Recently we caught up with Yvonne Wakefield, an alum of Antioch West, the since-closed campus in San Francisco. Since graduating with a BA in Fine Arts/ Arts Administration, Wakefield has pursued a career in the arts and education, which has taken her around the world and eventually to The Dalles, Oregon where she runs a painting studio and gallery. We wanted to ask her about her experiences as an Antioch student, as an art teacher in Kuwait, as a painter of pomegranates, and as a memoirist.
Yvonne, can you share any memorable stories about your time at Antioch?
At that time, in the 1980s, I was living in Mendocino, California and would frequently drive to the Antioch West campus in San Francisco, over 150 winding miles away. Usually, after meeting my advisor, I drove back the same day.
This was also before the internet and computers. All my evaluations and course work were typed on a manual typewriter and either mailed in or handed over. The art work I did in relation to an area of evaluation was either presented physically during a meeting on campus or shown in a 35mm slide.
What brought you to study fine arts and arts administration at Antioch? And how have your studies impacted the rest of your life?
I have always been involved in the arts and had completed an associate’s degree in the arts at a community college. Then I was given a three-year scholarship to attend the Mendocino Art Center’s Fine Art Program. I lived in a studio apartment on that campus, so I had a first-hand view of administration and operations. After I graduated, I was hired to develop a curriculum, recruit instructors and develop promotional materials.
What was your experience of teaching art in Kuwait?
Well, I wrote a book about it, Suitcase Filled with Nails: Lessons Learned from Teaching Art in Kuwait.
When I was hired by Kuwait University as an assistant professor to teach at an all-women’s college, about the only knowledge I had of this country was through the media, either stereotypical or current events that involved bombs and beheadings.
When I first arrived, I was amazed by the heat, and the public and amplified call for prayer that sounded five times a day. As a kid I had gone to a Catholic school and when I first met my students it seemed like the roles were reversed—that nuns were sitting before me, as almost all of my students wore the traditional abaya and hijab, the flowing long gown and black veil. It didn’t take long for me to be able to recognize an individual under her covering as each student’s outerwear bore her own distinct tailoring.
Despite stereotypical ideas, most of my Kuwaiti women students enjoyed entitlements women are not allowed in more developed countries. And, like women worldwide, they are subject to religious, family and societal rules and prejudices.
Why did you stay so long? This is the question I get from readers of Suitcase Filled with Nails. It was because of my students. I watched them grow into themselves and as artists in the studio courses I taught. Arabic was their first language and English was the language of instruction, which meant I had to create ways to communicate theoretical and technical applications. My years teaching elementary and high school art had taught me how to adapt lessons to all skill levels and ages, so I applied this same reasoning to my Kuwaiti students.
People also ask me if I went to Kuwait to liberate women. No! I went to Kuwait to teach art the way I teach art, and some misogynistic faculty members were threatened by this. The more my students flourished, the more problems were made for me in hopes I would resign. I hung in there because of my students. I was also the first and only professor in my department to submit an academic portfolio for advancement to Associate Professor. After I submitted it, sections of my academic achievements had been removed. It became clear to me that a woman, especially a well-liked American woman professor, would never be promoted. That, and increased threatening behavior by colleagues, prompted my leaving Kuwait.
Please tell us a bit about the paintings you made while in Kuwait. What inspired you to focus on pomegranates specifically?
I am a visceral painter. If I don’t feel it, I don’t paint it. Nature inspires me, so I mainly paint landscapes. When I moved to Kuwait, the landscape didn’t inspire me, plus it was too hot and dangerous to work in the desert. I turned to pomegranates. As an art student in Mendocino, I spent one year painting them then stopped. In Kuwait, pomegranates are as common as apples in the grocery store. I would buy cases of them, tear them open and create compositions that I would paint. In this mythical fruit I found folds, faults, and plateaus that inspire my landscape paintings. During my six years in Kuwait, I had two major exhibitions of these paintings. Another series I did during this time, “Women in Abaya,” were never shown there for fear of misinterpretation. These can be seen on my website, yvonnepepinwakefield.com.
Where do you live now? Tell us more about your studio practice and your other current projects.
In 2013 I moved to The Dalles Oregon, to be closer to the log cabin that is central to my Babe in the Woods book series. The first book, Babe in the Woods: Building a Life One Log at a Time, is being made into a movie treatment. The second, Babe in the Woods: Self Portrait, was recently published and was awarded Best Memoir Series by Book Publicists of Southern California. I am finishing the third book in this series. I have just finished building a studio and gallery on the Columbia River.