“We were just so lucky.”

Kathleen Stafford, an elegant and thoughtful artist, relaxed in a Fairfax City hotel, surrounded by her sun-washed art depicting scenes and people of Africa. It’s another temporary domicile; as the spouse of a diplomat, she was evacuated in September from Khartoum, Sudan, after the killing of four Americans in Libya. Just after Sept. 11, 2001, she was also evacuated from Ivory Coast.

Then, of course, there was Tehran.

She has rarely talked about the 80 days in 1979 when she and five other Americans hid from Iranian revolutionaries in the homes of Canadian diplomats. The student rebels had taken over the U.S. Embassy and seized those within, holding 52 of them hostage for 444 days. A few Americans escaped and fewer found safe refuge. Stafford was one who did.

Stafford, then 28, was evacuated by a preposterous CIA operation. The story of her group’s escape has been made into a blockbuster movie, “Argo” directed by and starring Ben Affleck.

A reception was hosted by the Embassy of Canada to mark the premiere of Argo. From left: Tony Mendez, Kathleen Stafford, Bob Anders, Ben Affleck, Lee Schatz, Pat Taylor, Ambassador Ken Taylor. (Keegan Bursaw/Embassy of Canada)

The movie added scenes that never happened and over-dramatized parts of the story, which is to be expected when Hollywood takes on a real-life incident, Stafford acknowledged. But it also under-emphasized the role of the Canadians, who took many risks, provided major help in concealing the Americans, and enabled their eventual escape by both doing necessary local legwork and providing false passports.

“All that time, sitting on a couch in the Canadians’ home, you have this awful feeling you’re putting these people in danger,” she said.

Stafford kept silent on the episode for years because of the covert CIA operation. Other broadcasts, magazines and books have told parts of the tale, and the CIA declassified its role in 1997. After one network crew wanted to do an exposéabout the embassies that did not help the Americans, Stafford swore off interviews. She kept her vow for more than three decades, skipping many reunions of her compatriots. Avoiding the topic wasn’t that hard; she and her husband, Joseph, now the charge
d’affaires in Khartoum, were mostly overseas, raising their son as they served at Foreign Service posts in Africa and the Middle East.

Now, with interest in the movie and her new exhibition at the Alexandria Black History Museum, which runs through Jan. 24, Stafford was willing to reflect on that long-ago episode that marked the beginning of the American public’s awareness of anti-Western rage by radical Muslims.

The Tennessee native had graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in art and a young husband in the Foreign Service. They had arrived in Iran just two months before that fateful Nov. 4 in 1979 and were getting to know a country in the throes of political and religious revolution.

Stafford worked as a visa clerk in the consulate inside the U.S. Embassy compound, and in the only structure that had a direct exit to the street. She heard the growing uproar when radical students, furious over U.S. support for the deposed shah, breached the embassy’s wall.

Hurriedly shutting down the consulate, the Americans destroyed the metal plates used to make visas and shredded records before slipping out the door to the street. Three were caught and arrested. In their first bit of luck, Stafford’s group popped open umbrellas in the rain and managed to evade notice.

They headed first to the British Embassy, but demonstrators blocked the entrance. They retreated to the home of Robert Anders, a veteran consulate officer in the group. In the next few days, they moved from one vacant house to another — the homes of their colleagues who were now being paraded, blindfolded, on worldwide television.

“If we had not been with Bob Anders, we would have been out of luck,” Stafford said.

Anders had many friends, and one of them was John Sheardown, a Canadian diplomat with whom he played tennis. When Anders called, Sheardown’s first words were a welcome “What took you so long?” He immediately invited them all to stay at the large home he and his wife, Zena, shared.

Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor was at the Sheardowns’ when the bedraggled group arrived, and to reinforce the idea that the Americans were under diplomatic protection, he took Stafford and her husband to stay at his official residence. Five days later, they were joined by Henry Lee Schatz, an American agricultural attache who briefly had taken refuge with the Swedish ambassador.

She and others thought the takeover would end quickly, as a similar incident had eight months earlier. But as time dragged on, the Americans spent their days indoors, playing Scrabble, reading, watching television news and making gourmet dinners. Aware of the brutal conditions their colleagues were experiencing at the hands of the Iranian students, the six Americans referred to themselves as “house­guests, not hostages,” Stafford said.

