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Ask yourself: is this real?

Greenfield: One woman’s journey to change the world and challenge perception through art

As a child, Greenfield resident Kimberly Kersey-Asbury knew she wanted to help people. She thought this meant becoming a writer, or maybe a lawyer. But she said laughing, “I kept getting sidetracked by art.”

For Kersey-Asbury, art was not the originally planned path, but it is the route that has opened doors to the world and academia. It is a route that has allowed her to make a living doing what she loves and ultimately change lives.

Making art, Kersey-Asbury said, “is an exceptional way to live.”

Growing up in Kansas City Missouri, Kersey-Asbury loved to draw. “I drew the things I couldn’t have, or the things I wished I saw illustrated in the books I read,” she said. This meant drawing horses, a subject she still loves and uses in her work today.

After high school Kersey-Asbury envisioned herself working for the American Civil Liberties Union as a lawyer. “I thought this is where I could help people,” she said.

She began college studying political science, but art called to her. Soon, she switched majors and colleges. She enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute with a focus on ceramics.

But, at 21 years old, she still wasn’t convinced art was the right path.

So, taking some time off, she decided to travel overseas – to Africa.

Partway through her trip, while in Botswana, Kersey-Asbury realized she was low on funds. Determined not to go home she spent her last $400 and became a partner in a friend’s sign-making business. She designed signs on sheet metal with airplane paint to stand up to harsh sun or signs made of African hardwood to be constructed by carpenters or chiseled out by a friend. And, in the end, it worked. Kersey-Asbury made signs for the Orient Express and for other safari camps. And, found a way to stay in Africa.

The experience gave Kersey-Asbury the chance to make art, experience running a business, and the opportunity to make a difference.

“I trained kids from the senior secondary school and paid them to help make the signs,” she explained. “After I returned home I heard that some of those kids were making a living selling their own signs. That seemed so good and important,” she said.

After about a year living in Africa, Kersey-Asbury found that typography and signmaking were not her passion, the experience left her stronger and more independent but also taught her something: Art was a skillset she could take anywhere and make a living with.

Buoyed by this experience, and determined to find a way to return to Africa, Kersey-Asbury re-enrolled at the art institute, and finished her degree shifting her focus to painting.

After graduating she decided that getting a masters degree was her best route for returning to Africa. But, once again, she again found herself at a junction. Should she get a Masters degree in writing or get a Masters of Fine Arts in painting?

Painting ended up winning. In 1997, Kersey-Asbury earned an MFA in painting from Boston University.

“I decided to spend the summer getting an application ready for a Fulbright Grant, so I could return to Africa. I thought I would need to apply a few times, but I was awarded an independent research grant and became a Fulbright fellow.”

Her Fulbright work was titled: “Landscape Painting and Its Audience: Fine Arts Development in Botswana.” Her plan was to paint alone, teach art and painting for a few weeks with Maun Senior Secondary School students, and then show her work at the National Museum. However, once she started working with the students, she realized she could paint on her own anytime.

Here she had an opportunity to do something for someone else. So she decided to work with the students for the duration of the year towards their own show at the National Museum of Art & Monuments in Gaborone, Botswana.

“This is the first time an exhibition of the sort has taken place at the National Museum,” the museum director told Kersey-Asbury. The heads of the Departments of Wildlife and Tourism as well as the US ambassador to Botswana spoke at the opening as well.

For Kersey-Asbury teaching art had become her medium for changing the world.

In 2000, as a visiting professor, she taught undergraduate and graduate painting and drawing at the University of Missouri Columbia. A year later, she married her husband, actor Wayne Asbury. The couple had two children – Benjamin and Madeline.

Kersey-Asbury found herself working at Christie’s Art Auction after having moved to New York City, so that her husband could attend the Actor’s Studio MFA program. She loved being surrounded by masterpieces, but found she missed teaching and making art.

Although her undergraduate degree and MFA are in painting, Kersey-Asbury said she is naturally drawn to “several processes.”

“I studied ceramics, printmaking, photography and painting. I work between series and between media. I find it invigorating.”

Determined to get back to her own work again, Kersey-Asbury decided to apply for some shows. In 2006, she applied and was accepted into an international juried Fulbright show in Morocco.

Serendipitously, while in Morocco Kersey-Asbury met Katherine Hoffman, a Peterborough resident, art history professor and chair of the fine arts department at Saint Anselm College. Hoffman was also a Fulbright recipient who was in Morocco giving a talk about the painter Matisse.

