Kyra Kurt Willner is pictured with the team she worked with in Cambodia this past May as part of project through OHIO’s Global Leadership Center.

Kyra Kurt Willner (front, center) is pictured with the team she worked with in Cambodia this past May as part of a project through OHIO’s Global Leadership Center.

Photo courtesy of: Bob Stewart

Kyra Kurt Willner is seen in a restaurant at the Khmer Surin Guesthouse where she and a team from OHIO’s Global Leadership Center stayed on a trip to Cambodia this past May.

Kyra Kurt Willner is seen in a restaurant at the Khmer Surin Guesthouse where she and a team from OHIO’s Global Leadership Center stayed on a trip to Cambodia this past May.

Photo courtesy of: Bob Stewart

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OHIO community mourns the death of VisCom senior Kyra Kurt Willner


The Ohio University community is mourning the death of senior Kyra Kurt Willner who died Wednesday, Dec. 16, in a motor vehicle accident in New Mexico.

A native of Hudson, Ohio, Willner majored in commercial photography in the Scripps College of Communication’s School of Visual Communication. She was a member of the Society of Photographic Illustrators at Ohio University.

“On behalf of our Bobcat Family, I send our deepest condolences to Kyra’s family and friends,” said Jenny Hall-Jones, dean of students and interim vice president for student affairs. “The outpouring of grief from her faculty and friends is just a small indicator of how she touched the lives of others. We flew a Bobcat flag over Cutler Hall yesterday in her honor and will be presenting the flag to her family in January. She will be missed.”

“It was evident from the start, in 2012 when Kyra enrolled in VisCom's introductory photography class, that she was an extremely gifted photographer,” Lawrence Hamel-Lambert, an associate professor in the School of Visual Communication who taught commercial photography courses, said. “She produced images that were visually complex and often contained a strong personal statement or social message.”

As Willner’s faculty adviser, Hamel-Lambert had the opportunity to witness Willner’s professional and personal growth at Ohio University.

“This semester, she experimented with portraits created by overlaying multiple images, and by projecting environmental scenes onto her subjects. She always strived to try new techniques to make her work unique,” Hamel-Lambert said. “She also produced a black-and-white video a few weeks ago, with strong cinematic-style lighting. It featured a series of video portraits of her friends, each looking into the camera, and then bursting into laughter after a few seconds. I happened to walk into the Schoonover Center studio when she was working on it. She had a big smile on her face and was really happy with the way the shoot was going.

“Kyra filled up her life working on projects and causes. She made every moment count. We will really miss her,” Hamel-Lambert said.

“As a teacher, you put your heart and soul into the kids that go through your classes—especially those kids that keep up the mentorship relationship,” said Josh Birnbaum, a photography instructor in the School of Visual Communication who had Willner in his class. “Kyra was one of those who would continually stop by office hours and chat about photography outside of class. Rarely do you get a student who sees the world so democratically. Kyra was a true learner in that sense, and we are very hurt by her loss.”

“Kyra was an amazing friend and an incredibly talented photographer,” said Macy DiRienzo, a senior photojournalism major. “Her creative mind always had me in awe. She had a different perspective on the world that you could always learn from. She believed in you when you didn’t believe in yourself.”

Among DiRienzo’s favorite memories of Willner was an act of kindness she performed when the two were first-year students. DiRienzo had undergone spinal surgery and recalled receiving a care package that included a bunch of little gifts and a card that Willner had all of DiRienzo’s friends as well as those living in her residence hall sign.

“She was always there to pick me back up, and I will miss her infectious smile, her wise advice and her adventurous spirit,” DiRienzo said. “I’m thankful I got to spend the majority of my college career getting to know her, making memories and growing together.”

In addition to her studies in the School of Visual Communication, Willner was also pursuing a global leadership certificate through OHIO’s Global Leadership Center (GLC). Designed to prepare students to become lifelong learners in order to serve a more interconnected world, students pursuing a global leadership certificate work in teams comprising students from OHIO and other countries on real-world projects. 

As part of her global leadership studies, Willner traveled to Cambodia this past May with other students from the GLC. Her team worked with the Enrich Institute, a local non-governmental organization based in Phnom Penh, and its Enrich Center for Youth Development, which is devoted to helping youth, especially university students, reach their fullest potential.

Bob Stewart, an academic adviser with the GLC and director of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, traveled with the group to Cambodia where, he said, they helped Cambodian youth with job preparation skills.

“I recall Kyra being both deeply thoughtful and highly energetic in her approach to her team’s GLC projects in Cambodia,” Stewart said. “She very much respected her Ohio University and Cambodian teammates, and they, in turn, listened carefully to her ideas.”

