A Packer Celebrity Returns to the Shen
Above image: “Summer Ends” 2020, oil on linen 24-48 by Ken Rush
Whenever Ken Rush, or Mr. Rush, as most Packer students know him, enters the hallowed halls of Packer, it is nearly impossible for him to not be overwhelmed by hugs of adoration from past students and gratified hellos from former colleagues. After teaching art at Packer for 37 years (1978-2015), he has returned, yet this time it is his art that will stick around. His work, spanning from his own days in high school to 2019, is on display in the Shen in an exhibition entitled, Painted Observations.
A large portion of the exhibit encapsulates the idea of coming “full circle”, as Rush put it.
He was never a happy student in the classroom but found refuge in his boarding school art room, where he discovered he was going to be an artist. A collection of work Rush created in his teenage years are on display in the gallery, which attest to his long lasting love of art. One painting dear to his heart, and as he describes it, “transformative”, is an oil painting of an imaginary lush green landscape.
A product of hanging around in his boarding school art room for a couple of hours one weekend, Rush created a completely imaginary scene, dabbling into both realism in the style of the work but also illusion. His teacher later admired it and assured Rush that he was meant to be an artist.
“I went and basically had an epiphany moment,” Rush said. “I sat on the hill at my boarding school in Connecticut, and I looked out over the fields and I started to weep. There I was, a 16 or 17-year-old boy, weeping. Not something I normally do. I was all alone and I was like, ‘why am I crying?’ And I realized that they were tears of absolute joy. And at that moment I knew that I was going to be an artist.”
For this exhibition Rush repainted a few of his pieces from high school years, and not only is it clear that he has established more technique with time, but also a greater sense of self as an artist. This can be seen in his many scenes of houses on display. Later in his career, he felt like he was losing the joy in painting and returned back to a sketch from when he was 17.
“I came back to this highschool house and road drawing, which I did my senior year, and said, ‘wait a minute! I’m going to start redoing this house. All of the houses are imaginary, yet the house and the horizons and the poles are all still there! This painting is this painting in reverse!’” Rush excitedly said to me. He then began to ask himself the questions, ‘what is this house? Why have I painted this house on and off since the age of 17?’
There is not a clear answer. However, it is evident that the houses attest to his growth, sharing a testament to different times in his life, using distinctly different themes and color to portray a wide variety of scenes using the exact same subject. The quaint home can be seen as bright and welcoming in one painting to empty and filled with desperation in the next. Rush successfully plays with emotion, seeking to share illusive stories of heartbreak, anger, joy, and even fear. “These are all mysteries to me. I want people to wonder about them too, just the way I do when I paint them,” Rush thoughtfully explained.
Most of Rush’s work is dictated by what he is surrounded by, with the exhibit featuring scenes of Brooklyn, the subway, along with the Manhattan skyline. The continuous theme of coming “full circle,” is filled with clarity in these paintings as well. A chaotic, abstract painting of the Gowanus canal done in the 1980s plays a stark contrast to later work of the same subject in 2018. The earlier iteration of the painting plays with messy texture and vibrant, almost in your face, colors. The newer painting is much more real, looking almost like a photograph.
As a forever mentor to many Packer students, he shared that he has always wanted to be like his highschool art teacher Mark Potter. “I wanted to be the guy who came in and told me I’m an artist,” he shared when asked about his teaching experiences at Packer. He hopes that each member of the Packer community will have a “bit of connection in that something that [they] do as early as high school can be almost like the touchstone for the rest of [their] entire life.”
Ultimately, this exhibit is a prime example of Rush’s desire to encourage others to find what they absolutely love doing, whether that be art or any other passion.