14 October 2020

Meet Dr. Katherine Wildman

She’s a researcher, triathlete, writer, volleyball player, artist, traveler, teacher, master quilter, mother – and VCUarts Qatar’s new Assistant Dean for Student Affairs

Across a career spanning two decades, you’ve kept coming back to Qatar. What does this country mean to you?
Coming back to Qatar is like returning home – I feel I never quite left the country! I spent several years working at Qatar Foundation overseeing numerous key transitional phases of QF’s student housing complexes. During those years, I was drawn to the country’s art and design landscape which was beginning to bloom.  I watched Damien Hirst’s sculptures being trucked down Al Luqta street and positioned outside Sidra Medicine; I saw souq’s being developed as hubs of traditional arts and crafts; I visited the Museum of Islamic Art to learn more about Islam and the Arab culture. And the café at MIA became one of my favorite spots for tea and catching up on work!

Qatar is an incubator of art in the region. The country caught on to the simple fact that art and design is a universal medium of communication. And it’s capitalized on that understanding. I hardly know of any country – and I’ve visited at least more than 100 – that has used innovation in art and design, across the board, to communicate to its residents and the outside world, the way this country has. And I’m excited to see the changes that have taken place in the interim that I was away.

Your career has taken you to The University of Iowa, Black Hills State University, Beloit College, Appalachian State University, University of Alaska-Anchorage, The Global Education Firm, and several times around the world with the Institute for Shipboard Education/Semester at Sea. What aspect of being an art and design university attracted you to VCUarts Qatar?
In addition to a post graduate qualification in counseling and a Ph.D in Educational Policy and Leadership Studies, I have a minor in Art History, which I thoroughly enjoyed studying. I’m quite looking forward to joining a school that understands the creative process in thought and mind.

Art and design have a way of prompting conversations and insights. Once, I dug a painting out of a trash can behind an art school, and hung it on my kitchen wall. Whenever anyone came over it inevitably became a topic of conversation. To this day, I don’t know what the author intended it to be (if anything) but the amount of critical conversations and dialogues sparked by that one painting, was endless. Art keeps us thinking and communicating and I think these are important to move our world forward.

It can also be a way of therapy and healing, as I demonstrated in Denmark during a research project on the art of children in concentration camps; the gut-wrenching pictures that I’d referenced in the thesis told a story that those children couldn’t seem to muster in words. From that perspective, art has a way of showing us humanity. Of teaching us. Of telling us. Of prompting us.

These are the sort of conversations that are going on within art and design universities such as VCUarts Qatar and I’m looking forward to becoming an active part of them.

And of course, the fact that the university is in Qatar is yet another factor! I am thrilled to be able to visit some of my dearest friends who I now call family – and Thai Snack, my favorite nosh spot in Doha.

On the topic of art and design, do you have any creative pursuits that you’re passionate about?
Indeed, I do! I’d say I’m the third in line of a creative lineage. Both my mother and grandmother excelled at quilting; my mother is a published needle and bead artist, and her work has been featured widely. I’m proud to say that I took up quilting as a legacy from them; it’s something that I enjoy. I’ve created quite a few quilts and keepsakes, and I’m serious enough about it to have actually put off completing projects until I discovered the perfect fabric or idea. Any artist knows this could take years!

During my last sojourn here, I was a member of the quilting guild in Qatar. Now I’m eagerly looking forward to yet another opportunity to use the beautiful cotton fabrics and brilliant embroidery threads from the souqs, once more. And even if it weighs a bit, I’m bringing my trusted Bernina sewing machine with me!

If you had to choose one thing from both the natural and man-made world (which you admire for its beauty, simplicity and design) what would it be?
I am drawn to water and the way it soothes and calms. When I lived in Doha I loved to drive to the deserted beach to drink my coffee in the morning. The ocean is truly vast and a wonder of unexplored adventure. And, being medium of transport, it supports the traffic of ships and boats moving around the world. It transports people and their ideas around the world too. We need it to survive. It recycles itself. It cleans us. It calms us. I’m so excited to be next to the water again!

I also have a pair of really sharp and pointed (like pierce-your-skin-pointed) scissors that I use for quilting projects, that I love. I have to keep them hidden so no one uses them for other projects (people who sew know what I mean!).

Do you have any favorite artists or designers? Would you like to share what draws you to them? To their artwork?
I love Bjorn Wiinblad, a Danish artist who I learned about when I studied in Denmark. His work is youthful and whimsical, full of color and life. I have one his artwork’s in my home. This particular piece echoes what I see as the artistic process. The title, ’Play yourself’, indicates that we can create much by using our mind; we can be inspired by those things around us which help us create, and which in turn, inspires us more. I love the idea of endless cycle of inspiration that this painting evokes.

