Saint John artist Herzl Kashetsky is still perfecting his craft

·4 min read
Saint John artist Herzl Kashetsky is still perfecting his craft

The past and the present are always in dialogue, according to Saint John painter Herzl Kashetsky.

The walls of his Canterbury Street studio are layered with years of pictures, paintings, magazine clippings.

A seven-foot orange tree — which Kashetsky planted from a seed 40 years ago — scatters the afternoon light from the street.

Plaster cherubs, salvaged from the renovation of the Imperial Theatre, preside over a bronze plaque that reads "INNER SANCTUM."

WATCH | See the artwork that is part of 'bittersweet' anniversary show

Kashetsky's father and uncle were both antique dealers. Growing up in Saint John in the 1950s, he and his five brothers and sisters were "exposed to a lot of ethetics: furniture, glassware, china, paintings as a child. It gave me an appreciation of craftsmanship, and older things."

Joseph Kashetsky was Herzl's older brothet, an abstract artist who showed such promise by the age of 25 that in 1965, he was profiled in the Atlantic Advocate alongside the likes of Jack Humphrey, Fred Ross and Miller Brittain.

Julia Wright/CBC
Julia Wright/CBC

In 1972, he and Herzl mounted their first show together: a joint exhibition at the Arts Centre at UNB, where Bruno Bobak was the director.

The brothers' first exhibition together, tragically, was their last.

Two years later, Joe died from a heart attack.

"That ran in the family," Herzl said. "I've had three heart attacks. My father died of a heart attack at 61 years old. Joe had complained and complained about symptoms of a heart attack. They sent him home."

Joe was 33.

Julia Wright/CBC
Julia Wright/CBC

His death "really made me feel that I had to continue in his footsteps," said Herzl, now 72. "He inspired me so much, and now he's not able to do it."

Herzl's journey as an artist has been a successful one, by any measure. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of New Brunswick in 1992, a Strathbutler Award for Excellence in Visual Arts from the Sheila Hugh Mackay Foundation in 2011, and a Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012.

Submitted by Herzl Kashetsky
Submitted by Herzl Kashetsky

But he still feels there's something missing.

Looking at Joe's work, he feels the "mystery of not really knowing Joe."

"And we'll never get to know him now that he's gone. We'll never know, really, what he was saying in these works."

Herzl has carefully preserved his brother's sketches and paintings — a body of work that includes enigmatic figures with haunted eyes, architectural sketches, a series of circles, drawn with a technical pen, that "would take nerves of steel and the patience of Job to do," in Herzl's words.

Julia Wright/CBC
Julia Wright/CBC

Two dozen of Joe's works, and "21 or 22' of Herzl's, are being presented at Fredericton Gallery 78 until Sept. 24, in a show caled A 50th Anniversary Exhibition of Joe and Herzl Kashetsky.

Submitted by Herzl Kashetsky
Submitted by Herzl Kashetsky

"The work that he did in the 14 years that he created — the strength of that work, the legacy he's left behind. Just imagine if he added another 48 years, if he was alive today. He'd be 81 if he continued working. What a loss."

"On the other hand, it's exciting to have that anniversary show again and celebrate that time. And I've been painting, fortunately now for the last 50 years. There will be 24 works of Joe's in the show and 21 or 22 works of mine."

One of Herzl's standout works in the upcoming show is the oil painting Ascension, which depicts a silhouetted figure climbing a ladder out of a warm, salmon-coloured light, into somewhere else that can't be seen.

Submitted by Herzl Kashetsky
Submitted by Herzl Kashetsky

"The future is the unknown," Herzl said. "That's the darkness that the figure is moving into. The unknown is tomorrow, it's next month, it's next year. And that's the story of everyone's lives. We were all taking this journey through life into the unknown."

The other works are a cross-section of the themes he has explored over the years: beach stones, 1970s woodcuts, drawings of the interior of his studio, and Herzl's so-called "calligraphic drawings," portraits constructed out of his own handwriting.

All of the works, he says, contain fragments of himself.

Submitted by Herzl Kashetsky
Submitted by Herzl Kashetsky

"If something of you isn't flowing from you into the brush, into the painting, it's lacking. That's an important part of creating a work that has impact and a lasting presence."

Submitted by Herzl Kashetsky
Submitted by Herzl Kashetsky

The show in Fredericton, he said, isn't a career retrospective. Rather, it's a celebration — both of of Joe's lasting legacy  and the many projects and themes Herzl has yet to tackle. The only obstacle is one we all have to contend with.

"You never have enough time," he said.

Julia Wright/ CBC
Julia Wright/ CBC