John Kissick

Art Professor

John Kissick is a contemporary artist and writer from Guelph, Ontario. As an artist, he is best known for his abstract paintings, which feature a hybrid pictorial space and balance historical references and pop culture.

John Kissick received his BFA from Queen’s University in Kingston and his MFA from the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He also completed the Management Development Program at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

He started his first academic appointment in 1987 at Penn State University and has also held academic appointments at Ontario College of Art and Design and the University of Guelph. John Kissick has also acted as a visiting lecturer for the University of California at Berkeley and visiting exchange tutor for the University of Ulster at Belfast in Northern Ireland.

Throughout his career, John Kissick has had over 30 solo exhibitions in Canada, the U.S., and Germany, including two national touring shows and has been included in a number of survey exhibitions. He has also published numerous essays on contemporary art for national periodicals. John was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy in 2005. He is currently Professor of Art at the University of Guelph.

As a writer, John Kissick has been nominated for a Canadian Magazine Award for Best Essay in 2009 and 2010. In 2014, his essay “Racing to the Unfinish Line: The Drawings of Ron Shuebrook,” won the Ontario Association of Art Galleries Curatorial Writing Award for Best Essay.

Where did the idea for your career come from?

As an artist, I have spent my career creating through a combination of curiosity and persistence. I have enjoyed evolving my work, with each new piece building up from previous ones. I got involved in academics early on in my career and decided to continue with it, as I enjoyed challenging myself and surrounding myself with other artists from different walks of life and at different stages in their careers.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I am in the studio most days of the week. I find I can stay attentive and fresh in the studio for about four hours maximum, so I tend to block out the afternoon. I find that after three or four hours, I start making poor decisions and or my eyes are shot from hours of paying close attention. Over the years, I have become reasonably efficient in the studio by developing a process that keeps things fresh. Part of that process is having a number of works on the go at one time, each at a slightly different level of completion. That way I find the works can inform each other while keeping my mind curious. It also prevents me of having three or four paintings in a problem spot at the same time and getting blocked.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I make paintings in a way that each completed work will inevitably inform the next work I produce. Over the course of 30 years as a professional artist, I have allowed the process to guide my decision making and it in turn will determine the subsequent trajectory of my work. As a result, I think the average viewer can see a reasonably clear progression in my work. It is in many ways an organic process, whereby going through the problem of solving a particular painting I learn something new or discover a different way of approaching an old problem. Of course, that also means that when things aren’t going well, it can impact my ability to produce! As a result, I guess I subscribe to the trial and error school of making, putting my faith in my ability to eventually work my way out of a problem.

What’s one trend that excites you?

It’s not exactly a trend, but I feel that even though the pandemic is really hit artists hard, it has presented a unique opportunity for them to slow down and create their best work. Artists can get bogged down with deadlines, so with less deadlines in the mix they are more free to just create as they see fit without rushing anything.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I have always had a pretty good work ethic and I believe that showing up is half the battle when it comes to art making. I have never bought into the idea that one requires some form of inspiration or muse to make work. A real, working studio is not a glamorous place, but a site of work, so there is always something to do, even if you don’t feel particularly moved on a given day. Staggering the production of the work really helps make the studio an interesting and exciting place to be. For instance, on a given day I might be putting the final touches on a finished work, struggling over a big compositional decision in a second piece, doing some brainless technical work on a third and priming a fourth. I couldn’t imagine having it any other way!

What advice would you give your younger self?

Patience. And trusting that if you put in the time, you will figure it out. One of the most crushing things that can happen to an artist, especially an inexperienced one, is to become paralyzed by self-doubt, which can be brought on by hitting a block. There are times in every artist’s life where the “imposter syndrome” creeps in and everything you make looks inane. Certainly, a healthy dose of skepticism and critical objectivity is a crucial part of maturing as an artist, but it should not come at the expense of action.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Well… I’m not sure if people agree or not, but I have always believed that paintings have a life of their own. And that that life can be very different than what you imagined, even as its creator. Paintings are after all objects, open to interpretation, and thus can be used to justify, support, criticize, or even point fingers at other artists, ideas, and objects. This used to really bother me as a younger artist, as people wrote a lot of crazy stuff about my paintings. I felt like I needed to control the message and the world was conspiring against my idea of meaning. But like in most things as one matures, you learn to let go of that which you can’t control and accept interpretation as part of the mystery and joy of looking at art.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I write a lot. It has become an essential part not only of my art practice but as how I fundamentally think and feel my way through the world. Writing, like painting, is a language with its own structures, syntax, and grammar. As a result, you “see” the world differently. It is also a smart way to think through other art practices that are different from your own. I started writing for magazines because there was a big art world out there that fascinated me and yet had little to nothing to do with how I made my own work. Writing about art has enabled me to think through my practice in a very different way. It has also enabled me to enter into other kinds of conversations and reach audiences that my paintings might not.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Refer to my previous answer.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Sad to say, but probably a quiet envy of others getting ahead or getting attention or support for work I either didn’t like or get. The art world is as competitive or noncompetitive as you make it. But the sad truth is that there simply aren’t that many venues to exhibit work and far too many mouths to feed. As a result, despite most people’s best intentions, they see the art world as confusing and unfair when they are on the outside looking in. Throughout the mix, the inevitable politics that come into play when human beings maneuver in and through institutions and it can be a toxic stew if left unchallenged. I’m not sure anyone completely overcomes feeling overlooked, but one thing that really helped me was having a trusting core of friends that provided mutual support, did things together to lift ourselves up collectively, and had each other’s backs. It made me realize that I didn’t have to participate in any game I didn’t like playing, and that my own community was just fine.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Maybe an app that helps children learn to create art. It can connect them with their artistic side early on and encourage more kids to pursue art.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I just bought a series of Geoff Dyer works in paperback. I think he is brilliant and it has me thinking about essay writing in a completely new way. Funny, I have known his work for years, but it seems to be hitting a chord for me now in a way it had not in the past. It is like learning a new voice or someone showing you a completely new way of doing something.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I’d just say the internet in general. It has allowed me to stay connected with my students, colleagues, and other artists throughout the pandemic.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

It’s not a book recommendation, but I think starting by reading a newspaper every day is a good start.

What is your favorite quote?

“I’ve had a great time. But this wasn’t it.” Groucho Marx

Key Learnings:

  • Half of the battle when it comes to making art is showing up
  • Staggering the production of art over multiple projects and ideas can help maintain productivity
  • If you put in the time, you will figure it out