The idea for the celestial, swirling colors of the Iversen Center for Faith’s largest permanent installation started with a voice memo artist Kelly Kruse recorded on her phone, wondering how she could paint a human being.
Now, Kruse’s two triptychs, commissioned as a set for the space, translate St. Paul the Apostle’s biblical descriptions of human beings into visual form.
Each of the six panels interpret Paul’s theological concepts: nous, psuche, kardia, pneuma, soma, sarx. These deal with different stages of humanity, humility and soul, with the last one, sarx, representing that humans are but dust, ash that “passes away like smoke.”
The paintings are non-representational, meaning, Kruse said, she depicted the beauty and complexity of the human being, not the human body.
“You can accurately paint the human body, but I wasn't trying to do that. I was trying to create impressions, shapes.” Kruse said. “Everyone's going to see it differently and that's what I find so awesome. Everyone brings their own individual way of seeing the world, the paintings and humans.”
Though every individual may bring their own interpretation, Kruse said the interfaith and spiritual traditions that come together and are practiced at St. Thomas share some core beliefs about human beings, such as an immortal soul.
“However [the soul] takes shape or form, there’s eternal significance to each person,” Kruse said. “I wanted to create a space for awareness of that, and I hope it helps people to view one another with more compassion and create spaces to ask each other more questions.”
The Missouri-based artist said spiritual contemplation has always inspired her work. Her art was developed in response to her battle with depression. While reading and studying the Bible, the words became images, and eventually art, like the paintings for St. Thomas.
“One thing that spiritual practice can give us is the ability to see that there's a lot going on beneath the surface, that we aren't aware of, or maybe we don't have full control over,” Kruse said. “We don't possess all the complexity and beauty of the original [God], but we possess some. If the human being is this complex, what must God be like? That is, kind of wow – kind of mind-blowing.”
Dr. Victoria Young, art history professor and department chair at St. Thomas, said art has the power to convey the spiritual world in ways that words cannot. She explained that the committee tasked with selecting the artist for this permanent installation was drawn to Kruse’s work because it reflected the multifaith nature of the Iversen Center for Faith and encourages all users of the building to contemplate their own religious traditions in consort with those of others.
“It was important that the commissioned artwork for the Iversen Center for Faith not reflect one particular faith tradition, but that it be visually accessible to all,” Young said. “[Kruse’s] work immediately caught our eye because of its beauty and visual power in abstract form. The colors, gilding and composition elevate the viewer. And her process and inspirations are an extraordinary witness to the power of the spiritual.”
Before the paintings could invite contemplation, Kruse spent nine months in the studio, slowly building and layering the colors over time on each panel, coaxing her carefully planned concept to life. She used acrylic ink, marble dust, acrylic and gold leaf on Belgian linen.
“Even though I’m a semiabstract artist, there's a plan,” Kruse said. “In the end, it does surprise you. There are ways in which the final paintings are very different from the studies. That was really rewarding to finally get to see them lined up in scale, in the space.”
In an academic setting, Kruse said her work can be a tangible reminder of the human experience.
"You are not the test that you just took and just blew; you are not just the fact that you have straight As,” Kruse said. “There's so much more for you than just what you do and how you can achieve or perform. Look at your beauty and complexity.”