Local Artist Returns to Form Amid a Hellish Bout With Pain and Anxiety

The reports of Stephen Kasner's death have been greatly exaggerated. While Kasner disappeared from the scene for several years due to health issues and the nightmare of what it's like to be uninsured, his work is healthier than ever. His ethereal paintings and mixed-media pieces, always prone to leaving viewers' jaws agape, are taking on new life at a fresh Hedge Gallery exhibition.

It hasn't been your typical path to opening night, as Kasner's medical conditions have kept him more isolated than he'd prefer. Art, in the end, has been his saving grace.

"In very short terms, I suffer from multiple, extreme spinal/vertebral subluxation," Kasner tells us in a rare interview. "This isn't a disease per se, but it has required years of physical therapy. The cause of my issues are unknown, and can only really be speculated. The main, recurring concern with this is that if I don't constantly care for it with physical therapy, chiropractic and acupuncture, it can regress very rapidly, pinning and crushing nerve systems through the entire left side of my body. I take constant care over diet and posture awareness, and still walk with a cane much of the time. The improvement I've gained over the past six months or so is pretty astounding, at least from time to time, it seems. Under great stress, it's worse, and even at home I spend at least 10 minutes of every hour stretching and utilizing 'home PT' techniques. It's remarkable how utterly paralyzing the condition is, and remains extremely painful daily."

Psychological and physical conditions like that, of course, lead one to re-examine all facets of life. What's truly important inevitably takes on greater meaning for a person in that state. Kasner confirms as much, and his latest artwork benefits from his layers of introspection.

"The emotional and psychological fallout from this condition is and has been sheer horror in the extreme," he says. "Earlier on, before I was able to harness and control things through therapies, I lived in a perpetual state of crippling anxiety, panic, fevers, immobilizing pain, and ultimately, complete and total nervous breakdown. Naturally, all the doctors I was seeing early on to try to diagnose and manipulate the situation focused on two main approaches — surgery and drugs. Considering surgery to be an absolute last resort, we followed a path of everything from pain to antidepressants to anxiety medications; you name it. After a while and under these extreme conditions, you begin to self-medicate. Realizing that the only way to regain any semblance of life was to be able to work again and, in this moment of clarity, completely rejected all medications, prescribed or otherwise. In some sense, it becomes a simpler thought process of, 'If nature dictates depression, pain, and chaos within me, I must analyze and understand why, and figure out how to make these anomalies work for me, and even enhance life, if that's possible.'"

Energized, the artist adds, "I'm also concluding some long-standing commissions that were crippled during the depth of my physical issues, which includes a massive mural on canvas which remains a Cleveland memorial."

A great deal of credit for realizing this exhibition goes to Thomas Haywood. He introduced Kasner to Hedge Gallery director Hilary Gent, and has been seminal in making the impossible possible. "Hilary was aware of my work, and much of my Cleveland exhibition history, particularly through my association with the late 1300 Gallery, so it was a smooth enough transition for us both," Kasner says. "She and the Hedge Gallery staff, past and present, have been remarkable, and have made every idea I intended for this homecoming exhibition possible in a short amount of time. It was an equally shared enthusiasm of my wanting to exhibit my work again."

"For me, Stephen is a different type of artist from whom Hedge exhibits," Gent says. "Most artists in the gallery are based in Northeast Ohio. Kasner had moved his studio to California, where he was inundated with commissions. That places a lot of pressure on an artist, as it pulls one away from the work they really want to create."

Kasner is now working out of his studio in Old Brooklyn, back in good old Northeast Ohio. "Stephen is breaking out of some of the hesitation that was holding him back from creating new fresh bodies of work and that is evident in this show," Gent says.

Analysis is key in this solo exhibition, Capture & Release Expanded Images Within Reach. Drawings straight from his sketchbook riddle the walls. Automatic drawings were created in accompaniment to experimental music from dynamo musician, Marc Lansley, whose compositions share the drawings' titles. Believe it or not, Kasner created these with his eyes closed.

The works "Black Mirror," "White Mirror" and "Blood Mirror" are intricate mixed-media pieces involving disembodied butterfly wings against shimmering backgrounds. Dusted with floral matter and meticulously framed, they are keyholes into the artist's experiences.

Also on view are posters he has created for bands such as ISIS, Keelhaul and Integrity as well as for his book, Stephen Kasner Works: 1993-2006, which is richly narrated by many luminaries including the Cleveland Art Prize-winning artist and writer Douglas Max Utter.

In each of Kasner's pieces, the work lays bare painstaking details. The importance of this artist's return is significant and shouldn't be minimized. You will be delighted to learn that these new compositions are mere sketches for much larger-scale paintings that will be exhibited along with complete mixed-media works and sculptures in 2018.