Two hours before her last final, you would not have found Kyra Willner among the many frantic students studying at Alden Library. You would not have found her in her house, or in a coffee shop or anywhere near a textbook.
You would have found her hiking.
Kyra Willner was an unconventional and extraordinarily talented artist. She was a beloved daughter, sister, friend, partner and student. But beyond that, she was a curiously passionate human being. Kyra was a photographer, traveler, conservationist, athlete and musician. She was more than words could describe and all that so many admire.
Kyra Willner was the type of person that wouldn’t let a final exam stop her from lacing up her hiking boots and seeing the world.
Kyra Kurt Willner was born on Dec. 31, 1993 in Atlanta, Ga. Her family moved to Hudson, Ohio, where Kyra spent the majority of her adolescent years. She is the daughter of Colleen and Stuart Willner and sister to three siblings, Kyle, Lance and Anika.
Her life was brought to an end on Dec. 16, 2015 when she was killed in a car accident in New Mexico. Despite her short life and small stature, Kyra Willner left an immense impact on the world around her.
On Feb. 15, two months after the accident, I met with her mother and sister. The three of us sat in a sparsely decorated conference room, yet the presence of a fourth woman made me forget the mundane nature of our surroundings. Kyra’s charisma radiated through still life as the women in front of me introduced her spirit with immeasurable love. Through old photos and stories the desks around us disappeared, and together, Kyra led us from her bright-eyed childhood smiles, to her difficulties growing up, to her travels, love life, friendships and art.
Her story is a journey of many parts: 21 years of learning, creating and growing.
Kyra grew up in a suburban area, where she participated in school sports, developed friendships and transitioned through the many stages of adolescence. Throughout her early school years, she was bullied and had a difficult time with conceptual learning. She struggled with a phonetic deficiency, which made it challenging for her to grammatically read and write.
Kyra always remained consistent in her sense of self; she knew who she was and she wasn’t ashamed. She didn’t pity herself when she was bullied; rather, she questioned why people would have ill will, and even became close friends with her bully in the years to follow. She didn’t throw away her books and pens when she had trouble understanding. Instead she read and wrote frequently, and with a steadfast attitude and a thirst for creativity, Kyra thrived.
“She really felt compelled to get out of her comfort zone,” Colleen, her mother, said. She became a member of the National Art Honor Society, and she frequently pushed herself to try new things.
In high school Kyra took a photography class that would mark the beginning of her complex and talented career. In 2012 she enrolled in Ohio University as a commercial photography major and entered into a new age of artistic exploration. From covering an Obama rally to shooting the wreckage of abandoned homes, Kyra was known for her ability to capture the essence of every subject.
According to two of her college roommates, Emily Harger and Olivia Wallace, it was through her art that Kyra flourished.
“School was not her forte. She would study forever on books and still not pass classes. But she would go up to her room and collage and make art, and go out and photograph something, and that’s where she would shine,” Harger said.
In addition to her photography, Kyra kept a variety of journals full of sporadic and often profound thoughts. “I looked in one of her books that I thought was a journal and I opened it up and it was all these watercolor paintings, and they were visions in her head of what she wanted her photos to be, and I knew the series that she was talking about, and the water colors were dated way before she took the photos but they look so similar to the photos that she took,” Anika, her sister, said.
Her creativity was far from conventional, and Kyra experimented with many mediums. In addition to visual art, she was self-taught on the guitar and played a number of original songs. Her boyfriend of nearly three years and fellow musician, Jru Lloyd often became the subject of her music, and the two would collaborate in sound.
Kyra and Jru met in her sophomore year at OU while working at Bagel Street Deli. Jru was a senior at the time and moved to Buffalo, N.Y. after graduation and the relationship became long distance. Since the two of them were almost always apart, they mailed a notebook back and forth to each other full of lyrics, love letters and poetry.
“They had so much in common, and I think he brought out the best in her,” Colleen said.
The two had plans to move to Colorado together once Kyra graduated. When she announced this to her family, it came as no surprise as Kyra was a born traveler.
Beginning with an Alaskan conservation voyage in high school, to exploring Cambodia through the Global Leadership program in college, to working on an organic farm in Thailand, Kyra Willner walked the globe.
Her curiosity and courage trumped any of her fears as she often took to traveling alone. Perhaps it was her ability to speak to anyone and the ease with which she approached life that allowed her travels to be so successful.
“She really had a good sense of self…. It’s definitely a unique personality that can really adopt so well to other cultures, especially ones that are so different from your own,” Anika said. “Kyra was never really afraid of people, and that’s one thing that I really appreciated about my sister.”
To Kyra, people were people. There was no sense in being afraid, for beauty could be found anywhere. She was kind by nature, never judgmental and always eager to meet new faces. At OU, Kyra volunteered to teach emotionally disturbed and abused people camera skills. A woman Kyra spent time volunteering with spoke at her funeral and explained how much Kyra’s kindness and ability to comfort meant to her.
Kyra Willner’s life was a collage of love and adventure, of struggle and endurance, of living presently and being bold. Her story is not one that can be broken down into a simple feature. It is not one you can tell in a single sitting or read about in 10 minutes.
It is a story that can be told in many ways by many people, for Kyra’s spirit, as well as her art, took the form of many things. She was known in different ways by all who loved her, though one thing seems to remain consistent: Kyra Willner was unique.
She will live through the smiles of those who remember her, the tears of those who miss her and the beauty of all she captured.
Her mark is everlasting.