Model Life

When Lara Magzan arrived at Brenau as a teenager with more world experience than most people have in a lifetime, she felt nothing like the Greek goddess of courage.

As a college student, Lara Magzan, WC ’95, modeled for Brenau University faculty member Jean Westmacott as the sculptor prepared to create the Athena statue as a piece of public art for the city of Athens, Georgia, in preparation for the 1996 Olympic games. Blonde, tall and statuesque, Magzan originated from Croatia, which is just across the Adriatic Sea from the mythical Athena’s homeland, Greece. Magzan, Westmacott explained, had the look.

Now a professional photographer living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with her husband and 8-year-old twins, this personification of the Greek goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, strategic warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts and skill for a moment last fall became the goddess of gullible. On that day, she perched on a stone wall at the corner East 82nd Street across 5th Avenue from the front entrance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, waiting for a meeting with a person she did not know. He, however, possessed the advantage of having seen numerous photos of her and recognized her from far enough away to hatch a prank.

Model Life“Excuse me,” he said almost demandingly as he approached, “but would you mind taking my picture?”

“Not at all,” she said, bobbing up from her seat quickly to reach for a camera that did not exist.

The ruse was a good one, Magzan later explained. Strangers routinely stop her and ask for help with photos – especially is she’s carrying her cameras. If she happens to be packing pixels, they not only request pictures, but also give her instructions on where to send them.

Enduring that sort of presumption, however, is part of dues you pay to live in New York. As a young woman who apparently not only is comfortable in her own skin but also in the skein of her surroundings in the bustling – often daunting – city, those dues she happily pays because New York has been her destination since at least her teenage years.

Born in Croatia, Magzan grew up in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya and attended a private secondary boarding school in Malta.

“When it was time for me to go to college, I wanted to go to New York then,” she said. “My mom says, ‘It ain’t happening.’ My advisor in high school in Malta had received a brochure from this nice little college in Georgia in the United States, and when my mom saw that it was women’s college, the decision was made.”

The college, of course, was Brenau, “And that,” she added with a wry smile, “is where my adventure began.”

Teaching With Art

Magzan chose the specific street corner for the meeting because it is near her in-town residence and near the public school her children attend ­where she participated in a PTA committee meeting earlier that morning to plan a spring fundraiser. It is also across the street from one of her favorite haunts, and the Met had opened a rooftop exhibition of a specially constructed pavilion of steel and two-way mirrors by the American conceptualist Dan Graham and Swiss landscape architect Günther Vogt. She thought the tiny café by the exhibit would be a nice place for a chat.

It is easy to understand why she would be comfortable there. Earlier in the week, Manhattan had been at its worst, virtually paralyzed by extra traffic from a meeting at the United Nations that had generated street demonstrations and other events. It was much quieter and more navigable that Wednesday – the eve the two-day Jewish holidays when schools closed and many made early escapes for a four-day weekend, like Magzan and her family would do that afternoon to their home in East Quogue, the southern-most village in the Hamptons region of Long Island. The rooftop café provided this warm, clear day a grand vista of the Manhattan skyline – reflections from which were part of the palette of the Graham-Vogt exhibit – and an overlook into Central Park.

A photograph from Magzan's series 'Adventures in Mommyhood.'
A photograph from Magzan’s series ‘Adventures in Mommyhood.’

“Central Park is my backyard,” said Magzan. Whenever the family goes to the Hamptons for the weekend, “we have to be back on Sunday morning because my son plays baseball there.”

The Met is but one of the museums in Magzan’s city neighborhood, and she knows them all by nook and cranny. When her twins, Mateo and Stela, were preschoolers, Magzan taught them the alphabet using the museums and many other art-related locales in the neighborhood. She would pick them up at the school with their colored pencils and sketchbooks and set out on the Sesame Street-like letter-sponsored adventure of the day. E is for the Egyptian Room at the Met. G is for Guggenheim. P is for the Picasso exhibit, and so on. Each of the kids quickly adopted a favorite: O is for Georgia O’Keefe, Stela’s art hero. Mateo fancies W for Andy Warhol, and not only has continued the learning and appreciation, but now “teaches,” too, apparently. Every time he walks through a a certain part of the neighborhood, he points out to his buddies a converted firehouse where the great Warhol once had a studio.

‘Athena? She was something from the last century, wasn’t she? I tell you, having twins erases all memories of being a model.’

Magzan still takes the twins to museums about twice a month. In the summers, she plans some sort of interesting trip, like the recent 10-citytour in Italy and two other countries.

“Being around art in Europe is part of daily life,” she said. “It is part of your upbringing.” She is making it part of her family’s daily life, too.

Did those five-year-olds’ sketchbooks betray budding O’Keefes or Warhols?

“My kids experience art, but I don’t know how talented they are,” she said a bit circumspectly, but added a laugh. “I can say there is interest, so there is hope.”

The Scary Part

Magzan’s husband, Igor Krnajski, senior vice president for construction and design at Denihan, a New York development and management company for luxury hotels in major U.S. cities, also has Croatian roots and an global upbringing – Croatian mother and Serbian father; born in Zambia and raised in Singapore. However, they did not meet until after Magzan made her way to New York.

Magzan left Croatia when she was about 2 years old. Her mother, Adrianna, divorced, was a nurse. Her native land was about to go through two decades of upheaval and violence as the former communist Yugoslavia split into separate countries of Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia- Herzegovina, Macedonia and Slovenia.

