Students commemorate art teacher John Kavalos through independent projects

On Monday, January 11, art teacher John Kavalos passed away after a long battle with heart disease. In honor of Kavalos’ legacy after 20 years of teaching at PHS, multiple independent projects will take place over the course of March to commemorate his impact on his students and on the PHS community.

Sharing his expertise as a graduate of Syracuse University, Temple University, and New York University, Kavalos played a key role in the foundation and running of Numina Gallery, the student-run art gallery located on the first floor of PHS. In addition to teaching AP Art History and all four Studio Art 2D courses at PHS, Kavalos embraced his passion for teaching at Cooper Union, Rutgers University, and the New Jersey State Council of the Arts.

On February 26, students from the Studio III and Studio IV classes will open their art show, Stop trying to pretend you’re not thinking about me… in rooms 172 and 174. The art show’s name is a thought bubble in a comic-styled photograph of a lonesome figure that comes from Kavalos’ last Facebook post. Published on January 5 at 6:37 p.m., the post was the last form of contact many of Kavalos’ students had with him.

After the show, there will be a short memorial service with statements from those close to Kavalos, followed by the unveiling of a new mural at 6:00 p.m. The main piece, dedicated in his honor, was created by his Studio Art IV class. “We are doing a giant mural with all of our faces, including a drawing of Kavalos,” said Harley Campbell ’16.

Students are also building tributes to Kavalos outside their classes. Together, students Grace Wampold ’17, Lydia Duff ’16, and Ariana Tartaglia ’16 are constructing a Stonehenge and Islamic- inspired seating installation in the right corner of the front lawn dedicated to Kavalos. “[The project] is about how we can make this goodbye tangible,” said Wampold. “Because it all goes back to the word ineffable that [Kavalos] always pressed so much to his classes. What we don’t see but what we feel from these items.”

Matthew Pembleton, a colleague of Kavalos’ who previously taught Mixed Media, Studio Art 3D and Studio Art 2D at PHS, has taken on Kavalos’ classes. “For me, obviously, no one can be Mr. Kavalos—he was a truly outstanding and inspirational person,” said Pembleton. “I’m trying to embrace his energy and his passion for his subjects and trying to demonstrate my own enthusiasm for art and art history to my students.”

Upon Kavalos’ arrival to PHS, he worked to promote dedication to the arts among his students. “His number one rule was if you respect your art, then he’ll respect you,” Campbell said. “If he really believed in what you were doing, he’d support you completely.”

In addition to his knowledge of art, he possessed a deep knowledge of subjects ranging from history and politics to literature. “He was so impressive. A voracious reader with a tremendous breadth of knowledge,” said History Teacher John Baxter. “It’s still a bit of a shock to be talking about him in the past tense.”

Kavalos walked the halls with a combination of humor and passion that endeared him to his students and colleagues. “He’s the only thing I remember from my first day of school. I ran to his classroom after the bell had rung, and I remember he called me out, and I was of course very embarrassed,” Campbell said. “And then we were all sitting around, and suddenly he just started blasting Metallica. And I thought, ‘You know what, I actually fit in here’ … We got along pretty well after that.”

His passion and love for the arts inspired many of his students to embrace the subject. “I remember going to see him during break and after school just to ask all these questions,” said Jocelyn Furniss ’17. “He really has cultivated my idea – not just of art – and not just of visual art – but of the world and who I want to be as a person.”

Many of those who knew him were also struck by his insights into the world around him. “He was aware of a reality that was not always apparent … We were talking about students, and he made the comment that looking at the student body and students in his class, and saying that so many of these kids are already paying off mortgages, meaning that their life is already set out in front of them and they’re following a path without necessarily choosing it, thinking about it,” said Baxter. “And I thought that that was a statement, and the way that he said it, that demonstrated how deeply he cared about the students … I hope he’s remembered for a long time.”

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