By: Christin Huntsman
Jenifer Wofford walked into her Comics in the Margins classroom at the University of San Francisco, carrying a plastic USPS tote filled with past illustrations. Her black motorcycle helmet and jacket were strewn across a small paint-splattered tabletop. She brushed past hammers, saws and pottery wheels as she handed assignments back to the students. After reminding them of the field trip after their class critique, one student called out, “Do you have any sunscreen?” Wofford, who has said she generally tries “to move through the world with a certain degree of humor,” laughed and joked back, “I don’t. There is some wood glue over there if you need.”
The students leaned around the one central table in the combined woodshop/ceramics/art studio, looking at pages of character drawings like a pirate cat or a fish man. Wofford said it was problematic for her to give the only critique, so she didn’t speak much. She wandered, head tilted as she listened to the students’ feedback, occasionally moving closer to see what one student had pointed out or laughing at someone’s commentary.
Her black motorcycle helmet and jacket were strewn across a small paint-splattered tabletop.
Sydney Farrell, a 19 year-old hospitality management major in the Fall 2022 course said via email, “Wofford makes class interesting and engaging, and creates a community within the class.”
Wofford has instructed at USF for 15 years, teaching 12 unique classes during that time, including: Filipino American Arts; Photography; Drawing; and Art as a Citizen. Fine Arts Program Director Eric Hongisto said, “She has taught almost all of the classes inside of our department. We also worked together on developing two unique classes called: Illustration, and Comics in the Margins.” Comics in the Margins looks at how comics can tell stories for marginalized groups and can address issues that are often overlooked.
Wofford said that over the years, she has been able to “piece together this kind of unique way of teaching and operating.” Her personal website details her background as a Filipina-American raised in Hong Kong, the UAE, Malaysia, and California. Wofford said, “I think just coming from such a weirdly outsider hybrid–mixed ethnicity, mixed cultural background–means that I’m always looking for points of connection with others. I never presume to belong. I think that makes me interested in certain kinds of ideas and narratives, as an artist, and as an educator, too.”
On her website, Wofford uses the phrase “intercultural logic” to describe her approach to art and education. In trying to define “intercultural logic,” she said, “I think that I am always wary of anybody who gets too hung up on a monolithic kind of identity… because I feel like all of our experiences are far more intersectional than that. We’re always cross pollinating with each other.” She likes to keep the gender/ethnicity/art borders open and porous.
Interdisciplinary is a part of “intercultural logic.” Wofford uses many mediums in her art like drawing, performance, photography, sculpture, or painting. She also uses humor and pop culture to ease into complex conversations. Collaboration, too, is a central part of her work–as seen in Mail Order Brides/M.O.B., a tri-artist collaborative performance-art/video/photo project that has been running since 1995. The three Filipina-American artists have presented over 70 exhibitions, performances, and screenings in that time. They often dress in heavy makeup and over-the-top costumes, leaning into the stereotypes like the Filipina “mail order bride” trope to tell a story and make commentary on gender and racial issues. Wofford said, “We’re doing this weird kind of dragging clown makeup thing that makes people visually curious about what we’re up to. But usually what we’re doing boils down to stuff that’s around feminism, and around gender, and around race to some extent, while making it as funny and odd as possible.”
Glori Simmons, Director of Thacher Gallery, USF, worked with Wofford on her 2019 exhibition Limning the Liminal. Simmons explained that Wofford chose pieces from 2006-2019 that emulated existing on edges, or between spaces. Nell Herbert, Thacher Gallery Manager, said via email, “Jenifer Wofford is a dynamic artist. I love that she incorporates elements of playfulness and humor in her work, even while addressing important and sometimes challenging topics.” Speaking of more recent collaborations, Simmons said via email that Wofford had recently “brought her Comics in the Margins class to the gallery to respond to artworks created by an incarcerated artist, O. Smith.”
Wofford has a mural outside the Asian Art Museum titled Pattern Recognition. It showcases different bright patterns, with the graphic spunk of the 1980’s, while celebrating names of nine different San Francisco Bay Area Asian American artists in comic-book speech bubbles. Wofford included her own mentor, Carlos Villa–a revered Filipino-American artist, born in the SF Tenderloin District, and known for his impact on diversity in the arts. The mural is 30 feet of intense color and playful motives–a beacon of hope and sanctuary to a group historically erased from the arts, and from society at large. Wofford looks for ways like this to simplify and make shorthand for larger issues. She said, “I don’t want to rob things of their complexity, but I do think you have to create as many points of access as you can.”
The mural is 30 feet of intense color and playful motives–a beacon of hope and sanctuary to a group historically erased from the arts, and from society at large.
This accessibility is part of why Wofford created the Comics in the Margins class, to explore the creative ways comics approach social issues.
Back in the Comics in the Margins class, the students wrapped up their critique and Wofford led the class outside for their field trip. It was a 25-minute walk from USF to Comix Experience, a comic book store established in 1989. Wofford reminded her class that it was important to not just experience comics digitally, but to understand the ecosystem. Upon entering the store, the students wandered between shelves labeled queer, female voices, kids, or alternative; pulling books out and sitting on the ground. Wofford ran into Joshua Wilson Alas, a USF alumni who had taken Comics in the Margins from Wofford in 2019, and went on to produce a 40-page comic for his Fine Arts thesis. He showed the class where a stack of his comics sat on a shelf in the store, before taking a selfie with Wofford and leaving to teach his own YMCA comics class.
Wofford is working to develop an Asian Art-specific comics class. As an educator, she’s interested in inclusivity in the arts. She said, “At the end of the day, my politics are always about making sure that the folks who have not been brought to the table are there, or maybe they’re just going to flip the table, I don’t know.”
Upon entering the store, the students wandered between shelves labeled queer, female voices, kids, or alternative; pulling books out and sitting on the ground.