“It was not a good place to live at that time,” Magzan said. Her mother decamped with her toddler daughter for some economic opportunities across the Mediterranean in North Africa where Libya, with its own struggles, imported skilled labor, like engineers and health care professionals. Adrianna got a job as a Red Cross nurse in a hospital in Tripoli.

A self portrait of Magzan.
A self portrait of Magzan.

“All you hear is bad things about different places,” Magzan said, “but I really had a wonderful childhood in Libya. I had to respect the culture of Libya, but I did not have to walk around covered. I just could not wear anything very revealing. We lived in a beautiful bungalow in a gated community with the beach. All my friends when I was growing up were from different parts of the world.” She learned of the necessity to communicate in multiple languages, and today she speaks Croatian, English, Italian, Spanish and some Arabic. Perhaps ironically, the scariest thing she encountered in her teen years was coming to Brenau.

She had no friends or family in the United States, no social network, no transportation and, having travelled light from a boarding school that provided everything, no sheets for her bed in Yonah Hall.

“The campus was home to me because I had nowhere else to go,” she said.

Even the calm, quiet community unsettled the freshman.

“We would have a fire drill late at night and my roommates would nonchalantly walk out and take their time. When I heard the alarm, I would quickly pack up everything I could and get out caring everything I could carry. I made sure I had my passport. I was usually the last one out. We didn’t have fire drills in Croatia or Libya. If you heard an alarm, it was the real thing.”

By all accounts of faculty and staff who encountered her, Magzan was an eager, engaging, industrious, opportunistic student. “Everybody loved Lara,” said Beth Nott, the French professor who also grants administrator in the Office of External Relations. “She was always around the campus and just a delightful person.” Magzan worked in the cafeteria every morning, served as a resident assistant and, on weekends, worked in the gallery where one of her jobs was to help oversee the university’s Wages Collection of historic clothing.

Although Magzan says she always had an interest in art, she did not pursue it at Brenau. Her major was mass communications.

‘The human resources person at CNN asked me, “Are you looking for something to get your feet wet?” And I told her, “No! No! I’m ready to swim!” It got a laugh, and it got me a job.’

She credits her breakthrough to a bit of neighborly eavesdropping. Two fellow students in a marketing class talked about an essay contest sponsored by the Atlanta chapter of the Association for Women in Communications. She investigated, followed up and won.

The actor Jane Fonda, who had married media mogul Ted Turner, presented the award at a ceremony at the Omni Hotel in Atlanta. Georgia native Tom Johnson, then president of CNN who confessed in a recent conversation that he had “always been a big fan of Brenau women,” was one of the first to congratulate Magzan. His “if you ever want a job, call me” comment may have been a throwaway part of a routine congratulation, but Johnson got the call from Magzan the following business morning.

“I did not have contacts like other students with their families and friends,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. So, when I had an opportunity like that to make a contact, I followed up on it.”

She landed a job at the CNN Media library, cataloging and editing video among other things. After three years, she moved into CNN’s New York-based interactive online operation. She ultimately rose to video editor and producer for financial news, where she worked until she had her twins in 2006.

Business Opportunity

After friends and neighbors began hearing about Magzan’s teaching excursions with her kids in New York museums, she began receiving requests from other moms who wanted her to do the same thing with their kids – and they offered to pay! Although, given her contacts and her location in two of New York’s most desirable addresses, there is little doubt that could have become a successful venture, it was something she wanted to keep private and special for her children. However, some of those same friends and neighbors saw the pictures she was taking with her art appreciating, video editing and storytelling eye, and they wanted the same kinds of pictures of their kids.

Portrait of child by Lara Magzan.
Portrait of child by Lara Magzan.

Magzan had taken a photography class at Brenau, but she learned mostly through her career and self-education. It was a natural pursuit for a television news producer to collect and archive images of people and events in their lives. Some of her work is more art oriented developed from her own ideas, but others are commissions of family and individual portraits and the like – “very high-end stuff,” she says. You do not just hire her to take a snapshot of your toddler; you get a mood-evoking portrait of a child at a high-rise window seemingly hovering over the Manhattan skyline. Some of her work focused on a new puppy, Happy, a rescue. She has done reflections, self-portraits. Recently she initiated an ongoing series, referenced on her website, laramagzan.com, entitled The Adventures in Mommyhood, which focuses on the stay-at-home moms in her circle who are enduring what she calls “a happy madness” of mastering domesticity while preserving their individual identities.

“It is a business,” she said unequivocally. “When I quit CNN, I realized I could not just stay home with the kids. I definitely saw myself going to work full-time in a creative field. Also, I don’t like to be financially dependent on my husband – or anyone else for that matter. After a few years with the kids, I realized that there was no Lara anymore. Now, I am going to concentrate on getting back to Lara. I started a business doing photography. I wanted flexible hours so I could be with the kids and so I could do something I enjoy, that I am passionate about and that I happened to be pretty good at. So why not?”

Part of her back-to-Lara quest involves pushing herself physically. She recently participated in a multiple sclerosis fund-raising race up Rockefeller Center stairwells, making the 66 flights in 15 minutes – not in the top 10 for time but something she was proud of enough to encourage her to train for a April 2015 half marathon at Big Sur in California.

“The physical stuff is more of an obsession then a hobby,” Magzan says. “But for me an obsession is good. I don’t make big plans, but I have to have goals.”

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