Experience His Work
- ‘Ed Kerns Interconnected’ is on exhibit at the Grossman Gallery, 243 N. 3rd Street in Easton through April 16.
A keen observer of how living things are interrelated, Ed Kerns established the modern era art department at Lafayette
Movement and change in both the inert and organic begin the moment you slide a chair up to the island in Ed Kerns’ kitchen.
Playful specks of quartz begin to rise out of the countertop; even the still, silent stack of golden French breakfast pastries seems so purposefully arranged that it, too, begins a metamorphosis into new and interesting forms that somehow find a symmetrical place in a home filled with Kerns’ colorful, textured artwork.
His use of language is equally as sensory, delivered in deliberate, seductive cadences that draw you into a world that reveals his origins as an abstract expressionist. His visual art synthesizes the intellectual and the aesthetic, a combination that would serve as the foundation of the modern era art department that Kerns was tasked to establish when he came to Lafayette in 1980.
Kerns’ technique of combining art and science, which rises from the cellular level, began on his paternal grandfather’s farm in rural Halifax County, Virginia.
Born and raised in Richmond, Kerns grew up as a typical Southern boy, with a love of the outdoors. During the summers, he lived on the 400-acre ancestral farm. He milked Holstein cows, served as an armed sentry to protect the herd from the occasional bobcat that wandered out of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and caught catfish in the millstream.
“I spent a lot of time in the woods. And it was by choice,” he says. “And it was by observing my grandfather, who was a consummate farmer who was additionally skilled as a woodsman. He was a miller, a deacon in his church. He was a reader, an educated man. We used to read Kipling and Hemingway together on the porch. He was one entity, holding so many things, sort of a living yin yang.”
Kerns’ grandfather was an intellectual but lived a life of physical action. As a boy, the young Kerns’ sensitivity for internalizing cellular and biological imagery fell over him the moment his grandfather’s Southern gentility would evaporate whenever he killed a pig for bacon and ham. It sensitized Kerns’ observation processes, leading to the development of his combinatorial thinking and a viewpoint of synthesis.
Those early visceral agrarian experiences led him to the great American entomologist Edward Osborne Wilson, who also spent a lot of time in the woods and received his inspiration for science by observing the interrelatedness of living things.
“Wilson became one of the premier intellectuals for my purposes, and talked about intellectual unity; consilience was his term. It had to do with the fact that, at the highest level of thinking, art and science are pretty much the same thing,” Kerns says. “If you go back 500 years to the Renaissance, people like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were dissecting in the morning and painting in the afternoon. That was my ideal. I wanted to do both.”
Kerns chose art as a way to explore his childhood’s universe and began sketching, drawing, and painting. He attended the Richmond Professional Institute and later, Maryland Institute College of Art, where he studied with painter Grace Hartigan, the highly regarded American abstract expressionist.
“Over the years, I ran into greater and greater thinkers and teachers,” he says. “All of these people had this mindset of discovery. They could visualize things. I remember Jonas Salk telling me how he got his idea for the polio vaccine. It just came to him in an epiphany, riding in a taxicab in the back of a street cleaner. The squirting water on the street enabled him to think of a different way to kill a virus.”
As a young man, Kerns was discovering conciliate moments where he could find points of “intellectual unity, direct observation, and metaphor growing out of nature.”
His career path quickened, taking him to Manhattan, where he came to know and work for many prominent artists of the “New York School,” including Willem de Kooning, James Brooks, Philip Guston, Clyfford Still, and Sam Francis.
Living in a brownstone in the east side Murray Hill neighborhood, Kerns had his first solo exhibition at the A.M. Sachs Gallery on 57th Street in Manhattan in 1972, which garnered immediate critical praise in The New York Times and leading arts publications. Kerns lived and exhibited in Manhattan for 12 years before coming to Lafayette College.
Although he was living a life of connectivity and prestige as a New York artist, achieving a level that allowed him to concentrate solely on his painting, the culture of wealth and affectation around him soon got the better of him; he was, after all, more attuned to the forest than asphalt. It hit him one day when he was looking for split wood for his fireplaces and ran into artificially scented fire logs, each branded with ridiculously pretentious names like “romantic cabin.”
“I just lost my mind,” he recalls saying to himself. Even Leroy, his springer spaniel, had become a dog model. “I certainly had gained privilege, but, in New York, money counts. I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to be. My whole underpinning was about observation; something didn’t feel right. I decided I was going to look for an academic job, to become a good teacher.”
Kerns drew a 100-mile circle around his New York universe and received offers to teach at Yale University, University of Delaware, and Lafayette College.
