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Confronting a Don Kruse work for the first time may make you feel the need to dial up Mapquest, find the Rosetta Stone or search for a user’s manual. For without explanation of his context-driven art, you’ll need to rely on instinct and intuition to decipher meaning. Minus that, you’ll need to look within for a clue to his esoteric renderings. And that’s exactly what Kruse provokes, asks and wants. It’s not enough to exist, he challenges; being equates to exploration and discovery. Contained in his exquisitely drafted pieces are views of Buddhist Temples, finely wrought Balinese masks, embedded Eastern religious icons, sections of Tibetan mandalas, a portrait of a little-known, but favorite artist George Inness, a stand of blooming flowers and a rendition of the child-like cartoon character “Little Nemo” created by Windsor McCay. Each element is meticulously colored in tones matching those you might find in the newspaper comic section, and sometimes with gold leaf.
The source of these images? Kruse tells it best as he did in this excerpt from an article he wrote recently for Quest Magazine, a publication of the Theosophical Society.
“Margaret Mead once asked a young child how she made a picture. The child replied, ‘I get a think. I draw a line around my think and then color it in.’
“I try to do approximately the same thing — simply, clearly and honestly. The real distinctions lie in my images or ‘thinks.’ How and where did I get them? Are they from nature or my imagination, maybe even from the world of art itself? What do they signify?
“I try to communicate to viewers a complex iconography, an esoteric world of Theosophy, Tibetan Buddhism and Jungian psychology. Does a child care if another person sees the line she has around her think and colored in? My images come from my wandering through museums and galleries, sitting in lectures and seminars, reading books, looking at comic strips and movies … and meditating — just being a silent witness. Perhaps both the child and I get our visions from the same place, a most marvelous and wonderful gallery called by the Tibetans, the Great Matrix of the Mystery.”
Now retired after a 36-year career as an art instructor at the Fort Wayne Art Institute and later IPFW, Kruse continues to work, study, lecture and in general create in his studio/home in the city’s South side which he shares with his wife and fellow retired art teacher Sue, who formerly worked in the FW Community School system.
Kruse’s vita is strangely brief but loaded with experience. After graduating from South Side he earned scholarships to both the Art Institute and Mexico City College and later for graduate studies at both Ball State and Indiana Universities. In between he spent a hitch at the U.S. Army ‘language school where he studied Russian and served in Air Force Intelligence.
Kruse has amassed a history that includes more than 55 one-man shows. His works are held in several private as well as university and museum collections including the Library of Congress. He is represented in the Indiana State Museum and was designated a “State Treasure” by act of the governor.
Besides or in spite of all these accolades the artist remains accessible and humble, a trait traced to a personal journey of self-discovery that began with the recognition of a plane of existence beyond that where most of us dwell.
Throughout his journey he has turned to the writings of major influences like Joseph Campbell for myths and symbols, Carl Jung for dreams and the collective unconscious, the Theosophists for unlocking the keys to esoterica and mysticism, Margaret Mead for her studies of primitive culture, Tibetan Buddhism and Vedanta yoga for meditation and of late the work of Ken Wilburn and his trans-personal psychology. (Wilburn may the only person who has read more than Kruse.)
As a teacher Kruse has cultivated his own theories of how art is taught — and even if art can be taught — and is not shy about lecturing against the shift which began in the 1970s away from traditional teaching methods.
“Originally teaching art was based on ideas passed along in the manner of the medieval guilds to the apprenticeship system of the Renaissance and later to the 19th-century beaux-arts academies of Europe,” explained Kruse. “Then along came the Industrial Revolution which totally changed not only art teaching but the definition of art itself.
“Today we’re mostly left to confront the ‘intellectualization’ of art instruction which is why we get things like performance art, installation art and concepts like, ‘Art is anything you can get away with.’”
Dale Enochs, a former student of Kruse, is a nationally collected sculptor with several public installations to his credit along with many privately collected works. Enochs, who lives and works in Bloomington, recently recalled asking his former mentor for copies of handouts which he was hoping to use in classes he was teaching at DePauw University.
“I was making copies to distribute to my students and asked a colleague to review one in particular which dealt with the sorry state of contemporary art. His response was, ‘Enochs, if you pass this out, you realize you’ll piss-off everyone in the department.’”
At about the same time college and university art curriculum began its descent, Kruse and fellow Art Institute instructors Russell Oettel and the late Noel Dusenchon were busy engendering their own brand of pedagogy.
As Oettel related, “It was an ideal matchup of personality and professionalism. We were all artists first, teachers second. Noel brought the flavor of the abstract expressionists like deKooning, Albers and Rothko. I brought Weber, Groz and Beckman to the table, and Don had this more or less Zen philosophy coupled with really unsurpassed craftsmanship. He was the key to developing our printmaking, photography and printing departments.
“Often we would talk until the wee hours discussing, arguing, testing our ideas. The diversity of our approaches created a kind of caldron which not only attracted good students but forced them to teach themselves. Still today the biggest compliments we get are from students who returned and thanked us for being self-taught.”
Kruse remains one of the most respected artists in the area. Betty Fishman, the executive director of Artlink and a modest collector of his works, rates Kruse as “the absolute best draftsman around. His imagery can be most unusual and introspective, and he’s an incredible teacher, unselfish and reliable.”
Dean Franz, the long-time Jungian guru, is also a big fan. “He speaks from his own core of being and gives meaning to life’s essence. His work relates to the deeper part of our existence and to appreciate it the view needs to ascend a step or two or three to reach it. He’s the archetypical artist, allowing us insight into ourselves and the world. I’m a big fan, and I agree with his politics too.”
Finally, there is one problem: Kruse’s outlook on contemporary art from which he has distanced himself also includes articles like this where focus is targeted on the artist’s personality, quirks and idiosyncracies. He feels such work only helps perpetuate the artificial nature of art. So where does that leave a poor soul like me? A purveyor of rubbish knocking on heaven’s door? A reactionary bourgeois wordsmith covering for the exploits of capitalist enterprise?
While you ponder that, you can see some of Kruse’s work at Artlink in the current self-portrait show. He’ll have something in the print show, most likely, and then in July he’ll be included in the members’ show.