top of page

Kathleen Maxwell: Art, travel, and a near-death accident

Dr. Kathleen Maxwell brings her knack for storytelling and world travel experiences into her work teaching art history and researching Byzantine art at Santa Clara.


In this episode, we get into some of her experiences traveling both in the U.S. and abroad, how she discovered her love for art, advice she has for students and the value of learning and working across disciplines.

Selected Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: What is the most surprising story from your travels?


Kathleen Maxwell: The most surprising thing that happened was being in a plane accident with my husband. We were on a vacation out to Berkeley, and we stopped in New Jersey before returning home to Boston. It was January, and there was a terrific snowstorm. We were in Newark waiting for the flight to deplane. We were very delayed, and it was blizzard conditions.


We wondered if we should take a train instead, but we thought, “no, they wouldn’t fly if it’s not safe.” After about an hour, the plane filled up because all the other flights had been cancelled.

We took off, and everything seemed fine, and we landed, but we didn’t seem to slow down. The next thing we felt was the feeling of when you’re on the road and you slip off into the shoulder, and it doesn’t sound good.


There was a terrible crashing sound, and I thought we were hitting the terminal. What had actually happened is that the pilot had gone off of the runway and into the Boston Harbor to avoid hitting all of these pylons of lights at the end of the runway that my father’s company had installed a year or two before to guide planes in and out of the runway. If we had hit those, there would have been an explosion, and we would have died, obviously. The pilot went off to the right, and we went down an embankment and into the harbor.


With all of that excitement, the cockpit broke off of the plane and flipped forward. We were in about row 8, and we assumed everyone in the cockpit was dead. A huge wave of water washed over us, and my husband remembered thinking we were going to drown.


My husband got up and opened the emergency door, and that was very anticlimactic, because it opens about one inch per second. When it finally opened, the shoot blew up against the airplane because of the jet engine. The chute came down on the other door, so we went out onto the wing and jumped out onto the embankment. We finally made it up the embankment to the tarmac, but it was actually black ice, so everyone started flying like on banana peels. In a few minutes, Hertz rental car busses came to pick us up. At the very end, the pilots came in, and we applauded because we had assumed they were dead.


My baggage, which included my dissertation was underwater for five days. I had written my dissertation in a Cross pen, and the ink didn’t bleed, so it stayed in good shape. Never unfasten your seatbelt before you get to the gate.


GC: Why should every student study art?


KM: Because of media, and all the screens that dictate our lives, art is very important to our society. People that never thought they would make aesthetic decisions are making aesthetic decisions all the time now as they design websites and make them more humane and accessible.


I think that the arts are a gateway to other cultures. There is so much learning and knowledge and wisdom in the ancient and medieval worlds that we can take advantage of. If I can use art to open my student and myself up to that, it makes a huge difference.


We tend to pigeonhole ourselves by disciplinary clichés that are quite meaningless, and were meaningless in the ancient world. Life is much more interesting on the borders and the boundaries between disciplines.


GC: If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be?


KM: Charlemagne ate very well, so you’d want to do a barbeque with Charlemagne. He loved big bathing parties, too... He would have 100 people swimming in these hot baths in Germany.


GC: What does and ideal Saturday look like?


KM: Going to the farmer’s market, breakfast with my husband, dinner with any child that’s in the area. I love to cook and have people over; conversation is much better at home. I feel very lucky to have 3 daughters and a husband. Academics has not been kind to families, and I feel so fortunate to have some balance between life and work.


GC: If you could send a message to everyone in the United States, what would you say?


KM: Open up. Be tolerant. Try not to judge a book by its cover. I just think life is richer with diversity.

bottom of page