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A diamond in the desert
by MICHAEL DASHIELL
Sometimes catching up with an old friend takes a little longer than a quick chat.
Sometimes you just need to read the book.
The last time I shared a cup of coffee — that afternoon years ago, my drink was water, actually, as we chatted inside her home studio in Port Townsend — Yvonne Pepin-Wakefield was about to embark on a journey that would take her physically and culturally half a world away.
After teaching art to elementary school students in Sequim for eight years (first as an AmeriCorps worker, then as a visual arts specialist), Pepin-Wakefield jumped at the chance to work as an art professor at a newly opened women’s college in Kuwait.
“This might be an exciting time,” she said then, adding, “It’s a scary decision. I expect this will make me realize the freedoms I take for granted over here.”
That was July 2004. I remember speculating that she didn’t seem to have a firm grip on exactly what she was getting into.
After reading the first few chapters of her new book, “Suitcase Filled with Nails: Lessons Learned from Teaching Art in Kuwait” (Authorcloud Publishers), it seems I was right. Pepin-Wakefield takes little time in candidly revealing an intense vulnerability as she tries to find her way in a Middle Eastern country that she deems less culturally liberal than its neighbors. Kuwait, her new home, seems to accept some Western values, but Pepin-Wakefield must battle power-hungry and misogynistic colleagues threatened by an admittedly “spirited” American woman.
Gratifyingly, the book also reveals the art teacher I had come to know over the years before she left for Kuwait. Pepin-Wakefield overcame what she dubs academic “land mines” set in particular by a pair of co-workers and wound up helping university-aged Kuwaiti women see for the first time what the world calls fine art.
“I didn’t have any agenda. I didn’t go over there to liberate anyone,” she tells me over a cup of coffee.
“In the process of my teaching, personal liberation was up to them. What I did was give them permission to work freely … in a nonjudgmental way. For some of them, it was the first opportunity to do that.”
She will be signing “Suitcase Filled with Nails” at Pacific Mist Books on Friday, Dec. 9. She’ll also be featured at the Chimacum crafts fair Dec. 10-11.
Challenges at every turn
In her bio, I find Pepin-Wakefield holds a doctorate in human organizational systems from Fielding Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif. It goes on to indicate she has taught art on three continents to every age and ability and that she has received international and national awards for her art education methodology.
She also is a Fulbright Memorial scholar and recipient of a Robert Rauschenberg award for her work with disabled youth.
All of this is news to me, but not really a surprise. What I remember about interacting with Pepin-Wakefield when she worked at both Helen Haller and Greywolf schools is this: sheer courage. First, for being around throngs of elementary-aged children for any amount of time. Second, for being able to draw, paint, sketch, etc. She’s able in almost any way to take what she sees in her mind and put it on a canvas, something I never have been able to do.
Turns out she can write, too.
In “Suitcase …” Pepin-Wakefield takes readers on a journey through a Kuwait we never got to know. Her initial view of the country was what I imagine many of us had as we followed the television and newspaper reports in the early 1990s during the first Gulf War. Pointedly, an early scene in the book has her and a friend, both “lapsed” Catholics, praying before a statue of a Virgin Mary outside a church on a cold, Olympic Peninsula winter evening in 1991.
With wit and wisdom, Pepin-Wakefield gregariously takes us along for the ride, as early on she stumbles from one invisible cultural pitfall to another as in a game of ethnic bumper cars.
In one archetypal scenario, Pepin-Wakefield is brought to a university to teach art history and then finds the school library features just six books. Every piece of art within the books that has any nudity or even a hint has stickers atop the “distasteful” material. If the university didn’t put stickers on the “offending” images, she says, students were expected to put stickers on them.
The irony, she notes in the book, is that nudity, both artful and the pornographic, is available in Kuwaiti society at many turns, yet in art — where the nude is revered — it is disdained.
Further constraining her ability to teach the full scope of art history was how some of her students interpret the Islamic standards. Some believers do not advocate creating images of the human form or of anything living, feeling that it amounts to sacrilege.
“I had some (students) who only wanted to paint the face,” Pepin-Wakefield recalls. “I have some students who would not draw.”
The American wound up teaching art appreciation, photography and art survey (appreciation, mostly Western art) classes during her six-year stay.
The battles within, without
Right from the get-go, Pepin-Wakefield reveals she had battles on many fronts — living, getting around, travel, being away from her husband, illnesses — and, most egregiously, with a pair of university educators, from whose enmity the book gets its name.
When we meet up again recently, Pepin-Wakefield won’t give me much more than a hint about the origins of the title, and so I won’t reveal that either. You’ll just have to read the book.
But she does reveal that a certain antagonist eventually caused her to return to the U.S.
“I had tons of notes and articles; I needed to process what I went through,” she says.
The tension in “Suitcase” comes not only from Pepin-Wakefield’s confrontations with her aforementioned foils, but also from simply understanding how to interact with her new Kuwaiti neighbors.
“It was walking a tightrope,” she says now. “I kept trying to find a language to convey what I wanted to convey without offending anybody.”
The good news? Plenty of happy endings. Pepin-Wakefield notes that several of her students have gone on to get jobs as art teachers.
“They turn into these radiant young women,” she says. “I would love to go back. It (Kuwait) is a diamond in the rough.”
She notes in her book’s introduction: “The adventuresome would do well to well to visit there at least once. Just avoid the guys who play with metaphorical knives — if that is possible.”
Reach Michael Dashiell at email@example.com.