Visiting artist program 2021: R. J. Kern

You are by the bell tower late at night, and you see it. You get out of class on the second floor of the Olin Art and Communications Center when it is too cold to walk outside the whole way to the Knutson Campus Center, and you walk through it. 

There is a skyway connecting the Olin and the Frances Frazier Comstock Theatre. Maybe you were drawn to its light in the dark like a moth to a lamp. Maybe you walked through it because you wanted a shortcut to Knutson during the winter months. Or, was it the art?

This liminal space is used by the art department at Concordia College as an art gallery. Some days there will be student work displayed. Concordia’s art department recently started a rotating artist program where the college invites artists to display their art in this space and to give lectures on their art. 

Sept. 20 through Sept. 24, the award-winning photographer R.J. Kern will have his work there.

Kern was the Minnesota State Fair’s commemorative artist in 2019 and his photos have even been published in National Geographic. The work he will be featuring in Olin, titled “The Unchosen Ones,” surrounds the idea of, well, not being chosen. 

Alison Nordström, a scholar of photography with a doctorate in cultural and visual studies, said this work “transcends the specificity of time and place. In the language of actuality, Kern has preserved decisive moments in photography that are also universal human moments. Youth is fleeting. Disappointment is inevitable. Love endures. We carry on.”

These portraits tell the story of future farmers who entered animals they raised into competitions but then lost. Kern took photos of the same people, and even some of the same animals, in 2016 and 2020. 

“You can see what’s changing in rural America: what remains the same. Those are questions I was interested in exploring,” said Kern. “I was really interested in my photographs capturing what I call the ‘ephemerality of youth,’ and then the often harsh realities of rural life.”

You will have to visit the art gallery to see what he means.

David and Sheep, Blue Earth County, Minnesota, USA, 2020. Image Courtesy R. J. Kern / Burnet Fine Art & Advisory

Kern is a friend of photography professor Chris Mortenson, who thought Kern would be an excellent artist to kick off the program this year. 

Mortenson’s intermediate photography class has a project this semester where they will use external lights to take a portrait. While Mortenson has mostly focused his photography using natural light, Kern shines a light on another method.

“R.J. is really good at using flashes to make these portraits that he makes. He makes very technically sound images,” said Mortenson.

Kern gave a workshop to the intermediate photography students on lighting techniques with the art department’s lighting kits. Mortenson said this was a great opportunity for students to see their art in a new light with insight from someone who is not “an authority in their class.”

While this workshop was exclusive to photography students, Kern will give a lecture at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 23 in Olin 124. Mortenson stressed that this lecture is open to the public, and anyone is more than welcome to join them. 

The art department plans to bring in at least three more artists this year. Next will be Ryan Stander. Stander will spend his time with the college’s printmaking class, demonstrating what Mortenson described as one of the first economical processes to come from photography, wet paint collodion. This technique emerged in 1851 as a way to develop photos within 15 minutes of being taken. 

In the spring, the art department will bring in two artists from the University of Minnesota to create sculptures. These artists specialize in using found objects to create their sculptures, which will be temporarily displayed around campus.To learn more about what the art department is planning, visit

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