If there was ever a case of “not judging a book…”, it might just be this one.
Sometimes, when you’re on the hunt for one thing, something completely different emerges, as if by magic, or witchcraft, or fate, like finding a Rembrandt amid a pile of old Halloween decorations.
That’s precisely what happened recently as I was researching a story for this very issue of Wayne Lifestyle. I accidentally found a unicorn here in Wayne. A very talented one.
Kismet, if you define it as the propensity to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right people, seems to be endemic to Kali Wallace’s life. I was lucky enough to stumble into its power and found an internationally acclaimed artist among us.
This uniquely talented woman is genuinely humble about what she’s done. She often uses the word “average” to describe herself, yet she may need to consult a dictionary to rethink that word choice. Average artists don’t win full collegiate scholarships. Nor do they choose to challenge themselves by pursuing their MFA abroad. In China. Nor do they graduate with a triple major.
Not bad for someone who wasn’t sure she’d even go to college.
While she was a senior at Wayne Hills High School, she questioned if she would go to college at all, knowing that she wanted to pursue art but didn’t want to invest the money without more direction. But along came William Paterson’s “Art Start” show for local high school students. Her submission won the best painting award. As such, they offered to review her portfolio.
She was accepted on the spot with a full scholarship.
Eventually, her time at WPU led her to an opportunity to study abroad.
This is not a person who rests upon her talent alone. She’s passionate about what she does. Going to school in China was a revelation for her. Because there are so many people there with such limited space, “everyone there was amazing.” That’s when she realized that she wanted to go somewhere where she was the “absolute worst, lowest on the totem pole, and work my way up.”
Humility, like her talent, is innate to Kali.
When she went to China, the language barrier was the first to fall. The program requires fluency before any other program can be started, so the first year is simply language classes. Beyond that, all her class time was conducted in Chinese.
The drawback to this is that she learned standard Mandarin, which isn’t very “life conversational.” “It’s like learning proper British English, where you speak like the Queen, then the first place you go is Louisiana Bayou. That was a tough year. But I’ve loved languages since I was a little kid, now I had the opportunity to do it, so I had to.”
Not only did she go to China without speaking any Chinese, but also knew nothing about her circumstances. Not where she was staying, nor any of her circumstances at school other than what she was studying. Yet she courageously did it anyway. She was told, “we’ll tell you when we pick you up at the airport.”
“I’ve come to realize that if I can do that, I can do anything.”
Being an American living where she was in China was a surreal experience. Despite her ability to speak the language, Kali was very obviously not Chinese. And living in “the boonies” while at Guizhou Minzu University, she was a curiosity. “It was almost like being a celebrity. People watch what you buy - I'd hear people say in Mandarin, as they don't know that I understood what they're saying - 'look, she's buying toilet paper! She's buying water.' It was such a cool experience. You get the royal treatment, no matter where you are.”
Her Asian art career wasn’t simply limited to China. After graduating from WPU, she also held a prestigious internship working with a Jewish Indian artist based in Montclair (apparently, unicorns tend to find each other), leading to a few weeks in India for a documentary about her mentor’s story. Little did she know that soon her life would take an even more transformational path through the Far East.
Kali wasn't looking for a life of international intrigue and wanderlust. She simply found a new way to challenge herself to be a better artist, and that happened to be 8,000 miles away from home.
Yet all this Asian influence isn’t where Kali’s style is, well, oriented. She also studied some of her favorite Baroque artists like Caravaggio in Italy for a few weeks. Although she reveled in the rigor and discipline of the Chinese educational experience, her own work and inspirations align far more with the drama of the Baroque period. Visually, it’s her favorite time period for Western art and is a large focus of her career. It even shows up in her pet project — literally, being commissioned to paint portraits of pets combined with a Baroque or Renaissance painting, portraying the pet as anything from royalty to a court jester to a military general. She even documents her process for these on TikTok.
Ironically, despite the courage required to unmoor yourself and plunge headlong into a foreign land for a few years, Kali also suffers from anxiety and OCD. She’s shared her struggles with this on her Youtube channel in a very open and honest way. “When I first started doing this, there weren’t many people online talking about that. And I just got flooded with people saying, ‘Oh my God, this is exactly what I’m going through, I’m crying.’ Every single day, even for videos I posted years ago.” The creative outlet that she found through Youtube has allowed Kali to impact people on a deeper, far more personal level than she ever dreamed.
But the influence of people in her personal life had a deeper impact upon who she is. The bedrock of her support is her remarkable family.
“I was very fortunate to come from a family that encouraged what I wanted to do, never saying, ‘Well, you should do something else, something more stable.’ It was always if this is what you want to do and you love it, then do it.’’ These family roots are strong and deep. Her time away reinforced in her the sense that this is where she wants to be.
Nowadays, Kali is entrenched in life here in Wayne. She spends her days working at DePaul Catholic High School doing administrative work as well as teaching art classes. She says that she finds it gives her life some needed structure, and even inspiration. Having all the time in the world doesn’t open up creativity with a wandering mind. "I find that I think of things there and think 'I can't wait to get home to do this.' When I get home, it feels like a reward, to do the things I want to do."
Despite Kali’s admitted struggles with anxiety, she won’t back down from a challenge, whether it’s solving an unsolvable murder mystery game, teaching high schoolers, or upending her life and going to China. “Don’t underestimate me.”
Kali is, quite simply, a unicorn.
To see more of Kali's work, go to kaliwallaceart.com or her Youtube channel (@kaliwallaceart) for more about her art journey and life experiences.
“I’ve come to realize that if I can do that, I can do anything.”