If it’s true that the greatest beauty arises from our deepest pain, then Colleen Kassner’s work is beautiful indeed.
Milwaukee-based Kassner began painting in 2001 after a protracted hospitalization for manic episodes. Not only did her newfound passion help her heal from her bout with mental illness, but it also opened new paths for her to explore.
In fact, she says her art career has been a rather serendipitous journey, which stands in stark contrast to the traumatic events that inspired it.
“My art career has always had a natural flow,” says Colleen. “As I grew artistically new opportunities arrived.There were many moments in my painting career when I knew on a visceral level where to head next.”
After returning from the hospital that final time, Colleen’s then-boyfriend now-husband, Philo, encouraged her to take up painting as a therapeutic activity. She says that family photos from that period of her life show her happily splashing watercolors over paper. Little did she know then that those early attempts would lead to a full-time career in art.
That career launched the day Philo came home, looked at some of her latest efforts and commented, “You’ve got to start taking this more seriously.”
And so Colleen did.
For the next few years she ran an art gallery for the Grand Avenue Club, a local non-profit group dedicated to helping survivors of mental illness reintegrate into daily life. “Having survived a mental illness made me reach out to others who also deal with mental health problems,” she says.
It’s not surprising, then, that her artwork also took a psychological turn. Over the last fifteen years, she’s created an astonishingly diverse body of work, yet all of it revolves around one central theme: portraiture.
What could be more fitting for an artist who has spent much time understanding the mysteries of the human mind?
Says Colleen in her artist’s statement: “It is through portraiture that I endeavor to connect myself and others to the inner realms of my fellow artists and humans. As I paint, I slip behind the veneer of the subject’s psyche, converting my interpretations into layers of pigment and glazes upon the canvas.”
Colleen’s process begins with sketching on her computer to create the initial drawing, which she prints out to scale and transfers to board or canvas. She begins the actual painting with highlights and shadows while planning the color scheme. From that point on, Colleen says she works from reference photos, to save the subject sitting time and also allow her imagination to soar on the background and costuming details.
The results is a highly original yet lifelike rendition of the subject: one that reaches past mere exteriors to get at something more. Viewing Colleen’s work evoked in me a strong emotional response—which from my perspective is one of the greatest challenges (and responsibilities) that faces any artist.
I’m not the only one who has felt that way, either. During one of her shows at the Grand Avenue Club, the artistic director for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater saw her work and immediately requested a collection of portraits be placed in the Quadracci for their upcoming Broadway production, “next to normal.”
Says Colleen, “Thousands of people became familiar with my work and the message it conveyed—that mental illness is treatable and people who deal with mental illness are survivors with stories to tell.”
Perhaps that’s a theme we could wrap into all of Colleen’s work. After all, it was a bout with mental illness that brought her to painting in the first place. Now, through painting, she has a chance to help others experience the same support, understanding and care she received from Phil and others during her own time of greatest challenge.
Today Colleen has retired from her work for the Grand Avenue Club and has dedicated herself fully to painting and curating, “her two loves,” as she says. She’s midway through a portrait collection featuring six male and six female artists from the Milwaukee area—her way of celebrating and highlighting the rich lives of the Milwaukee arts community.
She has also written a book, The Woman behind the Paint: Artwork and Words, which chronicles her journey with bi-polar disorder, art and portraiture.
From where I stand, all of this looks like a whole lot of beauty to me. Which makes it easy to forget that Colleen’s whole career started with a hospitalization, and a part of her life she’s happy to have put behind her.
What does she say to other artists, who may not be as far into their journey yet? “Don’t worry about what others say,” she advises. “[Just] do it. Look at your work critically and objectively…when you do, you grow as an artist. Don’t give up and don’t stop.”
Coming from a woman who could have easily been tempted to give up on a lot of things, a long time ago, this is true beauty indeed.