“Kyra was one to put all distractions aside and live in the moment. She was able to make you feel as though you were the moment and nothing else was important. Her warm smile and inviting brown eyes made anyone feel comfortable to be themselves,” said fellow GLC student Haley Hershman. “Kyra used this; she was able to capture it in her photos – turning what one might think of as an awkward smile into a powerful masterpiece. I will miss her spunky way of going about life, her never-ending search for adventure which allowed her to touch so many lives from Athens to Cambodia, leaving behind the memory of her beautiful soul in each one of us. And for that I am honored.”

Willner’s impact on the world continues to be felt in Athens, Cambodia and beyond.

Jonathan Baldwin is one of several OHIO students in Ecuador this winter break working with his peers from the GLC and partners in OHIO’s Tropical Disease Institute on “Calvas Extremo,” a start-up mountain biking initiative in Cariamanga, Ecuador. 

Baldwin is part of a team of students that included Willner. The team members who are in Ecuador are offering consultation and recommendations on Calvas Extremo. The team was tasked with identifying infrastructure, support and services needed to maintain the initiative as well as recommending how to attract international tourists year-round.

“Kyra was the core contributor behind many of the innovative ideas behind our recommendations, and knowing her as the creative and visionary that she was, that should come as no surprise,” Baldwin said. “Kyra had a way of looking at the same thing as others but seeing something different – something more, and this ability proved invaluable for our team during this project. I learned a lot from Kyra during our time together in this program, and I will forever feel fortunate to have been able to work alongside her.”

Baldwin added that the group in Ecuador is preparing to present its work to clients there in the coming days, a task that he was finding difficult given the news of her passing.

“Everything to do with our project has the tender and unique inflection that Kyra touched upon it,” he said. “I gain the strength to continue from the desire to share the completed product of Kyra’s work and vision on this project, and from the awareness that Kyra would have wished for me and the other GLC students here in Ecuador to persist.”

Emily Harger, a senior photojournalism major, shared this about her “best friend, roommate, and a fellow photographer.”

“Her photography is unique and captures ideas that only she could have thought up. I encourage everyone to take a look at her work on her website,” Harger said. “But more importantly, Kyra was the most alive human being I've ever come to meet. She knew how to live in the present moment — something all of her friends and family will carry on in our own lives. Kyra lives through the people that loved her wild and creative heart, and we are going to miss her deeply.”

Willner also served a one-year term as director of multimedia and photography at the College of Business’ Ralph and Luci Schey Sales Centre. She also served as a teaching assistant with the Athens Photo Project, a non-profit art program that promotes mental health recovery by providing opportunities for community members living with mental illness to express themselves through photography. She was employed at Bagel Street Deli.

OHIO’s Division of Student Affairs is offering support to students who are affected by this tragedy. Students in need of support may call Counseling and Psychological Services 24 hours a day at 740-593-1616 to speak with a professional counselor.

Willner’s obituary is available here. A celebration of her life is being planned in Athens for spring semester.

Student reflects on Kyra Kurt Willner

Among the comments Compass received from Ohio University students who knew Kyra Kurt Willner was this piece written by Arden MacDonald, a senior linguistics major who worked with Willner through the Global Leadership Center.

One degree of separation.

They say in Athens we’re all separated by one degree.

Or connected, rather.

Kyra is that one degree, at least for me.

Walking down the street, the rate at which she greets friends and acquaintances increases with each step. I marvel at how beloved this girl is.

If you never knew her, you can see it in her photography: in her life she sought to surround herself with the beautiful and the authentic. You can see it particularly in her piece about abandoned homes of Appalachia, a project that bore witness to the aesthetic beauty of the textures of decay and the stillness of once-loved objects.

Beauty and authenticity were inseparable in her eyes, and even though she never explicitly told me, I think she would confirm that the following qualify for instances of authentic beauty:

Disheveled hair, tangles, holes in tights, unlaced shoes, front yards overtaken with invasive species, rust and lime decay, hiccups, voice-cracks, nervous laughter, the leftovers from breakfast and discarded onion peels (if arranged the right way, as per usual for a food photographer)

Some call it finding beauty in unexpected places, but Kyra expected to find beauty wherever she was. 

You can see it in her captures. She put herself in positions to experience the off-beat tenderness of reality. Her reality.  She wasn’t just active in her pursuits. She was tireless. And resourceful. Always on her feet, moving forward with a life-force that couldn’t be contained in the quickness of her step, or the ruddiness of her cheeks, or the freshness of her smile.