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April 26, 2018
By Mark Hornickel
This story appears in the spring 2018 edition of the Northwest Alumni Magazine. To access more stories and view the magazine in its entirety online, click here.
The sun beams through Cassia Kite’s studio on a picture perfect February afternoon at her Sarasota, Florida, house. As an art teacher, her school day is finished, but her work day is not.
Art catalogs and history books clutter a shelving unit in the room where Kite never feels too far away from home. Artwork depicting the Auburn, Nebraska, farm where she grew up adorns the walls, and a quilt she hand-stitched from 4x4-inch scraps of her dad’s patterned work shirts lies over a chair. She salvaged the chair, with red upholstery that’s had better days, from the curb of a Maryville street where she once lived. A mug created by the late Russ Schmaljohn sits on a pedestal in a corner, next to a piano.
These are the pieces that thread Kite’s personal narrative, which is central to her work, both as an artist and a teacher.
Kite's family history is rooted on the Auburn farm that spans five generations. She grew up showing cattle with 4-H and enjoyed working with animals. She wanted to become a veterinarian, but that notion faded quickly during her freshman year at Northwest. She became an artist instead and now is pioneering an interdisciplinary, multimedia project that translates the colors of her work into musical compositions. She calls it “soundstitching.”
Kite was visiting her family’s farm several summers ago and stitching together those scraps of her dad’s shirts to pass time. Pregnant with her daughter, Nina, she had stopped painting out of fear that the prenatal cadmium exposure might affect the baby’s health.
|Kite sets her hand-stitched images to soundwith a musical scale she creates based on the colors she uses in the tapestries.|
|Kite specializes in painting but took up stitching in 2012 as somethingto pass the time while she was pregnant with her daughter. On theopposite page, a map shows the colors she used to stitch the OliveDeLuce Fine Arts Building on the Northwest campus.|
“I fell in love with the whole process of the textile and tactile,” she said of the stitching, which she hadn’t practiced since a middle school home economics class. Soon, she started looking back at some of her line drawings and created hand-stitched copies of them. “And I thought if I can do my drawings, I’ll just approach a painting.”
Weeks later, a friend of Kite’s met her at the farm to capture portraits of her at the 36-week mark of her pregnancy. Kite wanted nothing more than to be photographed in front of the original Kite farmhouse her
great-grandfather built. Kite’s father was born in the home, and her grandmother taught her to play the baby grand piano that once furnished it. The house was abandoned and dilapidated, but Kite wanted to capture those memories of a place where she and generations before her laughed and played so she could pass them on to her daughter.
“I grew up a quarter of a mile down the road,” Kite said. “It was very much in my life. I have memories of playing in that house.”
Kite had another idea as she stood in front of the home for the photos.
“I’m looking at the house and I’m like, ‘I wonder what it was like for them to hear me play the piano?’” Kite said. “Sound travels forever in the country, so people that were working on the farm could probably hear the piano coming from the house, and I thought, ‘How cool would that be if I could associate the piano sound with this image?’”
An aptitude for art and music runs in the Kite family. Cassia’s mother, Nancy Mikkelson Kite, attended Northwest as an art major and is retired from teaching in the Auburn Public School District. Cassia’s maternal grandmother is an avid quilter. Her great-grandfather was a self-taught painter and talented woodworker, while her great-great-grandmother worked in folk art, painting Iowa scenes on tins, pillow cases and mirrors.
The paternal side of Kite’s family was more interested in music. Her grandmother was a pianist and taught all of the Kite children to play. Her father, Jim Kite, who also attended Northwest, played the bassoon. Cassia took up percussion in middle school – until she quit out of a frustration that her band teacher assigned her to play the bells rather than a snare drum because she could read a music scale.
The idea Kite had outside the farmhouse ignited an odyssey to mix the artistry of her hand-stitched images depicting personal and historical landscapes with musical compositions that evoke memories of the places they portray. Kite wasn’t interested in researching the scientific correlations between color and sound and set out to create something all her own while empowering other artists to interpret it.
|Kite chats with George Neubert at the Flatwater Folk Art Museum i nBrownville, Nebraska. The pair developed a friendship and Neubertencouraged Kite to showcase her soundstitching work.|
|At each of her exhibits, pictured above and below at Kaneko, Kite’s stitchings are displayed with a set of headphones that allowviewers to hear the accompanying compositions. She also incorporates Aurasma, an augmented reality platform, that – with the scan of asmartphone – triggers a musical track or video, creating an entirelydifferent way to experience her work.|
After hand-stitching an image of the farmhouse, Kite devised a musical scale based on the colors she used in her embroidering. Reading the stitches left to right and top to bottom, she looked for color changes and assigned the color to musical notes. She added octaves to represent different shades of the same color. From middle C, the musical notes moved up the scale as the colors lightened and down the scale as they darkened.
Initially, Kite protected her work fiercely and shared her vision for it with only a few loyal friends. Back in Nebraska, a connection with George Neubert, the creator and art director of the Flatwater Folk Art Museum in Brownville, stuck with her. While visiting Auburn again in 2016, Kite took samples of her work to Neubert, who urged her to pitch an exhibition to Kaneko, a non-profit organization in Omaha, Nebraska, that supports artists creating experimental art with interdisciplinary traits.
“She talked about being an artist in Florida and she knew some people that I knew,” he said. “We kind of compared notes about the art world, and she talked about her work and I began to realize that she was interdisciplinary in her approach. Not just visual, but taking a tradition such as stitchery, which is a folk tradition.”
After a successful pitch to the Kaneko board, Kite began connecting with composers who could help turn her vision into reality. From a childhood friend who is principal harpist in the San Diego Symphony Orchestra to an experimental composer and toy pianist, they were eager to collaborate with Kite and offer interpretations of her work.
