High wire act: The unbearable lightness of Kristi Swee Kuder’s woven mesh

Kristi Swee Kuder. Photo by Susan Schaefer

The economic impact of the creative arts in Minneapolis astonishes. Estimated at over $4.5 billion in sales, or eight times that of Minneapolis’ sports sector according to the 2015 Creative Vitality Index (CVI), an economic measure used by the city, it has earned our region a lofty place as a national creative mecca.

Behind such stunning statistics toil humans whose creativity and innovation fuel this so-called creative class, dubbed by author Richard Florida. Frequently laboring for the sheer love of their craft, many visual and performing artists, directors, inventors and innovators produce from an inner creative core more likely fueled by passion than personal gain. These makers are marked by an almost holy drive to create – and when their artistry and intent collide, it often yields something extraordinary in its wake.

Unraveling the artistic soul — thread by thread

In 2011, Southwest Minneapolis-based fabric artist, Kristi Swee Kuder, found two elements that dominate her life: her missing son and wire mesh.

By the time I met Kuder during our 2016 summer intensive at St. Catherine University Women’s Art Institute (WAI), she seemed a master of this material most individuals think of as keeping the flies from entering our back porch screen doors.

Kuder’s deft hands elevate this humble material to art museum fare. Like many creative, her departure from working with soft folds of cloth to sharp slivers of wire has its provenance in grappling with life-altering issues — in this case, the her son’s mental health.

About six years ago Kuder began wrestling with the effects of mental illness on her youngest son, who had returned to Minnesota after having disappeared for several years.

“Because of his illness, it was difficult to apply logic to his reasoning and actions. Conversations with him were often obscure and puzzling,” she offers.

And though her fiber work had been a therapeutic outlet for expressing the ambiguous and frustrating state of affairs she was experiencing at that time, soon she would discover that wrestling wire better suited both her artistic talents and emotional state.

6Unraveling2webWire mesh unleashes the muse

Often the threads of our lives seem woven by destiny. The year of her son’s return, the Surface Design Association held their national conference in the Twin Cities, and Seattle wire mesh artist Lanny Bergner was leading one of the workshops. Thinking that wire might have some interesting possibilities, Kuder signed up for his class, and after spending a few days learning his tricks and methods, she ordered a few 100-foot rolls of mesh online.

“At that point it was a leap of faith,” she admits. Though she’d ordered all that mesh, Kuder states, “I wasn’t convinced I would be in it for the long haul.”

Almost instantly, however, she became seduced by the indiscernible characteristics wire mesh presented.

“I loved that it had transparency, and also how it reflected light. It was delicate but strong, smooth to the touch, but also could draw blood if not handled properly. And it defined space as well as allowed space to flow freely,” she clarifies.

Here were the ambiguous qualities she had been seeking.

After several months of bending and twisting wire fibers as she had been taught, she felt her work was merely an echo of Bergner’s — not her own.

“It was when I began deconstructing the weave of the mesh that I heard my muse,” she said.

Kuder explains that unlike natural fibers, which lie flat or hang limp after they are unraveled, wire has “the strength to defy gravity, producing energy which interacts with space. This deconstruction of the weave was an artistic breakthrough for me. I love the messiness, casual air and general looseness that deconstructed wire mesh expresses.”

3RigidBaskewebWire in the fine art world

Although wire mesh is not a typical material for artists, wire itself has been used by a number of gifted artists over the years. Alexander Calder used wire to create sculptures and mobiles. Ruth Asawa crocheted beautiful large looped wire sculptures that have become iconic. Locally, there are some very talented wire artists including Karen Searle and Tracy Krumm who knit and crochet with wire.

As for wire mesh, Kuder cites a few favorites: “Lanny Bergner, of course, who has mastered the art of fire-treating stainless steel to create richly patterned vessels and hangings.” She is also inspired by what Austrian artist Ursula Gerber Senger does with mesh. “The way she handles it allows her work to easily be mistaken for fabric,” Kuder observes, “And there is Seung Mo Park, who makes incredible large-scale portraits by tediously snipping away at layers of mesh, and Christina Chalmers and Tanya Lyons who use copper wire mesh to form beautiful dresses.”

Although Kuder sometimes works with aluminum mesh, a much softer metal, she prefers working with stainless steel mesh. Not available in local hardware stores, she sources it from Darby and Sons Wire Mesh Company, a Philadelphia-based company she discovered through Bergner.

“I prefer stainless steel because of how it responds to heat, Kuder explains. “I can produce some incredible coloration by torching the stainless steel fibers.”

4PrairieGrasseswebRural Minnesota shapes a worldview and an art form

During our art residency at St. Kate’s WAI last summer, Kuder spoke a lot about the influence of her rural western Minnesota upbringing, with its unique landform, natural elements and native plains habitat.

“My parents owned a small department store in Breckenridge when I was growing up,” she tells, “when it was a thriving railroad town and at the hub of a vast network of prosperous farms and villages along the Red River Valley. Folks bought local then. No shopping malls or Internet at that time.

“The Sagness Department store carried most things a family would need, including men’s and women’s clothing, jewelry, candy, toys and a complete fabric and notions department. Lots of people sewed back then, and my mother loved to stock a wide variety of fabrics for them to pick from. She had racks and racks tightly lined with bolts of assorted fabrics.

“I spent a fair amount of time behind the counter helping out, browsing through the pattern books and dreaming about all the possibilities.”

She notes she was fortunate to travel periodically with her mom and dad to the Twin Cities, where they would buy for the store. Her mother always made a stop at Amluxens Fabrics. Kuder “loved that store. It was a treasure.” And so an art form took root.

Kuder didn’t, however, connect fiber to being a medium for artistic expression until much later.

Like many artists, she thought being a serious artist meant you worked with paint, marble or clay, not yarn or fabric. In spite of that, when Kuder graduated from Moorhead State College in 1975, nearly half of her senior show consisted of fiber pieces, making her feel she wasn’t as accomplished an artist as those who worked with more respected artist materials.

As we stand in the midst “unravel/unearth,” a world-class show she shares with the work of local artist James Edward Scherbarth, currently running through June 23 at the prestigious Inez Greenberg Gallery at the Bloomington Center for the Arts, she gently muses, “I now know otherwise.

“I was doing in my little corner of the world art processes and expressions that other women artists, such as Louise Bourgeois, Ruth Asawa and Magdalena Abakanowicz were doing at that same time.”

Drawing out the threads

I have found textile artists to be among the most generous in sharing sources, techniques and contacts, as well as in working collaboratively among the various arts. Perhaps this generosity of cooperation comes from the rich history of quilting bees and sewing circles, but even as these fabric artists have become “surface designers,” moving their art from craft into fine arts, they continue to manifest a sense of cooperation over competition that is entirely refreshing in the world of arts rivalry.

At her Bloomington Center for the Arts opening, Kuder was busy with an interactive, hands-on installation that drew considerable attention as viewers became makers, learning and feeling how satisfying it is to draw out one thread at a time. Indeed, such unraveling is an apt metaphor for handling any of life’s trying moments.


How to contact the artist:

Kristi Swee Kuder
[email protected]


Upcoming shows:

Current – June 23, 2017: Artistry Theater and Visual Arts, Inez Greenberg Gallery, Bloomington

Sept 7 – Oct 21, 2017: Textile Center Studio Gallery, Minneapolis

Feb. 8 – May 6, 2018: Hudson Healing Arts Gallery, Hudson, Wis.

May 7 – July 12, 2018: Kaddatz Gallery, Fergus Falls

Sept. 13 – Oct. 20, 2019: Phipps Art Center, Hudson, Wis.