassan looks nothing like the revered figure he is in American portrait painting. But make no mistake, when he takes a brush in hand in one of his Stellenbosch art workshops, there is no doubt he’s a master at his craft. ELMARI RAUTENBACH had lunch with him.
There aren’t many, let alone the serious artists among us, who can claim that they once went viral online. But when David Kassan shared a YouTube post in 2010 of how he painted live models in the busy streets of New York – using only his fingertips and an iPad – he became an instant media darling. Within six months the post had been shared more than one million times.
Fast-forward seven years and the 40-year-old from Brooklyn has bagged two of the biggest awards in American portrait painting. Last year he received the Gold Medal of Honor from the Allied Artists of America, and in April the prestigious William F. Draper Grand Prize from the Portrait Society of America for Love and Resilience, one in a planned series of 11 Auschwitz survivor portraits.
It therefore came as no surprise that when Stellenbosch artist Christelle du Plessis announced that her very first art workshop would feature David Jon Kassan as lecturer, all 15 spots were snapped up months ahead of his visit in August.
Christelle met David in 2015 when she attended one of his workshops in Rome and immediately she understood why he is such a sought-after teacher.
“David is generous with his talent. He’s a warm person, unassuming but at the same time knowledgeable and practical,” she says. The course, however, made her think.
“As a university town, Stellenbosch was quite familiar with the concept of taking a sabbatical. But to nurture another – maybe forgotten – talent was a novel idea at the time.” Together with marketing expert Linda-Louise Roosenschoon, Christelle came up with the idea of ‘escape art’, with David as her first visiting facilitator.
“We barely slept, putting everything in place and launching our website, but the success of those two weeks of drawing and painting encouraged us to turn the workshop into an annual event.”
Since then art escapes have become a huge trend. Google it and pins will pop up from New Hampshire to Mercury Bay, Goa to Stellenbosch. The course coincided with the revival of portraiture in America – the two women’s timing could not have been more perfect. And indeed, the 15 spots for next year’s August workshop with another stellar American portrait painter, Max Ginsburg, were sold out in less than a week.
Die padda wil gaan opsit met sy nooi in die vlei, ahemmmm! Die padda wil gaan opsit met sy … The boisterous song, played by three street musicians dressed in orange klopse jackets and strumming their guitars somewhat unevenly, is not exactly the musical accompaniment one would expect of a painting class. Nor did it seem in keeping with a room steeped in colonial history, its birth year – 1854 – imprinted above the yellow wooden door and wide sash windows letting in the soft Boland light.
But the music seems to match our man’s vibe. Bobbing and beaming, his dark hair gathered into a ponytail in the nape of his neck, David looks more like a student than an award-winning painter. And yet, when the last notes die down and the door closes with a click, he’s all business again.
Peering over the shoulder at one of the artists’ easels, then back again at the model – one of three women of different ages sitting on a straight-backed chair in front of a dark backdrop – he murmurs something and then gently takes the brush to demonstrate what he’s talking about.
Some attendees step back to take a better look. Most are intent on capturing that precise swoop of an eyebrow, a single crinkle in the flesh around the mouth, a shadow to the side of the nose.
Walking to a restaurant for lunch with his fiancée Shana Levenson – a cool blonde, also an accomplished figurative artist – beside him, David says he was 15 when he painted his first nude.
“It was in Philadelphia and she was a woman living on the streets. During my student years I painted my girlfriend because I felt comfortable with her. I kept painting family members and friends for many years afterwards as a way of getting to know them. You learn about someone through their face.”
A portrait of his mother, Letter to my Mom, was awarded third prize in the BP Portrait Award 2014. (The Times of London called her ‘a reluctant poser’, apparently because she keeps her eyes shut.)
“To me, a painting from life is only ever successful if you look at it and marvel not at the ‘how’, but at the ‘why’,” David says. “Style must never take over.”
David was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. When he was about four his family lived in Germany, where his father was a pilot in the US Air Force. “We travelled all over Europe to all the great museums and churches. When I was older I often had flashbacks when I saw pictures of paintings and sculptures in books.”
He holds a degree in Fine Arts from Syracuse University in New York but, not satisfied with his skill level as a young painter, he went back to school to learn how better to paint from life at the Art Students League of New York. During his time there he won a grant to study painting and art history in Florence, Italy.
He’s spent most of his working life in Brooklyn (“I love the rough, urban area”), but plans to move to Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the end of the year with Shana and their three children from previous marriages.
It was during one of his workshops in Ta Hatahana in Tel Aviv, Israel, that David met a student who changed his life and the way he thought about his art. “The woman told me that her mother-in-law was a survivor of the Shoah, the Holocaust. I immediately wanted to paint her. She declined, but the seed was planted.
“My grandfather Murray escaped ethnic cleansing by fleeing Romania across the border into the Ukraine in 1917. Although my father was 15 when his father left and the family lost touch with him completely – he died when I was only a baby – his story of endurance was what family myths are made of.”
He pushes up the sleeve of his black hoodie and shows me his right forearm. A word in black is tattooed there. “It’s the Hebrew for ‘roots’,” he says. “Heritage.”
“I realised these survivor portraits should not only depict their subjects’ hardship and the horrors they’d witnessed, but also document their perseverance and the strength of the human spirit.”
For help in locating survivors, David first approached the Museum of Tolerance, a multimedia museum in Los Angeles. “There was a certain urgency to the project,” he explains. “The number of first-hand witnesses more than 70 years after the end of World War II is dwindling. We decided to approach people who were all from the same camp to simplify logistics and find a common thread. There was also the question of how big can I go.”
In the end he chose 11 survivors from Auschwitz who were living in Los Angeles and decided he would aim for a life-size portrait of the entire group, 5.49m wide by 2.44m high (or 18×8 feet), done in five individual panels and then added together. The final series and group portrait are to be exhibited at the Fischer Museum of Art in Los Angeles in 2019 to commemorate the invasion of Poland and the start of the war 80 years ago.
“There are a number of problems I face with this way of doing things,” he concedes. “The finish on each painting needs to be the same. And the background needs to flow from the one to the other.”
To be able to keep track of what he had in mind for the final image, David started off by taking a group photograph to determine the individual poses. He liaised with the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation, an institute for visual history and education, to launch his crowdfunding campaign, dubbed the EDUT Project (edut is Hebrew for ‘living witnesses’). He also started working with a videographer to record his progress, as well as the testimony of each survivor.
The first painting in the series – of Sam Goldofsky, born Chaim Schlomo in 1928 in Będzin, southern Poland – was selected for the BP Portrait Award 2015. One of David’s 24 600 followers on Facebook writes that although the portrait is ‘uncannily accurate’, it is what is revealed ‘beneath the surface that makes this work truly extraordinary’.
After lunch we take our time to walk back to the studio. The air is mild, the streets dappled with sunlight falling through the first leaves of spring.
“Painting for me is largely a therapeutic and meditative process,” David says. “My paintings take me a long time. I tend to lose myself in thoughts about the subject.” As he goes in for the final session he adds, “In fact, if I could leave my students with only one thought, it would be that portrait painting is not about finishing a work – mine are never really finished. Portrait painting is about learning to see.”