Local twin brothers celebrate a century of artWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | email@example.com
Mark and Michael Kersey are constantly enveloped by their life’s work.
To walk into their studio is to be overwhelmed by it. Sitting in an old classroom on the second floor of the former Glann Elementary School, every wall is covered, floor to ceiling, by samples of their paintings. And even that’s not enough room — on the floor, dozens of works that have no space to be hung in sit leaned up against every available area. This is a fever dream version of what an art studio would be like — but it’s real.
Mark and Michael, on the other hand, are far from the stereotypical starving artists. Identical twins, the brothers — known collectively under the name “Mr. Atomic” — are warm, welcoming, funny and self-deprecating. They love to talk about their passions — not just their own art, but other artists and pop culture. The Beatles are a favorite subject, if the numerous pieces depicting the group lining the walls weren’t clue enough.
Visitors to One Government Center will be able to sample the brothers’ passions themselves this month, up close and personal. A dozen or so samples of their work will be on display in the lobby of the building throughout April, in an exhibit the Kerseys are calling “Mr. Atomic: 100 Years of Love, Sweat and Paintings.”
When Toledo Free Press Star caught up with Mark and Michael for an interview about the exhibit, the paintings in question were still at the studio, among the dozens that lined every wall.
“They’re still around us right now. They’re buried in here,” Mark said, gesturing to the cacophony of acrylics and canvas.
“We want our very best work out there. And as I’ve mentioned to some people, we’re celebrating a hundred years of painting. Literally. Because we started in 1962, we’re twins, so that’s fifty years for Mike, and fifty for me.”
“We were little tykes back then. I mean that,” Mike said with a wry smile.
In conversation, talking to the Kerseys is rather like communicating with two distinct halves of the same personality. They consistently add thoughts and complete each other’s stories with additional information.
Asked about their first steps into artistic expression, Mark said, “Mike, I recall, going down to the end of our street and hauling his little portable miniature easel out there during the winter, to the banks of the — what creek is that?”
“Ten Mile Creek,” Mike filled in.
“Ten Mile Creek, and getting out there with his paints and actually painting.”
“While the popular kids were actually bouncing the b-ball through the hoop,” Mike added.
“And so it really began with that, as far as painting. We drew before that, just like all kids in school, they were told to put the crayons and the paper on the desk,” Mark said.
They had differing levels of success at Start High School — Mark was never particularly academic, while Mike was “a bit of a brainiac” — but had the shared passion of their art.
“The teachers and fellow classmates would label us as ‘the artists,’ or give us a nickname like ‘Michelangelo’ or something. And we started feeling that maybe we had something more in the art department than the kids around us,” Mike said.
“Right, because I remember getting A-plusses,” Mark added. “And I couldn’t get an A-plus for anything else. So all of a sudden, I’m looking down at my artwork and it has A-plus — that’s as good as it gets! — of course, for art, and only art. And there were times spent crying in front of the nun, when I was told I wasn’t going to pass that grade because of my overall academic averages.
“That was the one area that I could stand out,” Mark said.
Whatever schooling they may have gotten in painting, though, the brothers noted that the vast majority of their expertise came from practical experience — not a textbook.
“I think initially, we did art that was established — landscapes, or people posing. But somewhere along the line, we started doing what we wanted to draw, which was not your conventional landscape or portrait,” Mark said.
“It would be like if you wanted to learn how to get involved in music, and you had to go to the music books and you’d find the same boring tunes that they would have you play,” he added. “It was the same with the art books. The art books never showed you how to think outside the box, they always concentrate on doing the traditional landscape, or the traditional still life.”
“Some people can learn something in moderation, through a textbook,” Mike said. “I really think it’s like music, too. You either have it — some light switch went on, and you’ve got an internal drive to pursue this direction — or you don’t. And there’s so many people who all draw, and there’s so many people who want to pick up a guitar so they can be a rock star. But really, they don’t go very far unless they were born with that switch on.”
The brothers began finding inspiration all around them — but not from traditional sources like the classical artists or museums.
We started discovering things like the covers of Reader’s Digest, when they used to have illustrations instead of photography. Or TIME magazine, let alone book illustrations,” Mark said.
“Paperback books,” Mike clarified.