Enticed by a blank canvas on which to create an art department, Kerns accepted the Lafayette offer in 1980, and in 1987 was awarded the Eugene and Mildred Clapp Professorship of Art, becoming the youngest person to hold an endowed chair in the College’s history.
“Lafayette didn’t really have an art department. They had a moral theologian, teaching courses called fortnightly lectures for ladies, impressionism, and other stuff,” Kerns remembers. “They were just a few years into having a coed campus and felt they needed a stronger humanities curriculum. It could no longer be a backwater eastern establishment existing to train engineers, scientists, and lawyers. It needed help.”
Kerns worked with Morris R. Williams, Class of 1922, who funded the $8.7 million Williams Center for the Arts, which opened in 1983 as the College’s first permanent home for the visual and performing arts.
“That building instantly changed everything,” Kerns says, noting how the number of art majors soared. “Suddenly, we had cultural productions.”
Joking about the friction caused by the increasing number of visual arts students splashing paint around the instrumental practice rooms and rehearsal spaces, Kerns began talking with the late Arthur Rothkopf ’55, president at the time, and his wife, Barbara, an art historian, about establishing an arts campus downtown.
Backed by a $10 million lead gift by the Williams family, Williams Arts Campus at the base of College Hill opened in 2001, offering space for painting, sculpture, and drawing studios for faculty and students, classrooms, and the Grossman Gallery. Later, studios for theater, a sound stage, a black box theater, and media and teaching labs were added.
Over the course of his career, Kerns has cultivated Lafayette’s fertile ground for collaborations with neuroscientists, biologists, computer scientists, and engineers, making whole the Lafayette ideal of uniting the arts and sciences.
As an educator, Kerns has always looked out for his students and challenged the status quo, says Nancy McCreary Waters, associate professor of biology, recalling how he championed a student who was going to be denied an honors award because of a GPA requirement, even though he had assembled a professional portfolio and done all of the requisite work.
“Ed got up, and in a soft, honest way started talking about the problem with our guidelines for what constituted honors,” she says. “His words were just so powerful. That moment, when he spoke on behalf of his student, has stayed with me.”
His black denim and T-shirt always blotted with paint and surrounded by books, correspondence, and coffee, Kerns has always kept an open door in his studio, a welcoming place where the conversation is easy and opens portals of discovery, sometimes without his guests knowing it.
“It is hard for me to calculate or measure how important Ed Kerns has been to me as a teacher, a mentor, a friend, and a kind of guide,” says award-winning poet and essayist Ross Gay ’96. “When I met Ed in 1993 or 1994, I was a flailing undergraduate, sort of lost and depressed, with little idea of why I was in college.
“But, thank God, I took one of his painting classes and, as I see it, Ed noticed that I needed a little something. I’m not saying he said, ‘You look like you need something!’ I’m saying he talked to me seriously and asked me questions about myself and really listened when I tried to answer him.”
Gay remembers Kerns shoving books and VHS movies into his hands, and introducing him to ideas and people.
“And … wait,” he pauses. “I’m just remembering, the first poem I ever published I owe to Ed—it’s another story. I call it come-along pedagogy—let me show you what I love, you might love it too. Which is to say, the best teachers expand your sense of what you might love in this life. Which is also to say, Ed is one of the people who gave me my life.”
Needing to fulfill an art elective, Bryan C. Fox ’10 encountered Kerns during his last semester before graduating.
“I had a feeling this class was going to be fun, and sure enough it was,” he says. “I was going through a lot just internally at the time. And at the same time, I was discovering a new passion that I didn’t realize I had because my parents never pushed me in that direction. That passion was for the arts. I made this discovery while taking Ed’s course.”
Fox says Kerns made him feel human and put him in touch with latent talents.
“I felt like I belonged, a hopeful feeling for me because throughout my years at Lafayette I did not feel that way,” Fox says. “He saw some potential in my art, although it needed a lot of work, and he began to serve as a mentor for other issues I was having as well.
“At the same time, I saw his success as an artist, and as my love for art began to grow, I saw this as an opportunity to think about myself and my goals and potential for becoming a successful artist as well,” says Fox, who recently started a business, The Resilient Fox, to sell his paintings, drawings, photography, and sculptures.
“Thanks to Ed’s inspiration, I’ve finally dedicated myself to my artwork,” he says. “I just want to focus on my art and nothing else. It will be a dream come true.”
Karla Stinger ’97 met Kerns during an independent study in abstraction in her junior year, but her story with him didn’t begin until after Lafayette.
Her film and television career in New York suddenly displaced by the 9/11 attacks, she went back to school and reached out to Kerns to catch up.