They depended on Taylor and his wife, Patricia, for everything, including clothing. One night, ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, a Canadian by birth, had dinner at the house while the houseguests hid upstairs, Stafford said.

The tedium of the wait in Tehran was interrupted by moments of terror.

“At one point, the government sent over Revolutionary Guards to stand at the front door of the embassy residence,” Stafford said. She began to worry that they would never be able to leave, but the embassy’s housekeeper put her worries to rest. “She said, ‘If I don’t give them any tea, they’ll be gone tomorrow.’ And they were.”

On Christmas, all of the house­guests reunited at the Sheardowns for dinner. After a long holiday celebration, the group was making its way back to the Taylors’ house and got lost. “We were running into roadblocks and there were Iranians with guns. . . . I decided I would never leave the [Taylors’] house again,” Stafford said.

Meanwhile, the Iranian students had released 13 women and African Americans, claiming solidarity with oppressed people. The houseguests knew it was only a matter of time until the Iranians realized from embassy records that other Americans were missing. The Canadians began sending nonessential personnel home, which worried the Americans. Leaks were beginning to occur; an Idaho newspaper quoted Schatz’s mother as saying her son was safe in “an undisclosed location” in Iran. A few reporters, including Jean Pelletier of Montreal’s La Presse, were beginning to suspect the truth. Finally, a still-unidentified man with a North American accent called the Taylors’ house and asked to speak to Joe Stafford, and the evacuation plans accelerated.

“It’s one thing to be in hiding, but it’s another to leave with false documents,” Kathleen Stafford said, noting that if they had been caught, the Taylors, Sheardowns and their Iranian household staff would certainly have been taken hostage as well.

CIA “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez arrived suddenly one day, armed with a crazy cover story that the six were part of a movie crew on a location scouting mission. The plan caused the analytical Joe Stafford, who had been reading the local newspapers in Farsi, to ask a lot of questions, his wife said, but he wasn’t as resistant as the movie made it seem. When the houseguests were given their new identities and passports, they had another bit of luck: a Canadian official spotted an
error in a date on the visas, which was quickly fixed.

“The ride to the airport was very quiet,” she said. “We all thought, ‘I hope this works,’ but we didn’t have any choice.”

There were a couple of hiccups, but their luck held.

“I do remember very clearly getting to the airport in Switzerland . . . and [an American ambassador] switched our passports so we didn’t enter Switzerland illegally,” she said. As they drove across the border into Germany, news came on the radio about their escape. But it would be a full year before the 52 hostages came home.

Stafford had posed as the movie crew’s artist during the escape, and over the years, she began developing her own artistic vision. While she holds no fondness for the Iranian revolutionaries, she also bears no grudge against the Iranian people, whom she described as “wonderful, educated people who were participants in the world” before the crisis.

Her work reflects that same warmth toward African people and places. She’s had multiple exhibitions in Africa and a handful in the United States, and she hopes the Alexandria exhibition will lead to further U.S. shows. She began working in the Virginia city in 2001, after her Ivory Coast evacuation, when she found a workspace at the Torpedo Factory and began a relationship with the local arts community.

Her eyes lighted up as she described the quality of colors in Tunisia and the shapes of the head wraps that African women create. Celebrations, such as the crowning of an Ivory Coast village chief, became an entire series in her work. In Cairo, her painting of a little storage room astounded viewers, who told her that it caused them to consider the beauty of the everyday.

“I would say the major and consistent reaction was a curiosity about the collagraph technique,” she said. The collagraph method of printmaking starts with a cardboard base, then additions are made with various materials to create a low relief of textures. She then prints with that plate on an etching press, which adds ink. She finishes the work with watercolors or oil-based pastels.

During a workshop she gave at the University of Lagos, teachers thirsty to learn new methods drifted in with the students. A master printmaker, Bruce Onobrakpeya, lent a press and an apprentice for the workshop. “That sort of generous sharing on the part of other artists wherever I went is one of the things that has made my profession such a joy to practice overseas,” she said.

Having moved on with her life, Stafford said she rarely thinks of those days in Tehran. But she was on the phone recently to her husband, who remains at his post in Khartoum.

“Joe said [demonstrators] came really close to breaching the wall,” she said. “I thought he might be having a flashback.”

African Encounters — from Coast to Coast

will be on exhibit at the Alexandria Black History Museum, 902 Wythe St., through Jan. 24. The gallery is free and open to the public Tuesdays to Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.