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Volume 24, Number 4 — April 2017

Far Flung Artists: Sandra Wilkins

Back, above, and front, below, views of Sandra Wilkins' kibayat design
Back, above, and front, below, views of Sandra Wilkins' kibayat design
Additional photos below »

Grandmother's advice: Do things far from her imagination

By Leslie Grace / A! Magazine for the Arts | October 31, 2012

Sandra Wilkins never planned to live abroad, but her grandmother, Elizabeth Bell, once told her that she would see and do things far from her imagination. Wilkins took that as a charge and a mission.

"Growing up on Second Taylor Street, who would have thought that one day I would sit in the presence of royalty, travel around the globe and take up residence in one of the richest Middle Eastern countries in the world," she says. "It certainly wasn't me. I thought I would go to college, marry some guy from the surrounding area and have a few kids. Maybe I'd teach in one of the high schools and design my own clothes and a few things for clients in the community. You know, I'd make choir robes or something."

She didn't start out to teach. After her graduation from VCU, she moved to Los Angeles and worked as a free-lance designer. Then she returned to Richmond and set up a design studio, Belle Originals.

"I did okay, married, bought a house, had twins, set up my design studio, but I couldn't really pay the bills. I never wanted to be a teacher, but it turns out that's what I was destined to do."

She has taught at VCU Richmond and VCU Qatar for 33 years. In her fashion career, she has been a stylist for Kismet Corporation, dressing the would-be hopefuls at the Apollo Theatre in New York. She was first stylist for the Al Jazeera channel in Doha and the costume designer for a PBS production honoring Duke Ellington.

Last year she was named Best Fashion Professor from North Africa, Middle East and Asia.

"What an amazing accomplishment for someone from Bristol. It is a testament to what family and community, and a great education can prepare you for."

While Wilkins spends much of her time educating students and serving as chair of VCU Qatar's fashion department, she still continues to design.

"I don't think I could survive without exploring and practicing my craft. I don't have as much time to work at it as I would like, but I eke out a little time for it as much as possible. Teaching is my other passion, and I insist on being in the classroom as much as possible. I fell in love with my students; their thirst for knowledge and their dreams for the future became my own. I am determined to help them move forward and be all they could be. My administrative duties are sometimes overwhelming, but it comes with the job.

"My present design direction is to explore the similarities in Eastern apparel silhouettes. The kibayat, my theme, is a combination of kimono, abaya and North African thobe silhouettes."

Wilkins has another project: Reach Out To Asia. For two years, she has gone to Yogjakarta, Java to work with local crafts people, and will return in May. ROTA is an education and community support program and is part of the Qatar Foundation. Their mission is to provide educational opportunities to all of Asia. Building schools, educational programs and promoting entrepreneurship and lifting areas out of poverty throughout the region are its mandates.

"It is something that I'm really passionate about. I fell in love with the country and the people. We hope to inspire new ways of approaching design and to incorporate these new ideas into their crafts. Tradition is so important, but new ideas and contemporary interpretations are essential to the survival of their craft market. We are determined to help lift the economic value of the beautiful craft offerings of the region."

She says she wants to continue making a contribution and to make a difference in the world in which we live.

This attitude is one that comes from her family. "A strong faith is probably the most important thing I carry with me wherever I go. We were all taught by our family patriarchs and matriarchs that we are all part of the human race and in that, we are the same. We may come from different places, with different religions and cultures but fundamentally we all want and desire the same things.

"This is what Bristol means to me: family, my grandparents (Peter Paul and Elizabeth Bell) who loved me and gave me my foundation. My extended family, my Aunt Jewel Bell who was my conscience, taught me what reputation and community perception mean and made damn sure I followed the rules. She took the tomboy that I was and made me a lady. She has always been my "shero.'

"I've been blessed. I take nothing for granted. I am sure Bristol is responsible for the amazing successes I've had in my life with my family, church, friends, classmates and teachers. You all are responsible for whom I have become, and I thank you."

Artist's Bio: Sandra Wilkins
Born in Bristol, Va.
Educational Background
BFA Fashion, Virginia Commonwealth
University
Career Highlights
Fashion Department Chair,
VCU Qatar
USAID grant to consult on curriculum in Fashion in Southern Africa after Apartaid
Awards
"Best Fashion Professor" from North Africa, Middle East and Asia

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Sandra Wilkins teaching a class.