Alexis Kandra has been a beloved and talented art teacher at Church Street School since 2013. This fall, you will find her teaching Afterschool Creative Arts Club and Toddler Visual Art. In the following interview, she discusses her unique training, exciting upcoming projects, and how her students inspire her.
Alexis Kandra (AK): I was first interested in art- well I guess it was for as long as I can remember. My mom says that when I was two years old, I was drawing, and I could understand the concept of layering things, like where you draw something behind another object. So because I was interested so early, I took a lot of art classes when I was little and continued to stay interested in it.
GR: Tell me about your arts education.
AK: I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When I was as young as preschool up through high school, I took classes at the Carnegie Museum of Art and also at Carnegie Mellon University, they had a pre-college program. And then I went to Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. I graduated in 2013, and then I moved to New York immediately after graduating.
GR: Do you have a favorite artist?
AK: Hmm, there are definitely artists whose work that I follow and am inspired by. One is an artist named Martin Wittfooth, and he makes a lot of paintings with surreal animals in either futuristic or dreamlike environments. And another artist that I like, he actually has a studio in Tribeca somewhere. Walton Ford, he creates watercolor paintings of surreal animal interactions based on natural history.
GR: What inspires your work? Is it a process, subject matter, etc.?
AK: My work is definitely inspired by animal behavior. In particular, animal behavior, which on the surface may seem, um, kind of strange, or biology that seems kind of strange, but then when you learn about the reasons that these things are happening, it makes a lot of sense.
GR: Can you give an example?
AK: Sure. So right now a lot of my work involves predator and prey relationships where the predator is taking care of the prey animal, which seems kind of contrary to what you would think would be happening. But, there are definitely examples of predators in the wild taking care of prey animals, either for psychological reasons, to maybe feel like they’re taking care of something, or, as another example, domestication. For example, we as humans, we’re predatory animals, but we will take care of prey animals and shape them for what we need, and I think that’s really fascinating, too.
GR: What are some of your favorite past projects? Current projects?
AK: Hmm… I guess one of my favorite past projects is for a while I was making sculptures. So that was pretty different than the work I was doing before and the work I’m doing now. I started making sculptures because I got tired of painting spaces, I thought, “I should try to make a space.” So, I was making sculptures and I wanted to try to make a small sculpture that felt big, that had a big space in it. I was using a lot of mirrors to try to reflect the space and a lot of plexiglass and lighting to try to bring different colors into the sculptures. I made these small boxes, sort of like a kaleidoscope in a way, that you could look inside and see a really big space with all these abstract colors.
Um, what am I working on now? Two things. I’m working on a series of smaller paintings inspired by natural history dioramas and also inspired by those small box sculptures that I was making. A lot of the shapes and spaces that are in my paintings now were inspired by the shapes and spaces that I got from those boxes.
I’m also working on an opera project. And this has been going on for over a year now, and we’ve been working on it, me and my friends Kento Iwasaki and Cris Ryan. Kento is the composer and Cris is a fashion designer and he made the costumes and wrote the libretto, the words, for the opera. And I have been making the set. So, the idea for the opera actually came from some of my paintings inspired by a true story of a lioness in a wildlife preserve that was adopting baby antelopes. And I found the ideas in that story to be really fascinating. And Kento was also inspired by these paintings and the story, so the three of us have been developing the opera. It’s going to be performed in full November 24th at The Secret Theater in Long Island City, Queens. So that’s very exciting. It’s been growing a lot, we have singers and a dance choreographer, so it’s definitely building and becoming bigger. (For more info and to donate, visit www.belovedprey.com)
GR: Where can we see your work?
GR: Are there times when you don’t feel inspired? How do you motivate yourself to create work?
AK: Hmm… I would say no. But I guess if I’m having trouble with something, like an idea isn’t translating or I don’t know how to solve a problem- painting is a lot of problem solving, figuring out where to place things, the colors, how to communicate an idea as a whole. If I’m having trouble, then I usually will take a break for a bit and usually the solution will come to me. Or I’ll just say, “Well, that one didn’t work out,” and move onto the next one.
GR: Did you always want to be a teacher?
AK: I never wanted to be a teacher. When I moved to New York City, I applied for a lot of front desk jobs, because that’s what I did in Pittsburgh. And Church Street School was actually looking for a front desk receptionist, so I interviewed and they said, “Oh, we think you’d be a really good teacher, would you like to teach?” And I had some experience with teaching; I had worked at the Pittsburgh Center of the Arts, sometimes as a camp counselor or as a substitute teacher. So I said, “Yeah, I’ll try that out,” and it has been really fun. I’m glad that I got the opportunity because it’s definitely challenging, but I learn a lot from the kids in seeing them create and solve problems.
GR: What is the biggest challenge in being an art teacher? What is the biggest reward?
AK: Hmm, well I’m gonna skip to the rewards… I think the greatest rewards of being an art teacher are being able to facilitate kids creating something, and I’d say the biggest reward is when a kid has made something they really like and are really happy with, and they feel really proud. That’s very rewarding for me.
GR: What is the best way to get a child interested in art?
AK: Find what else they’re interested in. Because art is so varied, there’s a way to take elements of things they like, maybe soccer or performing, and bring it into art-making. For example, we’ll do activities that have more of a game quality, or have an engineering/building aspect.
GR: What is the best way for a “non-artistic” parent to support their growing artistic child?
AK: I would say the parent doesn’t have to be artistic themselves, because kids are generally self-motivated if they are interested in art. All the parent needs to do is provide the child with the opportunities and they will create the art. So just having the materials available to them at home- and it doesn’t have to be anything crazy, just computer paper and a pen is great.
GR: What is special about Church Street School?
AK: The variety of materials and opportunities. We get a lot of materials that an adult might not think is an art material, but when given to a kid, they will come up with all sorts of ideas. For example, just yesterday I brought out a bunch of fabric scraps and we were using them to make collages. But the thing that the kids found the most fun were the little chains that connected all the fabric samples together. They used the chains in their collages to make chandeliers or dog collars or trim around doorways. That’s something that I wouldn’t think to do, but kids are very creative and will find innovative uses for the materials. So I think the one thing that makes Church Street especially unique is that all of these materials are available for the kids to use. It’s not a sterile environment to make art in, there’s a lot of inspiration from many different, unique materials.