Painting the past: Famous artist David Kassan explains his creative process

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David Kassan demonstrates his process at inside the Humanities building, on November 14.

Myles Womack
CityLifestyle Reporter

David Kassan, internationally recognized contemporary American painter, brought his realism-based artwork to UAB’s campus two weeks ago and shared his story of how he connected to a part of his heritage through his most recent art project, portraits and video recordings of Holocaust survivors.  

“[The project] happened kind of by accident,” Kassan said. “I was asked by a collector to do a portrait commission, I don’t ever do portrait commissions at all and I was kind of trying to put him down nicely. He goes ‘well, it’s my mother-in-law and she’s a special woman, she’s a survivor of HaShoah, the Holocaust.’” 

Kassan said that hearing this he immediately changed his mind and agreed to paint her, refusing any commission. 

“It will be a painting that I want to do that I have full control over,” Kassan said. “He went back to her and she actually denied being painted by me because she didn’t like my work. But that struck an idea with me.”  

Kassan said he never met his grandfather on his dad’s side who escaped ethnic cleansing in 1917 in Romania to come to the US.  

“Meeting these folks that I have been painting is really my way of connecting with my heritage, my past and my grandfather that I never got to meet,” Kassan said. 

Kassan recently met with Robert May, Ph.D., a Holocaust survivor and UAB alumni specializing in internal medicine, who was forced to leave his home country of Germany in 1939.

“As I’m working on these prints of Dr. May and hearing his story of how his family got through Kristallnacht and came to America through Cuba, I’m thinking about that as I’m doing the drawing for him,” Kassan said.  

Kassan said he connected with UAB through Derek Cracco, Associate Professor of Printmaking in the Department of Art and Art History, in the Humanities Building. Cracco and Kassan met at Syracuse University in the 1990’s, where they both studied. 

“[Cracco] had asked if I would want to come down here and be a visiting artist where I could work in the shop and we could develop a series or couple of prints together for the collection here, as well to share with people online as a fundraiser,” Kassan said. 

Kassan said that when he creates his artwork, he also contemplates the story behind the subject. For instance, he said that while working on May’s Ph.D., portrait, he incorporated his background of how his family endured Kristallnacht and escaped to the US.  

“As I’m sculpting out his face, I can see his history in his face and it’s a way of me connecting with him in a more intimate and proactive way,” Kassan said. 

The visiting artist series gives students the opportunity to work with established artists and help assist in various projects. The money raised from the sale of the prints will help fund the UAB DAAH Visiting Artist and Scholar Series.

david kassan 1 of 1When Kassan sculpts a face, he said, he envisions the history behind it.
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