Henri Doner-Hedrick admits she was a little apprehensive going into the situation.
It was a new job, half a world away, in a culture she’d never experienced.
Some of her concerns were proven true.
“I went over there with a lot of fear, not knowing anything about the culture,” she says.
The longtime Lawrence-area artist, a 56-year-old journeywoman lecturer at area universities, finally landed a full-time position — teaching at the New York Institute of Technology campus in Amman, Jordan. She started a year ago this week.
After a year of frustrations, triumphs and plenty of education — both students’ and her own — Doner-Hedrick is headed back to the Middle East this week with a renewed sense of purpose both as an educator and an artist.
“I really found my place in life,” she says.
Doner-Hedrick headed to Amman in September 2008. She received a Master of Fine Arts degree from Kansas State University in 1999 and has served as a graphic designer, medical illustrator and adjunct professor at such places as Washburn University, the Kansas City Art Institute and Johnson County Community College.
Her first semester teaching graphic design didn’t go well. She had to help kick eight students out of school.
“It was like a playground for the wealthy Arab kids,” she says.
Students talked nonstop during class. They showed up late. They left at random times for cigarette breaks. They didn’t complete assignments.
Over time, she had to lay down the law.
Now, she says, “They know who I am. In fact, they’re afraid of me.”
She says that with a smile. It’s a teacher-student thing.
Doner-Hedrick taught graphic design courses, a sculpture course and photography courses in the last year.
Her initial frustrations with acclimating to the culture are typical, says Robert Michael Smith, who oversees the Middle East programs of the New York Institute of Technology.
“She wasn’t pleased it was like pulling teeth to a certain degree,” Smith says. “This is an adjustment everybody has to deal with.”
But he says Doner-Hedrick has taken teaching criticism and incorporated it into her style.
“She is very serious about taking critical advice and integrating it into what she does,” Smith says.
Doner-Hedrick makes no apologies for expecting high standards from her students, many of whom will seek jobs outside of Jordan.
“We’re trying to make them into professionals,” she says. “We’re taking them from their cultures to American schools, American ways and American customs. That’s why they’re coming to the school.”
While she had progressed in her teaching, Doner-Hedrick is not satisfied with the progress she’s made in her own artwork.
She’s hoping to do more this upcoming school year, with her feet on the ground in her full-time job and a better understanding of the cultural limitations she faces as an artist who likes to push the limits.
In the states, her artwork often involved nude models, which are taboo in much of the Middle East. One series examined the way older Americans are treated and included a portrait of a nude elderly woman in the shower.
She hasn’t had much time to paint in Jordan. She completed one work on her own time, “Forgive Me Our Trespasses,” which melds Christian and Muslim religious images.
Another work was completed early in her tenure, during a symposium of artists expressing their views on the situation in the Gaza Strip. Doner-Hedrick painted a blindfolded Arab man with blood pouring out of his mouth. Protesters were outside the building as the artists worked.
“My work represents all Arab leaders in the surrounding countries putting a ‘blind eye’ to what was happening, while women, children and innocent people were being used as human shields and targets,” she says. “They were waiting for Obama to be elected in hopes that the Americans would do something.”
She says she was criticized by one of the TV reports that her image appeared to look like Muhammad.
“It scared me a little bit,” she admits.
But nothing came of the potential controversy. And Doner-Hedrick has plans to shake things up even more.
Doner-Hedrick, who is partially of Filipino heritage, has ideas for her artwork for the next year.
She’s intrigued about the number of Filipino maids who work for wealthy families in Amman. She says they have a reputation for having limited communication with others and limited rights in the homes they serve.
“I’m interested in the diaspora of the Filipino laborer,” she says. “To me, it could be criticizing the colonial culture. I want to do it in good taste. But I am an activist. My work is there to educate.”
She hopes her artwork eventually could lead to better working conditions for the Filipino laborers.
Smith, her boss, is encouraging her to produce more artwork.
“We’ve discussed that a lot,” he says. “I certainly have encouraged her to put more energy in that regard. It’s a good strategy to get past any frustrations.”
As far as the subject matter, he says: “I’m sure she has concerns if she’s making social and political statements with her work, that there might be some sort of blowback in the Middle East. Those are real possibilities. There are some taboos as far as what you do and what you don’t do over there. But the things she is working on would resonate quite well with what the people there do. These are themes I’ve seen from artists in the region.”
He expects Doner-Hedrick to be in pursuit of a major exhibition in Amman in the next year.
Doner-Hedrick, meanwhile, is entering the upcoming school year with a new sense of purpose. A photography class she taught early in the summer, before heading back to the United States in July, brought her newfound enthusiasm, with students successfully imitating the styles of renowned photojournalists from around the world.
“It’s getting these kids excited about what I do,” she says. “They’ve never done any of this stuff before. They’re hungry.”
And that, more than anything, makes her feel that Amman is becoming a second home.
“I think,” she says, “this is really meant to be right now.”