Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

In the Peace Corps, Inspired by Artistry

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

In the Peace Corps, Inspired by Artistry

Article excerpt

School was never easy for Jamie Kirkell. Sitting in his sixth- grade class, he tuned out the incomprehensible instruction and entertained himself by drawing designs on his pant leg.

Then junior high came along -- and with it, an awareness of the fairer sex. Kirkell decided his doodling had to stop and asked his mother to take him shopping. Somehow, he convinced her to buy him a very expensive shirt with an exotic design he fell in love with at an upscale shop near their home in Cleveland.

"It was the equivalent of a $90 shirt today. Would you buy that for a 12-year-old?" asks Kirkell, sipping a cup of tea in the Sarasota home that also serves as his studio. "I wore that thing until you couldn't get near it. I couldn't bear to throw it out."

After struggling to a degree at Ohio State University, Kirkell abandoned academia and joined the Peace Corps, stationed in the Philippines. He adapted to a "simpler life," where a shower was a tin can of cold water dumped by the cupful over your head and a special treat was a five-mile walk to the next barrio for a Pepsi.

On a break during his second year, he took a vacation to Indonesia. The classical gamelan music and theater performances that went on all night during Ramayana in Jakarta showed him a learning process he'd never experienced in his younger years.

"The children would bring a blanket and watch, sleep, watch some more," he says. "They learned the basics of human behavior right there -- right and wrong, good and evil, the temporariness of life. I realized this was the best education a child could ever have."

Another revelation came the day he walked into a Javanese market and saw the brilliant display of textiles there. They reminded him of a certain shirt, stuffed in a drawer in his parents' Ohio home.

"I walked into that market and the colors were so powerful I almost had a heart attack," Kirkell recalls. "The minute I saw those textiles, I fell in love. They spoke to me."

The experience was so transformative that when Kirkell left the Corps a year later, he headed straight to Jakarta to study with Bambang Oetoro, a master batik artist. He sat watched the older women who did the detailed wax work for hours, wordlessly absorbing their techniques. …

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