From Heartland steel mill to 1969 Paris, rich scenes have influenced the painting and instruction of South Carolina School of the Arts at Anderson University’s Peter John Kaniaris
For Peter John Kaniaris, the classroom is sacred.
When COVID-19 hit and sent students home and away from the classroom, he had to reimagine how his advanced painting students could continue to learn. The physical classroom, Kaniaris said, is sacred space where critiques, coaching and community help students grow. Kaniaris, who has taught at Anderson University for more than three decades, helped create the University’s bachelor’s program in art. His is a life rich in art and experience, which he uses to inspire and challenge students.
Kaniaris, a son of Greek immigrants, grew up in the steel mill town of Lorain, Ohio, in the 1950s and 1960s. He describes himself as being “from the wrong side of town,” but his neighborhood filled his mind with images of compelling architecture; he and his five brothers and two sisters lived across the street and an alley from a steel mill near tenements and bars.
Kaniaris still remembers how the molten steel would make the night sky glow orange and illuminate the buildings.
“It was the color of lava, an unearthly orange,” he said.
Kaniaris has painted hundreds of pieces depicting the light hitting the buildings in his neighborhood, and light illuminating surfaces is still a theme in his work. His paintings shouldn’t be taken at face value, he said. In paintings, light can be a symbol of enlightenment and understanding.
In addition to his surroundings, he was inspired by books and pictures in his home growing up. The books included art depicting Greek mythology. The first supplies Kaniaris used were house paints he found in his parents’ home. His first canvases were plywood. The first person to mentor Kaniaris in art was a hall monitor at his junior high school who also owned a paint shop. He gave Kaniaris his first three tubes of paint when he was in seventh grade: white, black and ultramarine blue. After receiving that gift, Kaniaris said that he began to paint a lot.
Europe and art school
After graduating from high school, Kaniaris and two friends bought one-way airplane tickets to France in the summer of 1969. They lived as street artists in the Montmartre region of Paris, where famous artists, including Picasso, Degas and Renoir worked. Tourists from Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States traveled to the Montmarte region and wanted their portraits drawn. It was a competitive business, and he made $5 per drawing.
“It was a great experience,” Kaniaris said, adding that living in Paris enabled him to visit famous art museums before he raised money to return to the US. Working as a street artist in France also inspired Kaniaris to continue his art education so he didn’t have to live the life of a street artist; an art education would give him more opportunities in art, he said.
It inspired him to continue his education at the Cleveland Institute of Art and earn a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Houston. Kaniaris revisited his experience in Europe during an AU study abroad program with fellow South Carolina School of the Arts professor Dr. Richard Williamson.
Designing AU’s art program
After completing his art education and serving at another art school, Kaniaris joined the faculty at Anderson University in 1986. He was attracted to the job because, in addition to being able to continue teaching college-level art, he enjoyed the freedom to discuss faith with his interviewer: Susan Wooten, former Department of Art chair.
“It was clear that she was a person of faith,” Kaniaris said.
Speaking to students about faith was new for Kaniaris and a part of the job he enjoys, he said. Being able to help design AU’s bachelor’s program in art also attracted him to the job, he said.
Watching the official approval of the programs that he helped design was “an exhilarating moment” for him. And remembering the school’s efficient response to curricular planning reminded him of AU’s nimble response to transitioning campus classes into online classes during COVID-19.
Under the leadership of President Evans Whitaker, faculty and staff continue the legacy of being able to pivot quickly and envision and implement innovative solutions and programs, Kaniaris said.
“We did what we needed to do” to make their courses available online so students could get to the finish line, Kaniaris said, adding “it was pretty much working all day and evening to make things come together. “
In addition to serving as a respected art professor, Kaniaris was director of AU’s Center for Learning and Teaching Excellence from 2007 until 2017. As director, Kaniaris met all new AU faculty members and gave professors resources to help them teach.
Kaniaris is well respected outside of AU, too. His paintings have been displayed in more than 200 regional and national exhibitions at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Art, the Butler Institute of American Art in Ohio, the Greenville Museum of Art, the South Carolina State Museum and at other galleries.
Kaniaris’ work is held in numerous public and private collections, including the Museum of Fine Art in Houston and the South Carolina State Museum. He was awarded the President’s Award for Service, a Mellon Foundation Grant and a commendation from the South Carolina House of Representatives for his work in the visual arts.
Kaniaris’s former students say they grew from his encouraging, straight-forward and kind approach to teaching. Shelli Rutland, an AU art grad who had Kaniaris as a drawing professor, says that his guidance led her to major in art and to her fulfilling career in graphic design and marketing.
She said Kaniaris was patient and encouraging as an art professor.
“He would add little blue sticky notes to the back of our projects,” Rutland said. “It was a critique of your work as well as your grade. Each one gave direction on how I could improve as well as encouragement.”
Rutland had been reluctant to choose a major, so at the end of the foundational drawing class that she took with Kaniaris, she said he called her to his office.
“He explained that it was time to make a choice,” Rutland said. “He listed the art majors and asked me to pick one. I remember being shocked: surely, he did not want me to decide right now. He did! Little did I know that this one conversation would give direction for not only my career, but my life.”
Rutland says that Kaniaris taught her “courage to face the future with direction.”
Teaching students to face fears is part of Kaniaris’s teaching philosophy. It’s why he calls the classroom sacred. He strives to create safe place in the classroom where art students can take risks.
“Fear is always interfering with where students are and where students need to go,” Kaniaris said.
To view some of Professor Kaniaris’s paintings visit: https://www.peterjohnkaniaris.com/.