If you ever feel like giving up, this story is for you.
It’s about a woman named Kira Pandukht. The Modjeska Canyon-based daughter of Armenian immigrants, Kira got a scholarship to UC Irvine in 1989 to study literature.
But in her sophomore year, an attack left her with a shattered jaw and a brain injury that stole her peripheral vision.
She returned to classes, but with the new belief that her life should be dedicated to victims of violent crime. Kira went on to earn a master’s in social work and take a county job working with children.
But at the age of 30, a drunk driver hit the car she was a passenger in, smashing her head into the windshield and nearly killing her.
Again, there were shattered bones, and this time, a shattered spirit. While recovering, she contracted chicken pox, and then pneumonia. Not able to keep food down, she dropped to 80 pounds.
“I was ready to give up,” she says.
She counted her medications. There were 21. And she threw them in the trash. Then she drove to the Laguna College of Art and Design, bought a 5-pound pug of clay and drove it back to her home in Laguna Canyon.
With a blanket around her shoulders, she sat on the living room floor and sculpted all night in the dark. She couldn’t see well anyway even if the lights were on. The car crash had exacerbated her vision problems and now it was like she was looking through a foggy pin hole.
“I just tried to see with my hands,” she says.
What emerged by morning was an angel falling to her knees, a woman wrapped in a blanket and another woman curled up in a fetal position.
Kira had no background in art.
“No one even wants to pick me in Pictionary,” she says, laughing.
But friends who came to visit saw these creations and asked if she might make them one. And, yes, of course she would!
“It was so healing to me that I couldn’t stop,” she says.
As her sculptures got better, she began taking them to a foundry to cast them in bronze; a dangerous pursuit that involves 2,100-degree liquid metal and torches to give her creations patinas. (She is known for making them look like marble.)
“I think on some level I was so tender and felt so exposed in my life that the metal symbolized protection and armor,” she says.
Thirteen years ago, at the age of 37, she became good enough to quit her job.
Like the pop star Madonna, she dropped her last name and became just Kira. She placed an ad in ARTnews Magazine for two of her bronze pieces: “Marcus,” a male bust and “Touch,” a figurative nude.
Her first patron: Hair color pioneer Leland Hirsch, who is known for his art collection, which includes Picassos and Warhols.
Emboldened, Kira flew to Las Vegas, said a prayer and then walked into Galleria di Sorento at Caesars Palace with a bouquet of yellow orchids and her portfolio wrapped in yellow ribbons.
Director Nicola Olivarez remembers it well.
“We were one of largest fine art galleries in the nation,” she says. “Needless to say, no one walked in the front door carrying a portfolio. So I’m dressed in black, head to toe, sitting at my desk, looking at her almost disapprovingly. I’m not a woman to be fussed with. My time is expensive. But she was so happy and bubbly and effervescent.’”
Olivarez opened Kira’s portfolio — and a pile of glitter showered onto her lap.
“I’m not a glitter girl,” says Olivarez, who laughs now at the recollection, but was not laughing at the time.
But then she looked at Kira’s work, and she felt the emotion.
“If you can pull emotion out of bronze, you have mastered the art form,” Olivarez says.
She gave Kira a spot in the gallery for her collection: one of only 50 spots for the hundreds of artists who petitioned her each year. The gallery was a global destination for famous collectors, from high-flying financiers to celebrities like Michael Jackson.
Kira would stand out in front, all 5 feet of her, sculpting wildly, drawing huge crowds.
“She’s a little flower child,” says Olivarez, who now works for Richard MacDonald, considered by many the top contemporary figurative sculptor of our time (he invokes Kira in one of his videos). “Kira sculpts with her heart, not her eyes.”
Later that same year, Kira was honored as emerging artist at the International Contemporary Art Exhibit at the Vittoriano in Rome where she got her most coveted comment.
“Kira reminds me of old Michelangelo, who was looking for pure emotion,” said critic and exhibit curator Giancarlo Alu. “Not out of marble or bronze, but out of dreams, clouds, breeze.”
Another highlight happened two years ago when five of her pieces were selected for an emerging artist show at the Louvre in Paris (merci beaucoup).
Today her sculptures are at Signature Galleries at the Venetian in Las Vegas and DeRubeis fine art galleries in Maui and Key West.
And on Sept. 22, she will be one of 25 artists at the eighth annual Art and Wine Fundraiser in Modjeska Canyon where she now lives in an enchanting hideaway.
Neighbors call her Snow White for the hummingbirds who fly around her, sometimes landing in her auburn hair, when she sings them Disney songs on her deck in the evenings.
Hummingbirds figure into the nude she will be sculpting during the event so guests can watch her create. Most of her sculptures are nudes, but with an otherworldly twist.
“Brave Faith,” a contemporary figurative female nude with a spine of antlers, is autobiographical.
“Many times in my life, people have said ‘You’re too nice,’ and ‘You have no backbone.’ But we’re all born with what we need to protect ourselves.”
A piece she calls “Sea Dancer,” which now lives on a collector’s property on the shore of Torch Lake in Michigan, symbolizes her bouts with pneumonia.
“I wanted to be a mermaid,” she says. “I just wanted to breathe.”
Still a literature major at heart, Kira writes as she works, so that all of her pieces come with their own poem, a lyrical road map to how they came to be.
“I’ve used every single thing that’s happened to me,” she says. “People don’t just want the work, they want the energy behind the work. They want the faith.”
IF YOU GO
What: Eighth annual Art and Wine Fundraiser benefiting Silverado Children’s Center, Vera’s Sanctuary and Modjeska Ranch Animal Rescue.
When: 1 to 5 p.m. Sept. 22
Where: 29022 Kommers Lane, Silverado
Tickets: $25 (includes wine tasting, hors d’oeuvres and entertainment by The Wave jazz artist Joe Baldino). Kids are free.
Parking: At the intersection of Santiago Canyon and Modjeska Canyon roads. Shuttles will take guests to the party.
Information: 310-995-0976; modjeskaartandwine.com