Anthem art teacher Kyra Kalageorgie leads by example
By Niki D’Andrea
Kyra Kalageorgie is surrounded by sharks. Sharks with open mouths and sharp teeth, pointed noses rippled with scars, and big, dark, expressive eyes that seem to follow her every move. And she wouldn’t have it any other way. The sharks are in several of her paintings, which hang on the walls of the room in the Anthem charter school where she teaches art to middle and high school students.
“I love sharks. Sharks are my favorite animal of all time,” she says. “I feel like sharks are very misunderstood… I’ve swam with them before. It’s interesting – they say an animal is more intelligent when you can see its eyes move and follow things and just in general to be able to look at you.”
“I will never forget making eye contact with a blacktip (shark),” Kalageorgie continues. “I was in Africa and I remember getting in the water with something like 20 blacktips and just seeing this one and making eye contact with it, with a shark. It’s looking right at me. I can tell it’s looking right at me because its eyes would follow me as I was moving.”
Swimming with sharks and teaching art are just part of the adventures of life for Kalagoergie, who guides students at Caurus Academy through projects ranging from constructing totem poles with painted milk crates to drawing black-and-white portraits of each other. The totem poles were inspired by a field trip to the OdySea in the Desert aquarium and its giant sculpture of a hammerhead shark, she explains, and the portraits hark back to an art exercise in her own childhood, when she and a family friend sat across from each other and sketched the other’s likeness.
“So I did that as an activity with the kids one day,” Kalageorgie says. “And at first they were like, ‘What?’ but they seemed to really enjoy it. And one of the kids asked, ‘Can I have this?’ Because he really liked the portrait the other guy did. So I thought that was pretty cool and must have made him feel good, too.”
Teaching positivity and encouraging socialization is wired into Kalageorgie’s curriculum. She’s not just showing the students how to do grid drawings and carve soap sculptures; she’s also giving them art history lessons along with providing an example of a modern working artist’s life, bringing some students and their art along to local gallery showings, stressing the importance of networking, and coordinating with them to craft portfolios and a self-marketing plan that employs social media savvy.
She founded a mural club at Caurus Academy, and their first major project was a big mural showing several Huskies (the school’s mascot) with the academy’s slogan, “Dude… be nice.” The club’s current project is a railroad tunnel with various symbols embedded throughout the mural, representing students’ thoughts on their futures, from colleges to job opportunities, expressed through items like stethoscopes and the Starbucks logo. The word “GRIT” is near the top, in big, graffiti-like bubble letters. It’s an acronym, Kalageorgie explains, that stands for “Gratitude, Resiliency, Intentionality and Tenacity.”
“It’s supposed to represent what life maybe feels like after this tunnel that they’re in school and growing up and what it feels like at the end where they have the freedom to choose what they want to do,” she says.
Support for the Arts
Caurus Academy administration has been supportive of all her classes’ art projects and efforts to decorate as much of the school as possible, Kalageorgie says, as she gives a tour of the school – located right next to Crossroads Church – the Friday evening before Thanksgiving break.
Student artwork hangs in the hallways and windows, transforming the school into an art gallery displaying everything from colorful portraits of birds painted on plastic reflecting sunlight through the windows to reproductions of movie posters on the ceiling tiles. Kalageorgie walks around and describes several of the student drawings and the students’ different styles.
“I understand that they all are individuals and just because they are interested in art, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be the same type of work,” she says.
As we approach the art room, Kalageorgie gestures toward the doorway with a laugh. “You might recognize this is my room right here. It’s a mess because it’s the art room, right?” she says. “Well, last year they had me teaching life skills and art, and I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got to teach organization and art, and those two don’t go together at all.’”
But she has been teaching real-life life skills this semester. Back in September, she participated in a large group exhibition at Unexpected Gallery in downtown Phoenix – her first in about five years, she says – and some of her students shared her space and showed their artwork. Many students and their families also came just to see the show. “It was really cool how that turned out at Unexpected,” Kalageorgie says. “Because I said at the beginning of the year, my goal is to not only do these shows but to somehow have the students go with me and then I can teach them as I am learning how to do these shows.”
Kalageorgie walks around her art room, pointing to and sometimes picking up a piece of art as she talks, interjecting with descriptions of that particular student artists’ work. There are several smooth, circular stones on some shelves, all painted with bright dots in patterns of animals or plants. That was a class on aboriginal art, she explains, holding out a large gray stone painted on both sides with very different, but equally colorful, circular patterns. One side was painted by a brother, and then when Kalageorgie also had his sister as a student a few semesters later, his sister painted the other side.
She clearly loves her job and appreciates the creativity of her students, and the affection and enthusiasm is mutual, judging by the wall behind her desk, which is lined with notes, drawings and thank-you cards from her students, addressed to “Ms. K” and proclaiming things like “We love you!” and “You’re the best teacher ever!”
