UST exhibiting artist explores suffering through Christ’s passion

| April 8, 2020 | 0 Comments

“Even the perfect one dies; he shows us his wounds” is the first work in a 12-part series by artist Kelly Kruse that explores suffering and Jesus’ passion. The work was on display this spring at the University of St. Thomas as part of the exhibition “Idealized Imperfection.” COURTESY KELLY KRUSE

Kelly Kruse captured the process on video: She’s standing in front of her paintings, whipping, then tearing them, leaving gashes in the canvas.

Three years ago, the artist started painting a series exploring a perennial problem of human existence: suffering. She wanted to ask why it happens, what to do with it, and God’s role in it. After six months of studying Scripture and the Christian tradition on the subject, she created 12 works inspired by the Crucifixion, the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension, and the Second Coming. Some of the works are part of this spring’s exhibition “Idealized Imperfection,” now on hiatus, at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

Kruse, 34, created the abstract works on 64-inch canvas panels with ink, marble dust, acrylic paint and Japanese watercolor, and drew from Psalm 51 for the series’ title, “Let the Bones That You Have Broken Rejoice.”

To convey suffering and redemption, Kruse “destroyed” her paintings with weapons that were used against Christ. She beat one painting with a reed and scourged another with a barbed whip. In others, she wove thorns, pounded nails and splattered spit-like globs. She split one with a band of wood.

Then, she mended the tears with thread, gilded them, and repainted parts of the artwork.

The concept of mending the works was inspired by the traditional Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold, called “kintsugi.” It shows the object’s “wounds” and imperfections as something to highlight, rather than hide.

It struck her that Jesus did the same thing, when his resurrected body still contained the visible marks of his crucifixion, which he showed to his Apostles.

“When Jesus reappeared to his disciples, he kept his wounds, and it’s like kintsugi to show the scar, because it’s in the scar that the value lies. … That’s why he’s crowned in glory, because of the suffering,” said Kruse, a nondenominational Protestant who lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

The whole artistic process was born, in part, from Kruse’s experience with Ignatian exercises, where she reads Scripture and then imagines herself present in the scene. Prayer for Kruse is often a visual experience, she said, something she learned to appreciate after she began painting seriously six years ago.

“Sometimes as Christians, we think of prayer as this dialogue that involves only words. … But I finally started to realize that God can speak to me in images, like this is a language, too. And then I try to translate it, whatever it is that I see or experience, onto the canvas,” she said.

The first painting of the series, “Even the perfect one dies; he shows us his wounds,” is a triptych — three panels — conveying Jesus Christ at the crucifixion, flanked by the two thieves. She calls the work the “thesis” of the series, the one that defines the idea of the problem of pain. With this painting, Kruse said, she was asking if anyone can escape suffering, and if not, what is its point?

“Essentially, no, no one can escape it. If even God can’t escape it or chooses not to escape it, then it’s … a part of our life we must grapple with and try to make meaning out of,” she said. “Our suffering is so intensely personal and we all experience it so differently, but I … was hoping to create a place where people could feel less lonely, or feel known in their suffering.”

People can connect their suffering to Christ because he suffered in so many ways during his Passion, from physical torment to humiliation and loneliness, Kruse said. But, she ended her work with a second triptych that shows Jesus in his glory “as the God who descends,” a reminder that the suffering has an end and that “Jesus’ own suffering created a solution to the problem.”

“Even the perfect one dies; he shows us his wounds,” Kruse said, shows three men: a good man, a bad man and the God-man, and all three suffer. The left panel is the repentant thief, who is ascending and is “the one being remade,” Kruse said, and the right panel is the unrepentant thief who is “the one being unmade.” In the middle is Jesus, “the maker.” All three panels have elements of joy and pain, of gold leaf and ripped canvas. Some of the tears are mended, kintsugi-style, but, especially in the case of the unrepentant thief, some are sewn open, leaving a gaping hole.

The difference between the two thieves is how they related to Jesus, Kruse said. And that is reflected in their suffering.

“I think there’s immense potential in our suffering to see it as something that makes us in the end almost more beautiful or more able … to understand or be with others as they suffer, as a way to make us, as Christians, feel close to Jesus, to take part in a way in his collective suffering for all of humanity,” she said.

Kruse said the works are not about her, but about the Scripture that inspired them. She hopes the series helps viewers contemplate with a fresh perspective “the magnitude of what God did for us on the cross.”

“I’d love for them to experience (God) or experience a story or a Scripture in a way they never have before,” she said. “Maybe in a way that reveals something new.”

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