Princeton resident Chris Kuenne has created a new foundation in memory of his wife Leslie and daughter Olivia that uses the visual arts and math to help kindergarteners and first-graders develop their critical thinking and cognitive skills.
The program aims to integrate math concepts such as spatial relationships, geometry, and symmetry into a carefully designed arts program that enables young children to build creative confidence. The science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics-based program also seeks to counter educational disparities.
The Olivia & Leslie Foundation Arts + Math Program kicked off in January at the Johnson Park Elementary School in Princeton. Student artwork will be on display April 19 through April 21 at the Taplin Gallery at the Arts Council of Princeton.
Chris Kuenne, a lifelong Princeton resident, entrepreneur, and Princeton University lecturer in entrepreneurship created the foundation that honors the creative legacies of his daughter, Olivia, who died in an accident in 1997 at the age of five, and his late wife, Leslie, who died of ovarian cancer in 2019.
“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.”
The foundation’s mission stems from Olivia’s love of drawing and painting. Hundreds of her drawings, many of them of rainbows, were displayed at a reception that followed her funeral and provided comfort to friends and family. Leslie Kuenne was a genetics counselor, a gifted painter, a sketch artist, and an award-winning gardener and nature photographer. She also served as president of the McCarter Theatre Center’s board of trustees, was a board member of the Arts Council of Princeton, and served on the vestry of Trinity Church.
The initial curriculum for the program was developed by leading arts educators and will continually evolve, based on analysis and research of its impact on students. The foundation has partnered with Maker Prep, an organization devoted to supporting computer science and arts education.
The Olivia & Leslie Foundation Arts + Math Program also will be offered to students at the Hinesburg Community School, in Hinesburg, Vermont, near where the Kuenne family has had a home for more than 100 years.
Angela Siso Stentz, the principal of Johnson Park Elementary School, said the program helped her engage students in social and emotional learning.
“The initiative provides a way for our students to express themselves and their unique qualities,” Siso Stentz said. “Research 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 is grateful to the teachers, parents, and, especially the students at Johnson Park Elementary School for embracing this arts education program.
“I’m inspired by the creativity of young people and appreciate the Princeton community’s recognition of the arts as essential to education — and to all of us,” Kuenne said.