Asked if she sees herself teaching art long-term, Kalageorgie doesn’t pause. “Yeah, I do. I love coming to work. The kids are awesome. They always put a smile on my face. They make me laugh. They’re funny,” she says. “They can be stinkers sometimes but it’s cool to see them grow, especially when they take ownership of when they did something wrong, they owned up to their mistakes or they helped somebody out.”
At 29, Kalageorgie isn’t that far removed from being a student herself. Of Greek and Russian heritage, she was born in Russia, where her father worked for GM, and the family lived there until she was 10. She’s fluent in Russian and says she also speaks some Spanish. She was fascinated with art and languages from a young age, and says she began drawing when she was about 5 years old. “I just always remember drawing and doodling and looking through how-to art books and then a lot of the stuff I learned on my own, too,” she says.
After her family moved back to the states and she graduated high school, Kalageorgie attended Michigan State, where she initially majored in linguistics. She ended up switching to a double major in Russian and art, with a minor in linguistics. “The only reason I didn’t go for art in the first place, even though I enjoyed it all my life, is I thought I wasn’t gonna make any money off of it,” she says.
She moved to Arizona a few years ago, joined the staff at Caurus Academy, and now, she says, “This is like playtime for me, doing these murals and doing painting. So I feel like I have the best job in the world.”
Though she says she gets teased that she “lives” at the school for arriving early to the classroom and staying into the evening, Kalageorgie makes sure she takes time to do her own artwork. “I make sure I dedicate time to myself at least one day a weekend, when I’m not focused on school, but focused on just painting or drawing and making prints, whatever I need to do that’s for my art,” she says.
Her own art was quite the attraction at the Unexpected Gallery show in the fall. Her large-canvas paintings depicting marine and jungle wildlife pop with vibrant colors and elegantly engrained symbolism. But most notably, her animal artworks contain facial expressions and a certain shimmer in the eyes that seem almost human, maybe even better than human.
Kalageorgie’s portrait of Harambe, the 17-year-old silverback gorilla that was shot dead at the Cincinatti Zoo in 2016 after a toddler got into his enclosure, shows a deeply sad and sympathetic face, the furrowed features of an ape with the eyes of a wise old man.
“I was very upset about that,” Kalagorgie says of Harambe’s killing. “A lot of people were upset about that. I was trying to figure out how to send a message about animals like apes and sharks that’s not going to add to the negativity, but just focus on the animal. And I thought I’d do a portrait of him looking at you. It’s trying to capture his eyes looking like it’s a mirror for humanity, like ‘Just think about what happened. I’m just a reminder.’”
Another of her large-scale paintings shows Juma, the jaguar that was shot dead by a soldier in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil shortly after being featured in an Olympic torch ceremony in 2016.
“I called this one Juma’s Dream,” Kalageorgie says, pointing to the portrait of the big cat looking up with a hopeful expression against a black backdrop, surrounded by symbols of nature and small details that encapsulate tiny worlds. “It’s as if, what if he had this freedom and wasn’t a caged jaguar; what would it be like?”
“He’s looking into a droplet of water that has a whole other world inside it, too. That’s the first thing the kids notice, too. So then I have a little bit of symbolism here with life and death and predator and prey relationships,” she adds, pointing to the frog, caterpillar and butterfly, symbols of transformation.
Kalageorgie’s currently working on a portrait of Cecil, the 13-year-old male lion killed by an American dentist and big-game hunter in Africa in 2015. It’s one of several pieces she’s creating concurrently, and she says she’s constantly creating. She encourages that in her students, as well. “I always tell them, you create the mistake, you can create the solution,” she says. “So you’re constantly creating.”
Do the Work
“This one was kind of cool,” Kalageorgie says, pointing to a student painting affixed to one of the walls inside Caurus Academy. “She took a little bit of Andy Warhol and a little bit of Lichtenstein and kind of combined them both.”
“I talk about the importance of competition in art, too, like Picasso and Matisse and Lichtenstein and Warhol,” she continues. “If you look throughout history, most of the time the people that are the most successful, they had some kind of rival that kind of made them be better. And so I encourage that in them.”
In addition to creating her own art and getting back into gallery shows and teaching art full-time at Caurus Academy in Anthem, Kalageorgie’s also been working with students at a Montessori school in Cave Creek on a mosaic that she describes as “basically like a big coloring book.”
“I scaled it, drew it, and we talked about the meaning or the whole purpose – to show the town’s history, and start with mining, logging, ranching,” she says. “And it kind of goes to the modern day and where the town’s at now. And it ends at Frontier Town, which is like, so fun.”
Kalageorgie encourages all her students to create something every day, and she carries her own sketchbooks everywhere. She espouses the virtues of hard work and tries to set a good example. “It’s not so much what you’re born with,” she says. “It’s the amount of work you put into it.”
“The more work you put into it, the more dedicated you are – you could do anything you set your mind to. You just have to do the work.”
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