An Interview with Paula Wallace
What drew you to Savannah as the home base for SCAD? How have you chosen your campus locations around the world?
Savannah gives a warm embrace to students, to tourists, to writers, musicians, filmmakers, and artists. I knew that this soulful Southern town with its inviting climate had all the ingredients to charge an educational awakening. When I met Savannah, all those years ago, much of the city languished in a sad state of disrepair. As Lady Astor famously declared, Savannah was a beautiful lady with a dirty face.
And so, I began my career as a preservationist in a town that is now—40 years later—called America’s Most Beautiful City. Historic preservation has served as the bedrock of SCAD with campus buildings of admirable architectural character donated to SCAD in Atlanta, Hong Kong, and Lacoste. SCAD has been honored with many preservation, interior design, and architecture awards in recognition of the university’s immense contributions to heritage conservation and innovative adaptive new use of historic properties.
Please briefly describe Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) and your role.
I’ve heard SCAD described as a Wonderland, Hogwarts, or just “my people.” Renowned interior designer Ghislaine Viñas recently called it Shangri-La! SCAD is the preeminent global, ever-inventive, nonprofit, accredited university for creative professions.
I am a teacher, a dreamer, and doer. With my family, I founded SCAD in 1978, and today I serve as president, leading SCAD Atlanta, SCAD eLearning, SCAD Hong Kong, SCAD Lacoste, and SCAD Savannah. Over 100 degree programs are offered at SCAD.
How has your role evolved as SCAD continues to grow?
My role has certainly grown along with SCAD—the university enrolls 13,000 students today, in bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. SCAD thrives and creatively grows with year-round academic and cultural offerings on three continents. We even have three museums at SCAD, all open to the public, as well as many performances, festivals, and other celebrations of the arts.
My role has always been inventor. SCAD never stands still, and neither do I!
What do you think is a key asset of yours that has contributed to your success?
I’m tempted to credit my height (I stand 5 feet tall, on a generous day), but … something tells me that doesn’t convey the whole story. What comes to mind is my constant desire to reimagine the status quo. This side of my personality shines through in some of my iconoclastic design choices over the years—the yellow damask wallpaper covering one of our museum galleries comes to mind.
Before SCAD, people didn’t understand that an education in art and design could lead to consistent professional success. When people talked about “art school,” the caricature of a starving artist was what came to mind. I wasn’t satisfied with that ordinary depiction or the doubt it cast. SCAD created a new way forward for creative minds, a professionally focused place for the hand, head, and heart to unite in making work capable of changing the world.
Why do you think illustration is such a powerful tool for communication?
Illustration as a medium has innate communicative power, which is why it’s a cornerstone of all art and design fields. Peer into any creative field—animation, industrial design, architecture—and you will find storyboards and sketches and schematics on every professional’s desk.
As a writer and interior designer, I engage every challenge with deep consideration of layers of meaning and design elements. The same is true of illustrators—they are the quintessential visual problem-solvers. When I spoke with Emily [Isabella] about creating the illustrations for my book, she understood my meaning beyond the words we exchanged. Her work expresses comprehension and connection in an instant, nonverbally. The Bee and the Acorn would be incomplete without her renderings—so appealing in their artistry, full of life and positive energy.
Have you incorporated activism into the structure of SCAD or your own life? How do you think artists can best give back?
As personal as art and design can be, it’s always created with a kernel of selflessness. That’s reflected by the community service of the SCAD Family. During Hurricane Matthew, when we evacuated students from Savannah to Atlanta, I joined a group of students as they delivered a theater backdrop they painted to a local children’s healthcare center. Even when displaced, the students sought to create and to share their talents with the community. Art and design strengthens communities and connects people across boundaries. It brings together the artist and the audience, drawing different voices into conversation so that we all benefit from reinvigorated perspectives.
I love how invested you are in repurposing old spaces for SCAD's campus. What is one of your favorite unique features of one of these buildings?
Our 100 historic SCAD buildings dotting the globe are an architectural treasure trove. Across the four locations SCAD calls home, we seem to find the perfect space for any purpose, each structure full of personality from the captivating stories that define their past lives. A favorite architectural feature of mine is the cupola perched on top of Morris Hall, an antebellum residence designed by New York architect John Norris. Today it’s home to our fashion marketing and luxury management programs, but it was originally built for one of Savannah’s early entrepreneurs, Alexander Smets. The cupola is a wonderfully elegant and inventive feature, added so that he could watch his ships sail into harbor. The sinuously elegant freestanding mahogany staircase Smets commissioned to reach the cupola is still there, and it is unique, even in Savannah, a city of remarkable architecture.
How do you define success?
For me, success is the accomplishments of our students and alumni. When they discover and secure their desired careers, then I know we’re succeeding in our mission as a university. The greatest compliments I receive are the notes that come in from alumni, excitedly sharing details about their new promotion, or a challenging project they completed or the award they won. My success exists in their stories.
What inspired you to begin the "On Creativity" video series? Who would be a dream interview subject?
Each academic year at SCAD, we welcome a panoply of renowned guests. Remarkable individuals are continuously ushered into our students’ lives to share fascinating insights and memorable stories. I’m fortunate to engage in my own conversations with many of these guests, and each one is an experience worth capturing. The “On Creativity” series allows me to preserve these guests’ insights in perpetuity for our students, and provides an avenue for people around the world to hear from these luminaries.
As far as a dream interview, I would love to find myself in conversation with the late Maya Angelou. I did have the opportunity to meet her years ago, and the many lives she lived in her own experience and through her characters are remarkable. Also, she was gifted with a redolent speaking voice. She sometimes burst into song mid-sentence.
Last September, I was honored when Meals on Wheels Atlanta invited me to speak at their inaugural Women's Power luncheon. I could feel the drive and compassion emanating from that audience. It's an organization that’s near and dear to my heart, Meals On Wheels provides essential nourishment to some of the more vulnerable members of the community—the elderly and those housebound by disability. The local chapter in my hometown of Atlanta delivers 200,000 meals annually, and supports seniors through a variety of charitable programs that enhance their quality of life as well as the lives of their families.