I heard that my old acquaintance from the Cleveland scene, painter Stephen Kasner, died on December 25th. I saw indications of his demise on social media on Christmas day which was no present, let me tell you.
Days later as I was careening around Southern California in a rented RV, more memorials popped up on my phone every time I wandered back into cell range. That didn’t make me too excited to be in touch with civilization. Of course that vibe was precisely Kasner’s deal—his artistic ethos. The contagion and sickness of society and the ‘civilized’ world, etc.
Who was Stephen Kasner? Wikipedia lists his credentials: painter, illustrator, musician, photographer, graphic artist, occultist and magician.
There’s a lot of truth in that last one—magician.
But if I were to characterize this man I would label him Artist with a capital ‘A.’ If you think that sounds pretentious you didn’t know Stephen. Kasner embraced the role and identity of Artist. The caliber of his craftsmanship, his apocalyptic vision, his sensitive spirit entitled him to it. Demanded it of him, in fact.
Less committed people might shy away from capital-A Artistry, but not Kasner. He embraced it fully. Kasner is one of the few I’ve met who was always working, internally and externally, on realizing some penetrating new work. Every moment of every minute, day, week, month, year… gears turning in that incredible seeking mind of his. And then there were his delicate hands and eyes executing the works dynamically, efficiently, at a high-level, with maximum inspiration.
Don’t take my word for it. Google Image search that shit, bro.
I worked with Kasner many times. Kasner loved to work, you see. So while I didn’t know know him, I have some memories that impacted me and this last week I just can’t seem to shake them, so I’m sharing them here. One recollection that might surprise some people sticks with me in a visceral way that I can see and feel right now… but I’ll save that one until last.
I first heard of Kasner in the very early ’90s when I asked Rockie Brockway from Craw, the finest Northeast Ohio band of the era, who was doing the cover to their (now classic and revered) debut album, Craw. “Kasner,” Rockie said tersely. Like, duh. Like, of course. As in, no other option could even be considered.
Who was this inevitable force? I had so many preconceptions before I ever met him. Thanks to mutual friends like Ron Kretsch and Karen Novak (who took the two photographs I pulled from the vault for this post), I knew Kasner would be a high-caliber, smart individual. Because of his association with the metal/hardcore band Integrity—who were going through a groundbreakingly scary musical phase at that time—I knew Kasner was serious and dark.
When I finally met him in the back of some dingy Cleveland club I was shocked and pleased to see that he was no bald, macho bruiser with a goatee. Not at all—Kasner was gentle, well-spoken, polite, an Artist in the classical sense. We made plans to work together immediately, and then we followed through just as immediately. I like to work this way and he did too.
U.S. Rocker was a magazine I was helping produce at that time. Kasner created several covers for us. Here’s one:
Stephen is also the main interview subject for the issue. U.S. Rocker founder Brenda Mullen did a fine job with that one. Karen Novak contributed photos, I contributed layout and copy-editing (along with Anastasia Pantstios, our secret weapon always).
Kasner gets in some good quotes:
“I once had a dream where I was flying over I-90 with my uncle. There was a traffic jam underneath us. I remember swooping down to look at an attractive woman I saw in a car below. We went back up, and this was power. I don’t think I ever felt that kind of power in a dream. All of a sudden I felt this very unusual sensation—I felt a change. I could see my arms were no longer arms. I changed into an enormous black bird! I looked over at my uncle who had also turned into a black bird. It was beautiful. He had a wing-span of over 12 feet. I remember thinking, ‘I want this forever.'”
“I don’t dream of obscure-looking figures with cone-shaped hats—it’s a translation. I’m translating emotions that I don’t necessarily feel on a day-today basis. They’re very rare and special emotions.”
“Somehow I’ve been designated to think too much, it’s my job. I’m trying to cut through the shit to get to really intense base. If I could write, I’d try to write the greatest novel that has ever been written. It’s almost like going through this sort of pain to get to a certain truth. It’s what I do on a daily basis.”
“The darkness that you find in the paintings, as a viewer, has to do with you, specifically. That is revenge. In a certain respect, I’m trying to teach people a lesson, as much as I’m trying to show people something very beautiful. I just don’t like people. That’s all you have to write. Steve Kasner—Devil Boy! Everyone’s an asshole. My motto is: it’s not that I’m too sensitive, it’s that you’re not sensitive enough.”
After the U.S. Rocker time period, at the very end of the 1990s, I suddenly didn’t see much of Kasner. He seemed to have disappeared. People mentioned that he was having some troubles. He became inaccessible. I was in transition myself. Los Angeles beckoned. I made the jump.
Flash forward to 2003. Or maybe it was 2004? Things get blurry here—but if you are a Kasner friend or fan you are well-acquainted with the dream zone.
In any case, I established myself as an editor at Hustler magazine in Beverly Hills.
One day, Kasner emailed me out of the blue. I’m in California, he said, and I want to stay. I’d appreciate meeting you and talking about opportunities.
I wrote him back. He called immediately (did I mention that I really liked how quickly Kasner operated?), we set up lunch. But where shall I take him? I thought.
I said, “Meet me at Nibblers—it’s a Publisher’s Row / movie industry hangout right across Wilshire from Larry Flynt’s place. Nibblers is where David Lynch and Mark Frost dreamed up Twin Peaks. Dead girl wrapped in plastic. The Giant and The Black Lodge.”
Deal, Kasner replied. I guess that piqued his interest.
Maybe it was because I was emerging from the cave that was the Hustler porn hive, but when I walked out the office door into the blinding L.A. noon sunshine, it was like, Boom! Yellow cab rolls up on cue, Kasner steps right out no pause, Kasner is BEAUTIFUL in the California sun with long hair, sunglasses, white blousy shirt, confident, walking up shaking my hand, giving me a hug. Wow.
I remember commenting on how healthy and peaceful he looked. Kasner laughed. I’ve seen this look before when Midwest friends first visit Socal and they radiate freedom and optimism but Kasner embodied this to the one-thousandth degree.
We ate our Nibblers fries, and afterward I hooked him up with the Hustler art directors, and they immediately commissioned work from him (and continued working with him for years after I left Flynt’s employ).
If BOB was lurking above us in the aether of Nibblers, the golden orb of Laura Palmer must have been shielding us. I know she was because this is the part of the story where we go deep into the liminal zone between memories and dreams….
But it’s not a dark place. It’s drenched in white light.
Again I walked outside. Again the white light reflected dazzlingly from Kasner’s shirt. I was so happy for him and so happy to see him happy. He called a cab—he was going to meet Boris or Sunn O)) or one of those gnarly bands.
I remember him opening the cab door, and then with a degree of high-spiritedness I had never seen in him before, bounced back around to face me and wordlessly waved, beaming. As I toked my cigarette a warm wind blew and he was gone. I never saw him again.
Now I’m re-reading Kasner quotes in U.S. Rocker: “What I’m trying to do in my paintings is capture that breeze I felt in a dream as a singles image. When I was very young, 4 or 5-years-old, I would watch old cowboy movies and draw pictures. It’s kind of ironic because it’s just like what I’m doing now, only then I was interpreting images that I saw in movies. Now the same thing is happening, but I’m dreaming it.”
Kasner dead at 49. At the juncture of dreams and memories he’s bathed in light with air flowing endlessly, yet gently.