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Independence artist reaches for the deepest meaning

By Bill Althaus

Kelly Kruse is a modern-day Renaissance woman – a professional photographer, singer, voice teacher and artist whose abstract work takes you deep into the soul of each piece of illuminated glory where the viewer can explore the vastness of human existence.

As one takes a step into her Independence studio, her pieces of contemporary illumination create a spark that lightens and electrifies your senses.

Kelly Kruse works on a commission piece of art in her Independence studio. She was recently commissioned by the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., to create a six-panel body of abstract work that offers her unique take on the complexity and beauty of the human person. [Bill Althaus/The Examiner]

As she brews a fresh pot of blackberry maple tea, she talks about growing up on a farm in Iowa, how she met her husband, Ayron Hyatt, when they were undergrads at Iowa State University, and the great satisfaction she received from graduating from the prestigious Jacobs School of Music at Indiana State University and settled in Independence.

In addition to her art practice, she gives private voice lessons at the Music Arts Institute in Independence and is the associate director of the Four Chapter Gallery in the Crossroads. 

She is relaxed, yet energetic, as she talks about her recent success and the role her faith played in the process.

“I want to awaken a sense of spiritual contemplation in people who view my art,” she said, as she sips a cup of tea, whose aroma serves as the perfect complement to the art that serves as a visual feast for the eyes, soul and mind.

“My work explores the painful, beautiful experience of human transience, longing and suffering,” she said. “I have had my own battles with depression, and I like to think that through my work I am able to develop a visual, devotional practice as a response to those battles. And I am inspired by music, poetry, theology, or Scripture itself.”

She calls her work contemporary illumination, much like the medieval monks who perfected the art of illuminated manuscripts.

“My first exposure to the idea of illumination came when I studied Medieval and Renaissance music in Italy,” she explained, as gold foil is often a focal point for her work, “and my background in classical music and opera helps me explore the intersections between scripture, poetry, musical works and the visual arts.”

“For the longest period of time, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she said. “I started out as a photographer – weddings, portraits, things like that. Then, in 2014 I started painting, along with teaching vocal lessons and music appreciation at MCC Blue River Community College campus” in Independence. 

Some of the work of local artist Kelly Kruse is on display in Minnesota.  [Photo courtesy of Kelly Kruse]

But something deep within her soul led her to developing her passion for art. And her journey to discovery has been inspirational to herself, and her patrons.

“I believe in the value of connecting faith and art for the modern mind, both as an artist and a beholder of great work,” she said. “It is vital to culture, to wrestle visually with ideas that are difficult to voice. I also believe it is good for the human soul to grapple with our inherent limitedness, and the fact that we are partners for better or worse with the unseen world that sits behind what we can touch.”

“I tend to make work for a specific place and body of viewers, often with a liturgical function. My process begins with a spark during study of scripture, theology, or poetry. I create bodies of work that are unified by a single theme or subject.”

And the materials she uses to create her art are nearly as unique as the finished piece.

“I stumbled into acrylic ink early in my practice, fascinated by the deluge of working in wet media,” she said. “I enjoy the challenge and struggle of each painting. There is certainly a dance to it, with some unpredictability and submission to the forces of gravity on a pool of inky pigment. I love the way the pigment shifts when I adjust the ratio of water or medium to ink, and I relish the way that the painting transforms before my eyes as liquid evaporates and only the pigment remains.”

Her first body of work was an illumination of the biblical texts and musical structure of Brahms’ “Deutsches Requiem.” In another project, she brought to life each of the 19 Holy Sonnets of John Donne through illumination.

“And when it was finished,” she said, “I had memorized all of the Sonnets and fallen in love with Donne’s work.”

Kruse went on to complete a commission exploring the “dual nature of darkness and light in eight human emotions through the Psalms,” and later created works of art that represented each of the 17 stations of the cross, where she explored broad categories of human suffering through the suffering of Christ in his passion.

“I believe in the value of connecting faith and art for the modern mind, both as an artist and a beholder of great work,” she said. “I believe it is vital to culture to wrestle visually with ideas that are difficult to voice.”

Her most recent commission came from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas, as patrons wanted a series of nondenominational panels to line the walls of the Iversen Center.

“I was immediately interested in proposing a project for the Iversen Center at St. Thomas because of the expressed interest in artists with in-depth knowledge of sacred/spiritual/religious backgrounds,” she said, after hearing about the possible commission work from a friend.

Kruse sent a proposal and soon found out she was one of three finalists.

“I was so excited I couldn’t stand it,” she said, grinning. “I sent my final proposal, and when I got that call that I had been selected, I freaked out!”

At that time, she was developing a body of work that explored “mortality, the body and mystery” leading up to the commission work at St. Thomas Aquinas. As a part of her research, she listened to theologian Peter C. Phan’s collection of lectures entitled, “Living into Death, Dying into Life: A Theology of Life Eternal.”

“Phan briefly lectured on the Pauline ‘complete human person’ through an exploration of six Greek words that Saint Paul (and other New Testament authors) used to describe the complexity and unity of the whole human person:

“1. Psuche: the human person, the soul or seat of inner life

“2. Soma: the whole self as represented by the material body

“3. Sarx: The natural, physical, earthbound flesh (often in opposition to God, or what is good)

“4. Pneuma: The spirit (derived from breath, wind) – regarded as a kind of substance

“5. Kardia: The heart, the seat of emotions and intellect, the center of our being

“6. Nous: the understanding or ability of the mind to reason”

Those six words served as the theme of each of the six, 5-foot x 5-foot panels that are now featured in the Iversen Center.

 “I was so pleased with the way it turned out, and so were the curators at the university,” Kruse said. “Those pieces of art will be there a long time after I’m gone.”

She paused for a moment, and added with a grin, “I just wonder how many wedding photos will be taken at the Iversen Center with my artwork in the background?”