When Caleb Kortokrax ’11 transferred to Valparaiso University during his junior year, he had anticipated majoring in art history. But a conversation with Bob Sirko, chair of the Department of Art, changed Kortokrax’s thinking.
“I was telling him that I would also like to take painting and drawing classes,” Kortokrax recalled. “He was like, ‘Why would you want to study the history of art when you can make art? If you can make art, you should study art.’ ”
It was an option Kortokrax had not seriously considered. But it was a path he ultimately chose, later adding education as a second major.
While Kortokrax came to Valpo for a particular area of study, one from which he ultimately deviated, he instead began a journey. It was a journey of self-discovery that has continued at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting, where Kortokrax is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts.
“A few things carried over really well from Valpo to here,” said Kortokrax, who is in his second semester at Hoffberger and lives in Baltimore with his wife Katie (Shaw ’11 MEd) Kortokrax. “One of the most obvious is the focus on critical thinking. That was kind of the thesis for my education at Valpo — teaching me how to be a critical thinker. That prepared me in a really great way for the level of conversations I’m having now [in the MFA program].”
Many of those conversations center on the purpose of his painting. Much of Kortokrax’s work focuses on portrait painting, capturing intimate perceptions of the subject. And there is a spiritual bent to his work, including a self-portrait as the Prodigal Son.
But what is the ultimate goal of his work and who is the central audience are two questions with which Kortokrax grapples.
“More recently in conversation, I’ve realized that I have this tendency within myself to try to suppress any kind of overt spiritual reading of the work I’ve been making, to make it more acceptable or something,” Kortokrax said. “I’ve actually gotten a lot of feedback from everyone in the program that I shouldn’t be doing that; that I should allow myself to be very honest with my work.
“If spirituality is a big part of my life, I should let that flow in my work. I’m becoming more comfortable with that reality.”
Kortokrax also is still trying to determine who might be most inclined to view his work.
“I guess I’ve been grappling in my mind with two different routes,” Kortokrax said. “One is the route of making art that you could use in the context of the church or worship spaces, or making art for gallery viewing. Trying to figure that out has been a bit of a challenge.”
And how does he make it relevant for 2013?
“How do you do that today in a way that is not corny and a way that is genuine and honest to our time period?” Kortokrax said. “How can I make a painting about a Bible story and make it new and fresh? How do you take on the weight of 2,000 years of great Christian art and say something new?”
The notion of making art rooted in Christianity was greatly influenced by Kortokrax’s Valpo experience with the Chapel of the Resurrection. He grew up in a non-denominational Christian church in Lowell, Ind., where his father was the pastor. Already boasting a strong faith base, Kortokrax discovered the beauty of church at Valpo.
“For me, going to Morning Prayer and going to some of the Lutheran worship services was such an eye opener for me as someone who is attracted to beauty and making something more out of a precious experience,” Kortokrax said. “That opened me up to a whole new sort of conversation, probably because of the artist inside of me.”
And then there came a trip to Spain, led by Nina Corazzo, associate professor of art history.
“The majority of the trip we were going through cathedrals and gorgeous worship spaces,” Kortokrax said. “When you walk in you feel like you’re physically transformed or lifted into a higher reality. You feel heaven on earth for a moment, if that’s possible.
“That’s something that Valpo opened me up to, realizing that these short experiences were pretty profound in a way.”