To life: S. Jersey native is finding his roots through art
BROOKLYN, N.Y. – A woman sits between two easels in David Kassan’s studio, her bony dancer’s feet dangling above the hardwood floor, and she’s content to simply listen as her nephew tries to demystify what he does with a paintbrush.
Kassan, 38, doesn’t consider himself a “photorealist” just because his paintings bear an uncanny resemblance to their subjects, he says. His portraits, life-size and often full-body, have a three-dimensional quality that makes one imagine that his aunt, Dale Katzen, visiting on this weekday afternoon last month, will emerge from the canvas at any moment and walk across the room.
“My goal is to make them as living as possible,” Kassan explains.
Kassan, who grew up in Medford, Burlington County, N.J., is a huge Philadelphia Eagles fan and has fond memories of his years at Shawnee High School before he left for Syracuse University. As a teen, he spent hours roaming the halls of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where he was inspired by Marc Chagall’s “Half-Past Three (The Poet).”
He calls it the “EDUT (Hebrew for testimony) Project: Living Witnesses, Survivors of the Holocaust.” His first portrait, of Auschwitz survivor Sam Goldofsky, is on display in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
“My sister was killed in Auschwitz when she was 18 years old,” Goldofsky says in a video that Kassan created for the project. “My mother, father, the same way.”
For Kassan, life in the South Jersey suburbs didn’t include organized religion, but he remembered the stories about his grandfather having to hide in a well as a boy when the Cossacks were out for ethnic cleansing on the border between Romania and Ukraine. During a trip to Tel Aviv, Kassan had the Hebrew word for “roots” tattooed on his forearm.
“It’s ironic, because in the Jewish religion you can’t get a tattoo. I kind of like the irony,” he says, holding up his forearm. “I don’t really know much about my Jewish heritage, but ethnically I feel Jewish.”
A portrait of sisters Bella Sztul and Roslyn Goldofsky, whose mother hid them from the Nazis with the help of Catholic families, stands on one of the easels in Kassan’s studio.
The piece looks about 65 percent done to the untrained eye, but Kassan never counts the hours and doesn’t care how long it will take to complete. He says the Holocaust paintings could take up to a decade to complete, possibly longer. Paintings, he says, quoting a phrase he’s heard before, are abandoned, not finished, by the artist.
“I have friends who will do like a zillion paintings a year and I’ll do three, if that,” he says.
It’s easy to see why Kassan’s paintings take so long. He uses mirror-like canvases to add “luminosity” to the paintings, he says, and they have to be prepared by hand. He often tries to make his own paint. The videos he’s made show the intricate details he focuses on – barely visible veins or wrinkles – and it looks as if it could take a month to paint one eyeball alone.
“I don’t care about the time at all,” he says. “It’s about exploring who they are. If it takes 200 hours, that’s awesome. It’s like reading a good book you don’t want to end. I suffer a lot for that, I guess.”
Gallery Henoch, in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, has been selling Kassan’s paintings for more than a decade, and assistant director Andrew Liss says the time Kassan puts into each piece makes it more valuable.
“He’s not following a gridded path,” Liss says. “He’s following a conversation, getting to know someone over a period of time.”
Steven Kassan, David’s father, said he saw the gift in his son early and has marveled at it ever since. Both he and his wife, Roberta Kassan, have been painted by their son.
“He keeps improving. You think, ‘How can anyone paint any better than this?’ and he does,” said Steven Kassan, who is retired from the Air Force, by phone from Ocala, Fla. “You can see into the minds of the people he paints and know how they’re feeling.”
David Kassan is currently in Rome, teaching art classes, and later this summer he’ll have a monthlong residency at Dublin’s Royal Hibernian Academy. His son, Lucas, 9, lives with him in Brooklyn. He also has a nonprofit that kicks some funds toward aspiring artists and musicians, and he has designed a painter’s palette that became a staff pick on Kickstarter.com.
Success has brought him to a point that any artist could envy, where he “doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to do,” he says, including take commissioned jobs for people who can afford them.
“I don’t paint them for people’s living rooms,” he says. “I want them to be on public view. I want them to be in museums.”