Such concepts are even more important when we look at the beginning of a new academic year, with this pandemic. We must be inspired by that which we can find around us. In a way, it identifies with my outlook towards life – an insatiable curiosity to know more about the world.

It’s an outlook that has quite literally taken you places. Aside from your extensive experience in the academic and consultancy side of higher education, you’ve also taken part in numerous Semester at Sea voyages as Dean and Assistant of Students with the Institute for Shipboard Education. How did that come about?
As a college student, I once tried to study abroad with the Semester at Sea program but it wasn’t possible to do so at that point in life. So, instead of traveling as a student, I decided to look for a role as a faculty on the ship.

It took over five years to acquire the degrees, certifications, and experiences to qualify me for the role, but I did it, and when I eventually sailed, it transformed me. Now I’ve sailed around the world three times, taught classes, led programs and in total, spent more than a year at sea. I find such experiences spur both personal and professional growth.

Having visited almost every continent, how have your travels molded your outlook? What one universal trait have you observed in people, as being valuable – and indispensable – in forming and maintaining relationships?
Curiosity triggers wondering and wandering. And it led me – a kid who grew up on a farm in rural Indiana – to travel the world; to see; to understand; to grow. The more I traveled the more I realized that we are all a part of a humanity which feels; each one of us is a strand that makes up the thread of that humanity. And the more I worked to understand others, the more I discovered the commonalities and differences. That was a revelation – when we focus on what we have in common, our differences aren’t threatening anymore; rather, they turn into opportunities to learn and grow.

Through all these journeys – both physical and emotional – I realized that kindness is indispensable in our daily lives; kindness towards oneself, and kindness towards each other. It’s a standard I live by, and it’s something that I strive to incorporate into my interactions with people who cross my path.

You said you believe in finding a balance between personal and professional fulfillment. How important is it for students to realize that taking time out for personal fulfillment is just as important as focusing on career growth - and that learning to balance such priorities are part of education? Do you have any personal examples you’d like to share with us?
I really enjoy helping students to solidify what they want to do with their lives. They need to know that every experience counts, and we have to be patient and wait for those experiences and lessons to find places in our lives. Also, it is just as important for students to learn how to communicate and work in groups; to be able to engage with someone different than yourself, is to succeed in class.

Finding time for opportunities of leadership and engagement is important in making you a truly educated person. Life may not turn out exactly as you planned; yet it’s the detours and delays that help define your resilience.  Some of the toughest incidents in my life have readied me to help others face similar experiences.

Experience has taught me that finding a balance in your life is important. If you really want something, you have to take a leap of faith to chase it. I once visited an orphanage in Vietnam and I was transformed forever. I knew at that moment, that adoption was my preferred way to build a family. It wasn’t until 15 years later that it happened. Right now, I’m enjoying a season of motherhood with my little one; the way she sees the world and explores it, is a beautiful sight to behold. I am very thankful life provided a chance for us to become a family, and continue our adventures of traveling the world, together.

Additionally, I’ve always found time for sport. I love to play volleyball; I’ve played in the QF league and in other matches in Doha. Back in the day, I also competed in triathlons as well. I’m hopeful to get back to both when life slows down a bit!

The ongoing pandemic has forced VCUarts Qatar to rethink the manner in which it delivers a highly tactile and multisensory curriculum. What are your thoughts on that?
I am thrilled to watch and learn alongside students as we navigate this new experience together. This phase could either be our only virtual semester in our lifetime, or the start of something that may well become routine. Either way, it offers us a chance to engage in ways we haven’t done before. And like with anything new, it takes an open mind and willing heart.

As artists and creative thinkers, I’m excited to see how VCUarts Qatar faculty and staff are working hard to craft unique and engaging experiences. But it is the students themselves who often push the boundaries; they find ways to explore within those frameworks.

For the last 20 years I’ve been asking fellow staff members and professionals ‘How can we meet students where they are?’, ‘What can we do to innovate our learning and experiences?’. I feel my work is about eliminating barriers to learning and providing new and exciting opportunities for students to develop their learning and understanding outside of the traditional classroom.

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Dr. Wildman on Qatar National Day 2012.

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Dr. Wildman and her daughter.

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Dr. Wildman was also a hydroplane circuit cultural ambassador in Doha copy

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At Mathaf, Arab Museum of Modern Art in 2013

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8. 'Play Yourself', an artwork by Bjorn Wiinblad, hangs in Drc. Wildman's home.

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Dr. Wildman and her daughter. Photograph courtesy of Kendrah Burns.

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