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The art of not knowing: Battle Lake artist creates ambiguity-inspired exhibits

Ambiguous loss is something Battle Lake artist Krisi Kuder began experiencing several years ago. Despite its challenges, she's drawn to this concept of "not knowing," and it inspires the art she creates every day.

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Kuder tugs at her piece made of stainless steel wire mesh, showing its ability to maintain form. (Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus)
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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit nearly two years ago, many people started dealing with a sense of loss — missing their lives despite still experiencing them. This form of grief, called "ambiguous loss," is something Battle Lake artist Kristi Kuder began experiencing several years ago. Despite its challenges, she's drawn to this concept of "not knowing," and it inspires the art she creates every day.

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Kristi Kuder sits in her studio, surrounded by her artwork. (Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus)

Kuder, whose medium of choice is fiber, has been drawn to create ever since she was young. While she didn't always know she would be an artist, her mother taught her how to knit at a young age. Because of this, fiber and cloth are linked to many of her personal, happy memories. This "personal" aspect is an important piece of her creation method.

"(Fiber) is so relatable to the home and to being humans," Kuder said. "We're swaddled in cloth after we're born. We're swaddled in cloth when we die. We wear clothes every day. Cloth is next to our body. It communicates so may things in such a personal way."

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This personal aspect inspires every single step in Kuder's creation process. In a way, it's her calling.

After studying teaching and graphic design at college in Moorhead, she spent many years working as a graphic designer. While she was always working with fiber in her free time — knitting, making paper and doing macramé — she was mostly using these skills to create gifts or embellish her home.

However, in 2007, something changed. Kuder was about to work on an art quilt one day and had all the materials laid out in front of her from fabric to paint. She was listening to the radio when a newscast about a massacre aired, mentioning the deaths of around 30 individuals.

"As this news was breaking, it affected me," Kuder said. "I found that I was working differently. I was ripping into the fabric while listening to this horrible news coming in. I was smearing paint into gauze and doing everything differently than before."

Once her piece was finished, it was different than anything else she'd made previously. She could see her thoughts, memories and feelings in it; she connected with it more than anything before.

That's when she knew conceptual art was what she needed to make. From prints of natural plants to organic pictures bleached blue by the sun and wire mesh forming intricate and translucent shapes, her concepts started to take form.

"I needed to have something to say and say it through my art, more than just creating it for people or homes," Kuder said. "That's valuable of course, but the idea of creating how you feel became my mission."

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Kuder dyed this fabric blue using the cyanotype method, where the color was created with light-sensitive chemicals and the sun. (Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus)

From there, her art changed. She began to ask herself what she wanted to say and share with the world. This process took her a while, but she eventually realized how fascinated she's always been with ambiguity.

"That which you don't know is so much more fascinating," Kuder said. "When you don't know something, your mind expands, and you think of all the possibilities of what something could be."

One example she gave is how when you receive a surprise package, you have no idea what's inside. You begin to fantasize about what it could possibly be, walking down all different types of creative avenues.

Kuder also finds ambiguity all throughout nature. With snow, you can't always see the horizon line. When does a fallen leaf turn into soil? She began to ask herself about that unknown space between two fixed concepts.

When she creates prints of nature, that ambiguity — frozen in time and place — takes form. Plants produce different colors at different times of year. So will the water. If one year is a drought and the next isn't, that same plant will look different in those given moments. With these prints, Kuder creates something concrete out of something difficult to conceptualize.

"It's that transition where one thing can be two different things," she said. "As humans, (ambiguity is) something we need to deal with and are uncomfortable with. We want to get out our phone and find the answer and move on. There is a need to find a place where you can be okay with not knowing."

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Kuder looks through stacks of fibers she's worked on from printing to dying. (Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus)

With the COVID-19 pandemic ever-present, almost everyone is dealing with ambiguity every day. Kuder certainly has been for years.

A while back, her son was diagnosed with schizophrenia. As a result, this person she and her husband raised and watched grow developed and changed into someone a little different. This was hard for Kuder to conceptualize. Her son was right there in front of her. He hadn't gone anywhere. Yet, mentally, he was different.

Then, she learned about ambiguous loss. When someone's loved one goes missing, they grieve but don't have answers. When someone has dementia, their loved ones grieve them despite them being physically present.

When someone deals with ambiguous loss, something being grieved can be physically present yet cognitively absent -- or physically absent yet cognitively present. Just learning this phrase helped Kuder conceptualize her feelings. Like all other ambiguity, it also inspired her art.

One piece she created, made of stainless steel wire mesh, shows a shape that's structurally sound yet appears to be falling apart, almost translucent. It appears to be both present and gone at the same time. Another piece, created with cyanotype — a chemical that changes color when met with sunlight — shows a fluid human form on a sheer piece of fabric. The form is visible but soft. Once again, it's present but appears to be fading.

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Kuder shows off one of her cyanotype pieces, which features the shape of a human body. (Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus)

Kuder shares her art with others in galleries, and those experiences stick with her. One time, a woman walked up to her and expressed that she herself was dealing with a type of ambiguous loss.

When Kuder asked if she wanted to share her story, the woman said she was feeling it for herself; she had dementia. While she herself was physically present, she could feel herself cognitively fading.

That conversation stands out to Kuder to this day. In fact, connections like that serve as another one of many personal inspirations for her art.

"Art makes it possible for us to be human and relate to one another," Kuder said. "That connection was very special to me. It makes me keep doing what I'm doing."

Related Topics: PEOPLEOTTER TAIL COUNTYART
Elizabeth (she/her), 23, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
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