May 21, 2024

Newton artist holds exhibition reflecting on process of grief after Moo’s BBQ closes

Senior art exhibit will be on display at Central College and will slowly fade away by the end

Sophie Kruger, a Newton artist and the current executive director of the Centre for Arts & Artists, is holding a senior art exhibition at Central College from April 17 to May 11. Over the course of three weeks, she plans to break down and white out a mural depicting a photograph of the staff of Moo's BBQ that was taken the day the Newton restaurant closed its doors. Kruger considered the restaurant a second home.

Sophie Kruger has recreated the last snapshot of the Moo’s BBQ crew the day the Newton-based restaurant closed its doors in 2022. The image has been transformed into two 4 feet by 8 feet painted murals. Over the next three weeks, the exhibit will be on display at Central College. Then it will be no more.

The original artwork as it first appears will not be hung up on a wall or stashed in a closet or storage garage. From the moment the piece is put on display on April 17, Kruger will periodically remove and break down the panels and cover them in white paint. The leftover pieces, she said, can be used to create more art.

The mural and its accompanying sections were hand-painted by Sophie Kruger. By the end of her senior art exhibition at Central College, the piece will be completely covered in white. Kruger said this act of effectively destroying her art is a demonstration of how we process grief.

Both the mural of the Moo’s crew and the act of effectively destroying her own art is Kruger’s way of demonstrating her journey through grief in the year 2022.

While it was also a year of great highs — she got married, graduated from community college and enrolled at Central College — there were a number of devastating lows. The deaths of three grandparents and the death of Jeremy Biondi, whose restaurant, Moo’s, eventually closed, left a real impact on Kruger.

For her, Biondi was more than just a boss, he was a mentor. And she regarded Moo’s as a second home and its workers as members of her own family. Kruger began working for the restaurant in 2018. After a year she became a shift lead, and towards the end she was catering director.

Following the death of the restaurant’s founder and owner, Moo’s announced in a Facebook post that it would be permanently closing its doors. Biondi died on Oct. 22, 2022 after a two-year battle with a rare autoimmune disease. The restaurant was a cherished favorite among locals and it is still missed to this day.

“It was like losing a really close family member,” Kruger said “It’s definitely one of the hardest losses I’ve ever experienced.”

Currently, the old building has since been demolished. In its place is a Starbucks, where Kruger’s husband currently works as a shift leader. Although it was a new building, it had familiar sights. Kruger recalled how hard it was looking out the windows and seeing the nearby Casey’s and Super 8 Hotel.

“Not the prettiest view but it’s definitely one that struck me in the right place,” she said. “It never crossed my mind that Moo’s would be gone. I thought I would be moving on doing college things and having a career, but it would still be there. It would always be there. It’s one of those things in life you take for granted.”

It could all be over in an instant. Kruger remembered sitting down on her kitchen floor and coming to the realization that Moo’s would be gone forever. There was nothing she could do. All of the fun memories, the people she met and the great food they experienced was coming to an end. It was hard to accept.

So in an effort to have control over something after going through a number of uncontrollable events in her life all at once, Kruger turned to painting.

“It was like a whole year of not necessarily torment but being subjected by literally the waves of life throwing me everywhere at once,” she said. “It was like taking control of something, knowing when it starts and when it ends and being the one that has the power to do so. Whereas, in 2022, I just had to deal with it.”

Originally, Kruger set out to do an exhibition that was extremely challenging. As someone who started painting in 2020, she wanted to push herself to see how far she could go with it. To her, that meant making a large piece. But she still had not found a way to demonstrate taking control over something.

At first she thought it would be a single 8 feet by 8 feet piece that would be signed or painted over by other people. After speaking with her professor and peers, the idea morphed into her senior thesis art exhibition on display from April 17 to May 11. Kruger will be giving a gallery talk April 21 at Central College.

With each passing day the exhibit will change as Kruger covers the smaller panels with white paint and cuts the mural into smaller pieces. She argued that the piece is not being erased, in a sense, but rather fading away so it can turn into something else. Much like how people overcome grief or tragedy.

“Over time grief lessens, but it is always there,” she said. “But you can use that to fuel something else.”

Kruger said she was largely influenced by a now deleted YouTube channel in 2019 called Unus Annus, which in Latin translates to “one year.” The channel uploaded a video every day for a year. After a year was up, the creators hosted a 12-hour live stream funeral for the channel and then deleted everything.

“For me, it was like, ‘No! All this stuff that I really loved is all gone!’ But in a way it was beautiful,” Kruger said. “Being in that position and starting out from the onset knowing this was going to end, that doesn’t make my time any less valuable, that doesn’t make the work any less valuable. It still means the same to me.”

Kruger is ready to see the exhibit through to the end. She has already shed a few tears leading up to the gallery show. When the mural was taken out of the art building to be placed in the theater building, she and her professor set it down on the ground before lifting it into the covered bed of his old Toyota Tacoma.

“We went to pick it up from the ground up and lifted it up, and it really felt like being a pallbearer and laying it to rest,” she said. “That was definitely the hardest thing so far because it was really, for me, emotionally connecting to it and knowing this piece is going to its final resting place.”

Even after the piece is completely whited out, the underlying image is still there. Which means Kruger’s grief will not fully heal. She knows that.

“It’s never truly healed,” she said. “All it takes is one song, one memory, one moment to bring all of that pain back to the surface. Time lessens all wounds but time does not heal all wounds. I think that’s something that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. For better or for worse.”

Kruger said she tries to look back at the happy moments with her grandparents and her second family. She remembers drinking root beer alongside her grandpa during visits. She remembers a time when he offered them some pops from the fridge and he brought two cans of Lime-A-Rita. (“Grandpa, those are not pop!”)

She remembers how close her grandpa and grandma were. They were married for a very, very long time. Kruger said they had probably been together for five or six decades. They died within a couple months of each other. Kruger said she always liked visiting them in their home in Murray, Iowa on the holidays.

She still remembers all of the jokes the Moo’s crew made during shifts, and all the times Biondi joined in. She remembers the customer connections, too. They also felt like family some days. To her, working at Moo’s felt like being at a family reunion — the good parts at least — every day.

Kruger is thankful for these memories.

“Sometimes, when all else fails, you’re fortunate to have that at least,” she said.

When visitors see her artwork on display alongside her fellow senior art majors — Scott Martin, Jasmine Trinidad, Taylor Wyeth, Madilynn Peitzman — she hopes that when they find out it will be destroyed they will feel that confusion, sorrow and anger she felt in 2022.

“I felt those feelings and I kind of want other people to feel it too, but also there is something about violating people’s expectations of what art should be and what life should be that is gratifying to me,” she said. “There is this whole thing about art lasts forever, art is permanent. That’s the definition we put on it for so long.”

It’s her art and she is going to do what she wants with it. But she also hopes people do connect with the message being conveyed.

“If they can take that piece with them and remember it, that’s all I want.”

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.