“Right. Or books on famous painters, a collection of their works. But when we’d sit there together — and I remember a time specifically when we were really involved with Arthur Rackham, who was a magnificent illustrator …”
“… from the early part of the last century, who was very sophisticated,” Mark said. “Or Frank Frazetta, who did a lot of sword and sorcery paintings. And if we looked and said, ‘Oh, my God, look at this!’ Well, I never said that walking through the art museum.
“And I want you to play that part down, because I don’t want to make any enemies at the art museum!” he added with a smile.
After school, both Mark and Mike left Toledo and struck out into the “real world” for a time, plying their trade as commercial artists for various book companies and even the Beatles’ Apple Records. But despite the fact that they found inspiration from such sources when their artistic muse was first emerging, both Kerseys tookthe workaday world to be a chain around that same muse’s neck.
“Our career was 100 percent stunted [by our commercial work],” Mark said. “The only reason we chose to do any, have any affiliation with commercial art — as opposed to some work that we did in New York City, which was hiring us for work, per se — was …”
“You gotta put bread on the table,” Mike said.
“Right. And that was a dead end. A dead end.”
“We were so full of imagination and we were so prolific when we were living at home,” Mike said. “And then we came to the real world, where you had to make a living. And our art suffered so greatly that somewhere in my early 30s, I looked and I thought, ‘My God, this whole talent is going to go to waste. I’m hardly doing anything now. I’m doing signs — and sure, I use paint and a brush, but that’s it. So does a house painter.
“I’m going to die, and all this imagination and feelings are going to go down the toilet. And I said, ‘I gotta get back into that, whatever price.’ And so, my early 30s, I started. I painted one painting, once, and I liked it, and I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna do another one.’ Then I do another one. And the gap in between the paintings became shorter all the time. And then, it was like I weaned myself off the commercial end of art or assigned painting or menus for restaurants, and got myself full-time back into my painting. And I couldn’t be happier in that aspect.”
Mark soon followed suit. “The same day that Ronald Reagan was shot, they relieved me of my position — because a younger man had come in, and worked a dollar cheaper an hour. And I said, ‘I’m never going back to that.’ If I’m going to be laid off — I have no control over my own life when I’m employed by somebody else. So I’m just going to have control over my own life.”
“About 10 years after I got back into the art — I started painting more and more, and my brother was still doing signs and whatever odd jobs,” Mike added. “And I started doing more shows, outdoor art festivals and entering competitions, doing more and more. And then, all of a sudden, he came onboard.”
Their collective efforts soon crystalized into the “Mr. Atomic” name.
“I’m not exactly sure why, because every artist I know uses their own name,” Mark said when asked about the origins of the title.
“I get a little tired of seeing artists all put down their last name,” Mike added.
All the Kerseys’ work is signed “Mr. Atomic.” The brothers used to make a bigger deal about separating which of them did which piece, but as the years have gone on that’s become less of a concern, since both are such an integral part of each other’s creative process.
“We like to challenge people as to who painted what. But even though we work solely on our own pieces here, we solicit feedback from each other, constantly — whether it’s wanted or not. And so that really shapes the piece,” Mark said.
He pointed to a work leaning against a wall — a beautiful canvas depicting a woman’s face bathed in white, surrounded by angelic imagery.
“I’m looking at that piece — I could never have come up with that piece. But once Mike did, he gave me a feel for it. So as he went along, I added my contributions to it. ‘Don’t change that face. Don’t change that halo around that face.’”
“But change everything else,’” Mike said, wryly.
“Change that and your shirt, Michael,” Mark retorted. “No, we go through that process, and we may be stubborn enough to hold onto something that we don’t agree on, on either of our pieces. But it’s pretty minimal.”
“As years go by, if someone wants to mistake my painting, thinking that my brother painted it — OK. Just so you understand that it’s a Mr. Atomic painting,” Mike said. “I think I lose less and less of my ego because of that.”
As the Kerseys celebrate a century of collective work, they are keeping their eyes trained on where they’ve been and where they’re going.
“I’m gonna show what makes me tick,” Mark said. “If it doesn’t sell, then so be it. On my deathbed, I’m going to be able to look back and say … ”
“To thine own self be true,” Mike added.
“That’s exactly it. And even though, when you don’t join the mainstream — because I think a lot of artists paint depending upon what sells,” Mark said. “It’s honorable to paint to make a living, to support your children. But I have no children or wife, so I’m able to go out on a limb. And if I don’t sell, I’m able to deal with my own hunger pangs.
“I really feel empowered, because I don’t have to answer to anybody. And I’m willing to suffer for love of my own self-expression.”