Kirsten (Kiki) Walja Kraa died on September 6, 2020 in West Orange. Her sunny disposition will be missed by all who met her and enjoyed being in her company. She was an extraordinarily caring person that would always be there when family, friends, colleagues or students needed any kind of help.
Born in Munich, Germany, Kiki has lived in Verona for 54 years. Her parents, Walja (nee Svagul) and Thomas Kraa, brought her to the United States in 1956, where she attended and graduated from Butler High School.
She received a BA degree from Douglass College and a Masters in Fine Arts from Rutgers University. Kirsten studied under Roy Lichtenstein, the father of Pop Art, Ulfert Wilke, the famed Lyrical Abstract Expressionist, and Geoff Hendricks. Kirsten was an integral part of the Feminist Art Movement coming out of Douglass College at the time when Pop Art Happenings, and Abstract Expressionism were revolutionizing the art world. It was through Ulfert Wilke that she was introduced and later represented by the art dealer Richard Feigen.
Experiencing the hardships of World War II in her youth, across Germany and Denmark, left Kiki with many harsh memories, including vivid images that are often incorporated into her paintings. Being mentored by the artists at Douglass College had a strong and positive impact on her artistic approach. Early in her career, she introduced a wide-eyed round-faced character (whose eyes connect with the viewer) into her paintings. This continued in every work she completed, albeit sometimes only a small segment of the character is present.
Her paintings have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Kyoto City Museum, the Larry Aldrich Museum, and locally at the Newark, Morris and Montclair Museums. This exposure led to several art collectors acquiring her pieces, including celebrities such as Greta Garbo, Zachary Scott and Tony Curtis. The latter of which yielded one of her paintings appearing on the set of the 1965 motion picture “Boeing Boeing.”
After substitute teaching at Verona High School (1974-1980), she decided to return to school and obtain her teaching certification at Montclair State College. She joined the staff at Boonton High School as an Art Teacher in 1982 and took great pride in the accomplishments of her students each and every year. She believed strongly in challenging her students’ creativity. Kiki had an encyclopedic knowledge of art history, and at the same time gave her students a sound foundation in the visual arts. She frequently encouraged her students to submit their own works into competitions and delighted in their successes. Her classroom was always a safe place for students to learn and express themselves. She had endless patience for any student who needed to work at their own pace.
In her own words, “Painting is an experience that must be reimagined, reexamined and reexplored over and over again. Images driven by real-life experiences are infused into an art world of colors, shapes and space. Observable emotions range from the absurd to doubt, futility and humor. These explorations lead to unknown possibilities.”
Endlessly compelled to create art in which she explores new concepts and imagery, her works are frequently exhibited in galleries and museums. Most recently, Kirsten exhibited artwork in the Zimmerli Art Museum, the Morven Museum, the John F. Peto Studio, the 2020 AENJ Member Exhibition: “The Digital Version,” and the upcoming Montserrat College art galleries, “2020 Inspired Views” online exhibition. She was included in “Women Artists on the Leading Edge,” by Joan Marter (Rutgers University Press, 2019), and subsequently interviewed by Avis Berman for the Roy Lichtenstein Archives.
Many of her most recent works feature a trompe l’oeil effect, along with timely expressions, even noting her concerns for the world forever changed by Covid-19. This includes her painting titled “Disturbing”, which will be on virtual display at the John F. Peto Studio where she is a featured artist. She explained that “growing up I was an avid collector of comic books, some of which now appear in my paintings. This painting features “Goofy” as an action Hero who appears limited and distressed. This reflects my response to living during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
While Kiki devoted much of her life to painting, she loved all the arts, including opera, theatre, music (classical and rock), ballet, movies and British television series. She loved the art works that others gifted to her, especially those from her students which she cherished. But, most of all, she sincerely loved each and every one of her friends.
She is survived by her son, Illya D’Addezio.
To view some of her paintings, visit her self-created website at www.KirstenKraa.com.
Services are private, however a celebration of her life, art and teaching accomplishments will be planned in the future. Condolences can be left at www.proutfuneralhome.com. In lieu of flowers, please donate to the Studio Montclair Inc., the Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary, or the Susan G. Komen (Breast Cancer) Foundation.