“Being an educator, I really wanted this to be a full-on collaboration, and it has been so amazing,” she said. “I feel like a translator. I’ve already done the visual work. Now I’m giving another component to somebody to use as their inspiration.”
Last summer proved to be something of a breakout for Kite and her soundstitching. She stitched the Schoolhouse Art Gallery, a former one-room school in Brownville, and saw her work displayed there with a performance by a violinist that moved its audience to tears.
After she stitched the former warehouse now occupied by Kaneko, another composer arranged a 12-person ensemble with instruments and voices for a performance that included a dance element with an Omaha dance collective. Similarly, a composer and choreographer collaborated on a performance of Kite’s “Pot Luck Dinner at Longboat Key Center for the Arts” for an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida.
In March, Kite brought her soundstitching to Northwest as part of a visiting artist series that included master classes, discussions and performances. A saxophone quartet, jazz ensemble and pianist performed compositions that were created by Northwest students and faculty and inspired by Kite’s tapestries of the Olive DeLuce Fine Arts Building and Bearcat Stadium – two places where she spent her share of hours working on art projects and cheering on the Bearcat football team.
“It’s complete and absolute full circle for me,” she said.
After all, Northwest is where Kite found her calling, not just in art but in educating and collaborating.
When Kite found herself bored with pre-vet classes during her freshman year at Northwest, her mother recalled how much she enjoyed Schmaljohn as an art instructor and suggested Kite try a ceramics class with him. Kite did well and enjoyed his teaching style so much that she followed it up with drawing and painting classes. She quickly moved her full attention to art.
As a senior closing in on completing her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting and sculpture, Kite was intent on becoming a full-time artist, but her mom intervened. Reluctantly, Kite added a Bachelor of Science in art education and graduated from Northwest with two bachelor’s degrees in five years.
“My mother said, ‘If you think I’m going to help you pay for your loans without getting an education degree, you’re crazy.’ I did the whole toddler tantrum and stomped my foot. I said, ‘Mom, I’m going to be an artist,’” Kite recalls before pausing and changing her tone. “I cannot tell you how fortunate I am that I got my education degree.”
She left the Midwest and began her career in inner city Atlanta, teaching art to children in grades one through five. Fifty kids in a class was not uncommon as the school served high-risk, low-income students. Kite’s care for the students earned her the nickname “Mama Kite,” but the work wore on her emotionally.
In 2006, a vacation with a friend to St. Petersburg, Florida, led to an offer to work with the education departments at the city’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Salvador Dalí Museum. Consequently, Kite secured a teaching position at an elementary school in Clearwater where English was a secondary language for most families. That work led to Kite completing her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in school improvement, teacher leadership and technology at the University of Florida in 2010.
|Kite teaches art at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, a training school for young athletes where she uses interdisciplinary approaches to help students learn and build confidence.|
Then, in 2011, wanting to work closer to husband Tim Jaeger, who also is an artist, Kite was hired as a studio art instructor in the fine art program at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, placing her in a realm she never imagined. Founded in 1978 as a boarding school for young tennis athletes, IMG has evolved into a multi-sport training mecca that emphasizes athletic development in alignment with academic enrichment. The campus sits on more than 500 acres with impeccably maintained multi-sport fields, an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts and a 5,000-seat stadium. The 1,200 teenagers who walk the campus and pass through Kite’s art classroom come from all over the world and speak more than 50 languages.
“I’m like, ‘It’s a sports school, and I’m an art teacher. Not so sure about this,’” Kite said. “But when I visited, I realized it was a school that would provide opportunity for my curriculum to grow, and I was excited about the challenge of educating in such a unique environment.”
It’s a school that lays claim to graduates who have gone on to earn spots on professional all-star teams, Most Valuable Player awards and Olympic medals. The school uniforms are an assortment of Under Armour polos, hoodies and T-shirts emblazoned with “IMG.” Gatorade water bottles stand on the desks, thanks to the food and beverage company, which operates a satellite laboratory facility on campus.
In many ways, though, IMG is no different than other schools. Pursuing degrees in education, Kite says, not only taught her the fundamentals of classroom management and lesson planning but also empathy. It enhances her engagement with students in the classroom, and she tries to be present for her students outside of the classroom as well, attending their games and volunteering to help with their service activities.
“It doesn’t matter where they come from or who they are, whether you’re teaching private or public Atlanta, or rural America, the kids all need that same thing, which is love, and they are deserving of that attention and that understanding,” Kite said.
She says she’s grown beyond the insecurities she experienced as a younger artist and takes pride in collaborating with others. Coinciding with her transition to IMG, she has watched her exhibitions steadily increase. She and her husband have graduated from pop-up shows and searching for places to exhibit their work to established galleries readily accepting their art for exhibitions.
Kite’s work at IMG, meanwhile, fulfills her desire to mentor and share her interest in interdisciplinary approaches. She is aware of her students’ kinesthetic learning styles and incorporates technology into the curriculum while fostering communication and collaboration.
During a course titled Art and Technology, Kite’s IMG students swipe their fingers on iPads and MacBooks to create brush strokes on digital paintings. Later, in a more traditional course, Art Foundations, Kite paces around the classroom, chatting with the students and offering guidance as they paint colorful geometric shapes and patterns on canvas.
“I teach how to make things,” she said. “I see kids come through my door, and they’re scared to death because they’ve never taken an art class before or they’re just intimidated of failing because they know nothing about it. I love it because I get to take them from the ground up. It’s about building confidence but also providing an outlet that they never knew existed within their own abilities.”
It’s the same kind of confidence Kite built through growing upon a farm in Nebraska, through discovering her abilities in art and education at Northwest, and through embarking on a teaching career 1,000 miles away. Her lessons are part of her personal narrative, and it’s one she’s still stitching.
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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