St. Francis High, Sacramento arts communities mourn loss of artist, teacher Kathy Carlisle

By Susan Laird

Kathy Carlisle art photo Original art courtesy, Ara Brancamp // Photo courtesy St. Francis High School, Johnathan V. Comer

Kathy Carlisle art photo Original art courtesy, Ara Brancamp // Photo courtesy St. Francis High School, Johnathan V. Comer

With 2,000 handmade origami cranes, tributes of art and testimony and the powerful sounds of Taiko drums, hundreds of mourners from the St. Francis High School and Sacramento arts communities celebrated the life of the late Kathryn M. Carlisle on Saturday, Dec. 15. A memorial service for students and faculty was also held on Monday, Dec. 10.

Known to her friends as Kathy, she was a much-beloved teacher at St. Francis. She died while taking photographs for a school project on the railroad tracks across the street from the high school on Dec. 8. Carlisle was taking images of an oncoming train, when she was struck from behind by a second train. She was 52.

It is possible Carlisle was taking the photos for an upcoming project on the Holocaust. She was in discussions just days before with Holocaust survivors about the trains that took Jews and other “undesirables” to the death camps. Carlisle was passionate about using art to promote issues of social justice.

At the Celebration of Life Ceremony, Liz Irga, Central Valley Holocaust Education Network, said the last time she spoke with Carlisle, they talked about the trains. “The trains that took people to the (death) camps. And we spoke about the people who ran those trains. I will always wonder if it was that conversation that led to her being there on those tracks,” Irga said.

Kathy Carlisle taught visual arts and digital photography at St. Francis High School. She was struck and killed by a train on Dec. 8.

Kathy Carlisle taught visual arts and digital photography at St. Francis High School. She was struck and killed by a train on Dec. 8.

Every year since her arrival at St. Francis in 2008, she taught a unit on the Shoah — the Holocaust. She was deeply committed to the Central Valley Holocaust Education Network. Her students interviewed survivors of that horror, then created works that embodied the lives of those people in a contemporary way, speaking to today’s generations.

The exhibits won many awards, including a scholarship for Carlisle to study the Holocaust at the 2012 Memorial Library Summer Seminar on Holocaust Education.

Carlisle grew up in Detroit during the 1960s. As a young girl, she saw tanks going down the streets of her city. As an adult, she dedicated her life – and her gifts in the arts and in teaching – to shining light on the darkest things in life. She wanted to use her artistic gifts, especially, to bring issues of justice to the forefront.

As a teenager, she would spend afternoons at the Detroit Institute of Art, studying artists. At age 16, she was accepted into a summer art program at the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York City. She was educated at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before earning a B.A. in Arts Education and later an M.A. in Drawing and Ceramic Sculpture from CSUS.

Carlisle began teaching at Sacramento High School as an artist in residence, where she developed a cross-cultural art curriculum. Through a grant from the Neighborhood Arts Program of SMAC, she also worked with pediatric oncology patients from the UC Davis Medical Center.

Carlisle also had a great love of Japanese drumming and culture, and was an original member of the Sacramento Taiko Dan. Founding members of Taiko Dan re-assembled to perform at her Celebration of Life service.

Carlisle was known for her huge heart, eclectic style, and sharp sense of humor. She was passionate about gatherings with family and friends, and empowering students to learn through art.

This passion for life was shared and returned by her many friends and family – and especially by the students, staff and faculty at St. Francis High School. In the wake of her passing, the school did something remarkable: all final exams for the semester were cancelled. Instead, the school community members gathered to console one another. Students created works of art in Carlisle’s memory, using her favorite colors: pink and orange.

At the Celebration of Life, Kendall Spector, a junior at St. Francis and teacher’s assistant to Carlisle relayed a message from her to family and friends: “Mrs. Carlisle always told us, ‘I can hardly wait for each of you girls to graduate, so I can see the amazing things you will do in the world. Each of you is full of color, and the world needs you. Because the world is gray, it needs the color you will bring to it.’”

Margo Reid Brown, president, St. Francis High School, said Carlisle was a “unique, colorful and passionate part” of each of their lives.

“Forever, we will be grateful for her presence in our lives. As a community of faith, we know Kathy was our gift…We trust in the Lord to lift our sister Kathy to everlasting life with Him,” Reid Brown said.

Carlisle is survived by her husband Steven Jarvis, her children Will, Bianca, and Violet, who is a freshman at St. Francis; and her mother, Sandy Carlisle of Brighton, Michigan.
A scholarship fund has been established. The Kathy Carlisle Scholarship will be awarded annually to a current student at St. Francis High School who demonstrates a passion and commitment to the arts that were so much a part of Carlisle’s life. Donations can be made via the St. Francis High School website at

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One comment

  1. A Friend

    Earlier today I came across an article, “Ten Things Happy People Do Differently” and was immediately reminded of Kathy Carlisle. Which led me to google her name; which in turn led me to this article.

    I went to Kathy’s service. It was beautiful, very emotional, and incredibly sad. But at the very end, the drum performance by Kathy’s old friends was just so perfect – energetic, spontaneous, and happy – that the entire service stood in ovation with tears flowing, but giant smiles as well.

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