“We started a correspondence about contemporary art and professional art practices,” Stinger says. “These conversations were essential for me to visualize what the life of a professional artist could look like. The conversations continued when I returned home to the Lehigh Valley. I met with Ed in person to talk more, which evolved into a mentorship. During this time, I was offered the opportunity to be a visiting artist on campus.”
It was one of the best times of her life. Days started out with coffee and talks in Kerns’ office as students would eventually find their way to their work in the studio areas.
“I would often walk back to Ed’s office to take breaks to look at his collection of books or talk to him about the personal work he was making on the walls outside his office,” she recalls. “These good times consisted mostly of ideas, jokes, and a healthy dose of coffee.”
Having a place to make art in conversation with Kerns and other faculty members made it possible for Stinger to create a solid portfolio of paintings for graduate school. She credits her experience with Kerns for her being accepted into five different art schools around the country, with scholarships.
In 2013, she graduated from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn with an MFA in painting and drawing, and in 2016 became a department head at Watkins College of Art at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.
“The mentorship Ed Kerns provided me was critical on this journey,” Stinger says. “It provided me with a unique educational experience in contemporary art with an expert in the field; it allowed me to find and distinguish my voice early on as a painter; it gave me opportunities to create, present, and discuss my work that would cement a vital foundation upon which my future career and success was based, and it helped shape my capacity as an educator today by providing me with a chance to connect with students about their own work.”
Karina Skvirsky, associate professor of art, who will succeed Kerns as department chair, says Kerns set an example by his “intense connection” to students.
“That was really important when I first arrived at Lafayette in 2006,” she says. “It’s a great model to learn from, the way he always puts students first.”
As a practicing artist, Kerns also understands the value of having faculty actively pursuing their art outside of Lafayette, which enhances the classroom experience for students, says Skvirsky, who has a studio in New York and shows in the city, Latin America, and Europe.
“He’s been so wonderful and supportive in really broadcasting and championing my accomplishments to the Lafayette community and the administration,” she adds. “One can’t always publicize one’s own accomplishments.
“As he’s moving into retirement, he’s asked me to lead the department. That’s also really very important in terms of our connection, because he’s given me that kind of confidence and been a mentor in my learning to take on that responsibility.”
During his journey at Lafayette, Kerns supported faculty in other departments and bucked the system to break down disciplinary silos.
“Ed served on the faculty committee that granted me tenure,” says Waters. “There was some controversy, as I was rather young, woefully naïve, and the first woman recruited to a tenure- track position in biology in the history of Lafayette.
“Ed knew there were complex issues of principle involved and what it meant to support women who, at the time, were very, very underrepresented among the faculty,” she says. “I have always cherished his willingness to serve on that committee and that he cared that much about the institution and his faculty colleagues. In the years since, Ed and I have often remarked how similar studio artistry is to laboratory science.”
His depth of understanding for the physical and natural world is impressive, and it shows in the range of his art, Waters notes.
“But we’ve also discussed what it meant for us to be faculty at a liberal arts institution like Lafayette,” she says. “Ed displays this great example of reaching across disciplines … working with engineering for the Karl Stirner Arts Trail, and with biology on his Evolution series. He takes seriously his obligation to model innovative ways to bridge those disciplines.”
Waters says she’s reminded of Kerns’ influence on her career and the growth and maturity at Lafayette every time she sees his 2018 Octopus Meditations, one of several Kerns’ projects in which she has collaborated. Paintings from the series, a manifestation of consciousness and metacognition and spatial recognition, were selected by the biology department for permanent display in Rockwell Integrated Sciences Center.
“I cannot tell you how lovely it is to come out of my office and see his work every single day,” she says. “The color, the smooth transitions, it’s just very soothing.”
Kerns has innate awareness about what his students are seeking and responds accordingly.
“Students are very sensitive, even more so today, to authenticity,” he says. “They recognize pretty quickly who’s full of sh–. They just recognize it, because they have their antennas out. Because they are all seeking to find out who they are. And for me, school is not about just filling up heads with information. It’s about giving them ways to invent themselves, to create themselves.”
Stinger says Kerns’ philosophy was the bedrock of the “nonjudgmental opportunity I received at Lafayette to explore and cultivate my voice, which led to a cohesive body of work” that brought her to the doors of graduate school.
“The best thing you can do with anybody in a conversation or anything else, is to be as brutally honest, at least about yourself,” Kerns adds. “Because it puts them in a mental state of acceptance about crazy ideas. And I’ve heard that so many times coming back from students about how you made it possible for me to think about this in a certain way.
“And that, to me, is so much better than thanks for teaching me how to use the No. 4 brush. I’ve always believed that art chooses you; you just have to follow and find yourself trying other ventures,” he says. “I always wanted to be the connector, a conduit.”