January 31, 2024

Entrepreneur’s Arts Education Foundation Memorializes Creativity of Wife, Daughter

CREATING CURRICULUM: From left, Olivia and Leslie Foundation founder Chris Kuenne, Johnson Park Elementary School Principal Angela Siso Stentz, and Ronah Harris, CEO of Maker Prep and a foundation advisory board member, discuss the foundation’s new integrated math and arts program.

By Wendy Greenberg

A program that uses art to teach critical thinking skills to kindergarten and first grade students honors the creative energies of a family’s mother and sister, who were both artists.

The Olivia & Leslie Foundation has launched an integrated math and arts program that embraces youths’ natural tendency to create, and adds problem-solving skills. While it arose from overwhelming loss, it inspired in its founders, Chris Kuenne and his sons, the desire to build confidence in budding artists.

The program, now in two schools, has as its goal integrating mathematical concepts such as spatial relationships, geometry, and symmetry into a carefully designed arts program that enables young children to build creative confidence, said Kuenne. The science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM)-based program also seeks to counter educational disparities.

Honoring his daughter’s creative legacy through an art-based program was percolating for some time, but the idea was further shaped when Chris’ wife Leslie Kuenne died almost five years ago.

“Twenty-six and a half years ago, I lost my daughter Olivia,” said Kuenne, a Princeton entrepreneur and author, and a Princeton University lecturer at the Keller Center. Kuenne founded the global marketing firm Rosetta, which was the largest privately held digital marketing company before it was sold to Publicis Groupe for a record amount. Kuenne is now chairman & CEO of Rosemark.

At the funeral reception for Olivia, he said in an interview, “hundreds of pieces of her art were displayed. After the reception, all the moms and dads went home and dug through basements and closets to retrieve and celebrate their own kids’ artwork.” He added that Olivia’s art showed a “prolific creative energy, and people said she created a lifetime of art in her short 5 1/2 years.”

The foundation website notes, “We would often find her hunched over a piece of paper drawing yet another rainbow or trying to figure out how to draw the roof of our house, in perspective. Her creative energy was nothing short of miraculous.”

The foundation said on its website that Leslie’s “artistic intention was to transmit not only what she saw, but the way she observed it, while leaving room for the viewers’ imaginations.”

Leslie was a genetic counselor, a gifted painter, sketch artist, and award-winning gardener and nature photographer. She served as president of the McCarter Theatre Center’s Board of Trustees, a board member of the Arts Council of Princeton, and on the Vestry of Trinity Church.

From loss came inspiration. After Olivia’s death, the fund in her name at the Princeton Area Community Foundation built an art room at the Princeton Junior School in Lawrenceville. As Kuenne put it, “the school’s beautiful art studio is a tangible tribute to Olivia’s artistic spirit.”

There were what he called “ad hoc contributions” to various organizations, including the Olivia Rainbow Gallery in the Johnson Education Center at D&R Greenway Trust.

When Leslie died of ovarian cancer in August 2019, Kuenne said he became more focused “about reflecting their artistic gifts.” Advisors were gathered, and Kuenne credits arts educator Ronah Harris with developing 16 lessons which eventually became part of the arts curriculum at Johnson Park School in Princeton and the Hinesberg Community School in Vermont, near where the Kuennes have a summer home.

Harris, who live and works in Princeton, is the founder of Play Pattern LLC, a digital platform for children to learn arts and technology. She earned two Daytime Emmys for her work on children’s television shows and for many years has been commissioned to create private works. She became an art and design teacher in 2018, and took on full-time studio practice.

“It has been amazing working with Dr. Harris, who led the team that built our curriculum,” said Kuenne. “Dr. Harris arranged for a panel of experts to review the curriculum and worked collaboratively with school administrators, helping them to envision what this art program can do for their students.”

The program was piloted at Johnson Park last spring. “This innovative program works across disciplines and engages students in social and emotional learning,” said Angela Siso Stentz, Johnson Park principal, in a press release. “The initiative provides a way for our students to express themselves and their unique qualities. Research clearly tells us that students learn best by ‘doing.’ Teachers, students, and parents are all excited to have this program at our school.”

Kuenne said he hopes to also build confidence in the young artists. To that end, the resulting art from Johnson Park students will be seen at the Arts Council of Princeton from April 19 to 21 in the Taplin Gallery.

“One of the key elements of building creative confidence is celebrating the art,” said Kuenne, who noted that a similar event is being planned at a museum in Vermont where the program is also debuting.

The curriculum will continually evolve, based on analysis and research of its impact on students, Kuenne said. The foundation has partnered with Maker Prep, an organization devoted to supporting computer science and arts education. The materials are provided as part of the program.

The advisors are “carefully crafting a white paper,” said Kuenne, “in which we hope to demonstrate a positive developmental impact on the young children we serve.

“I am a business builder. First, you prove that you have something that works,” he said, “and then you seek to scale it.”

He hopes the program will grow. “Olivia and Leslie taught all those around them the creative power of art to inspire, teach, and invoke our deepest humanity,” Kuenne said. “Our goal is to foster creativity among young students. Our longer-term goal is to catalyze changes in the way we all think about art and its role in developing creative problem-solving in our next generation.”

For more information, visit oliviaandlesliefoundation.org.