“We began talking and she told me she was heading a search for a painting professor at Saint Anselm,” explained Kersey-Asbury. Adding ironically, “I went to Morocco to get a job in New Hampshire.”

After flying to New Hampshire for an interview, Kersey-Asbury was offered the position at Saint Anselm College. In 2007, Kersey-Asbury, her husband and their two children moved to Greenfield.

Over the years, she said, teaching has become another medium for expression - an artform in itself.

“I pour my passion and energy into teaching in many of the same ways I approach my artwork,” she said.

Three years ago at Saint Anselm College, Kersey-Asbury started a Fulbright admissions advisory committee. This year, one of their students was awarded the prestigious grant. She spearheaded the construction of a new gallery at the Dana Center to show Saint Anselm student and alumni work. And, is exploring collaborating with professors and students at other institutions such as the New Hampshire Art Association – where she has served as an official juror and has served as the external reviewer for the NHIA’s undergraduate program.

In 2013, Kersey-Asbury returned to Africa. While there she collected inspiration for her artwork – painted, photographed, and videoed – she also had a solo exhibition at the University of Botswana and at Thapong Art Centre.

In late 2012, she became the first tenured studio arts professor in memory at Saint Anselm, and, starting in June 2014, she will take her first sabbatical.

Unlike most professors who use their sabbaticals to show work, Kersey-Asbury, said she will focus on making work. “This time isn’t for preparing for exhibitions but for immersing myself in my ideas and making my art,” she said.

Her goal is to finish work that reflects her time in Botswana – her thoughts on the safari industry and landscape of the country. She will use drawing, painting and photography.

“Each media tells its own story, each media has a nostalgia that goes with it,” Kersey-Asbury explained, often, using photography to capture images she hopes have a “painterly” quality.

“Many times my work reflects a dialog going back and forth between mediums,” Kersey-Asbury said. “I want to find that painterly vision through a lens.”

Most recently, Kersey-Asbury has been working on “artists books” – unique pieces of art in the form of books that are produced as one-of-a-kind objects.

“In school, I often made handmade books. I kept returning to books as objects,” she said. Working in the relatively new genre of “artists books” has given Kersey-Asbury a connection to the larger world of artists. “Even though I live in the woods I feel like a part of this larger community of artists,” she said.

Recently, one of her artist’s books was accepted into an international juried publication entitled, 500 Handmade Books. The book was published by Lark Publications and was juried by Julie Chen – a professor at Mills College.

One of Kersey-Asbury’s proudest moments, personally, came in April 2014, when her work was chosen for presentation in the gallery and Manifest Exhibition (a publication) in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The show was an international juried exhibition entitled, “Kingdom-The Animal in Contemporary Art.” The show is a, “playful exhibit centered on the animal world. The Manifesto called for artists working in any media to show works that feature or address animals, real or imagined,” she explained.

“For this exhibit 411 artists from 11 countries, 42 states, and Washington D.C. submitted 935 works for consideration. In the end, 25 works by 20 artists from 13 states and Canada were selected, four of these works were mine. It was an amazing honor.”

The pieces chosen for presentation all come from her series, The White Horse Dialogues. The images are digitally-produced photo-based works, reminiscent of traditional darkroom techniques and paintings, which “embody the form of a real horse while simultaneously pointing to the experience of perception. I want viewers to ask, ‘Is this real?’ or ‘Is this imagination?’” she said.

To create the images Kersey-Asbury used toy horses belonging to her daughter Madeleine.

“I don’t think there’s a large divide between our relationship to art and childhood play,” she said.

Kersey-Asbury often talks with her students about art as a career. Every other year she teaches a course called, “Professional Studio Practice.” In this course she pulls from her own experiences - both as an artist and as an educator. The course focuses on creating one’s own body of work and the importance and practical details of art as a profession.

“I feel like there are a myriad of ways to make a living in art. I encourage students to look at an artistic career as a way to be flexible. It is very empowering to be an artist,” she said.

Kersey-Asbury’s work has recently appeared at McGowan Fine Art in Concord; Minis on Maine in Peterborough; the Alcott Arts Center in Kansas City, KS; Kansas City Art Institute; University of Missouri-Columbia; University of Izmir, Turkey; and in Manifest Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is currently represented by McGowan Fine Arts. More information on her work can be found at www.kimberlykerseyasbury.com.

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