Paula Wallace is a natural teacher, her first student being her baby sister. When she entered the Atlanta public school system with a teaching degree in hand, it was an obvious career choice. It was her outside-the-box approach in the classroom, though, that eventually led her to found Savannah College of Art and Design, or SCAD. Paula combined her innovative thinking, passion for teaching and appreciation for the arts to grow SCAD into a college with a global presence. We’re thrilled to introduce you to SCAD President and Founder and today’s FACE of Atlanta, Paula Wallace!
What was your inspiration for SCAD?
I am a born teacher. It’s in my bones! My first student was my younger sister, Pam. I was 5 when she was born, and I believed she was my very own. I taught her how to dress her dolls, how to read and how to dance Jarabe Tapatío (the “Mexican Hat Dance”), while I played the piano. I started giving piano lessons to neighborhood children at age 12. A decade later, I was teaching in Atlanta public schools, which I did for most of my 20s, while also attending graduate school during the evenings and on the weekends.
In my elementary school classes, students wrote and performed musicals, created their own filmstrips and explored art museums. It was my childhood all over again. We did it all! I loved it. What I was doing, I saw, was teaching students instead of subjects. This was a revelation. I thought: Why can’t higher education also be like this? My commitment to my students gave me the courage to start a new university. To cultivate creativity and professionalism through individual attention and innovative education has been my calling from the very beginning.
How did you go from working in Atlanta’s public school system to creating “one of America’s best colleges”?
I have the deepest respect for teachers at every level. Teaching a classroom full of students, especially young students, is one of the great responsibilities of every generation of humankind. There is no higher calling — and no calling more difficult. I was fortunate to teach in schools that encouraged my methods, which in many cases were unconventional. (Back then, teachers never took elementary-age students to museums, or gave them cameras, or asked them to write original songs. I turned a few heads.)
Actually, a few months ago, I came across a denim notebook with some of my old lesson plans. Reading through the notes reminded me that the principles of creative education apply at any level: create through problem-solving, improve self-concept, foster positive group experiences, reinforce and extend classroom skills. The notes are a veritable blueprint for SCAD — a style-and-substance blueprint, you could say. I’m doing the same things here at the university that I was doing in elementary school classrooms, on a much larger scale.
What are your favorite things about Savannah and Atlanta?
As every SCAD student will tell you, there’s much to love about all four of our global locations, and Savannah and Atlanta are no exception! I’m delighted that SCAD is partnering with the Falcons and Atlanta United FC to select and commission art for the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. All of the art — the sculptures, paintings, motion media and installations — enhance the experience for fans at this architectural marvel. The stadium embodies the imaginative energy of the city that also attracts the booming film industry. We created SCAD FILM to develop local professional talent for key roles in film and television productions across the state. In fact, film crews shooting on location are a common sight in Savannah and Atlanta these days. Many filmmakers recognize the distinct cinematic character of our low country and Big Peach communities. SCAD students and alumni often end up working on productions that come to Georgia.
The students who go abroad to study at our locations in Lacoste, France, and Hong Kong always come back with fresh perspectives and memories to last a lifetime. The opportunity to pursue a SCAD education in an idyllic village in the Provence region or among the untrammeled vigor of Asia’s World City provides any and every student a distinct advantage in launching their careers.
You’ve developed the most creative minds in the South and throughout the world. How?
SCAD always keeps its antennae tuned to two key frequencies: the interests and desire of our students, and the insights and trends shared by practicing professionals. Every year we adopt new, in-demand programs quickly and adapt existing programs as creative fields constantly evolve so we can best equip students with the skills and knowledge they need for their careers. We also teach students to be entrepreneurial and to develop their personal brands to market those skills effectively. Forty years ago, making “creative careers” the mission of a university was unorthodox to say the least, but we’ve proven that it works. Our graduate placement rate is clear evidence of that: 98 percent of spring 2015 graduates were employed, pursuing further education, or both within 10 months of graduation. That’s a powerful testament to the strength of our mission.
Why did you decide to write a memoir, The Bee and the Acorn, and why do you call it your love letter to Savannah?
It’s been almost 40 years since I founded SCAD alongside my parents, who are no longer with us. I felt compelled to share our journey in building the university, together, into the preeminent institution it is today. I also wanted a way to celebrate the SCAD family, all the dreamers, students, faculty and staff, who come here to build their careers. People feel connected through art and design. Through their own experiences, SCAD has come to define many lives around the world, whole families, even, and I wanted to pay tribute to their contributions to SCAD.
Over the years, I can’t tell you how many times people in Savannah have approached me to express gratitude for SCAD’s contributions to revitalizing the city. They say that Savannah needed SCAD. What a touching tribute to all our work, to hear that. It’s equally true that SCAD needed Savannah and its many old, forgotten historic structures. (We have more than 70 buildings throughout the city, and more than 100 around the world.) In 1978, Savannah welcomed us with open arms, and it’s been a perfect incubator of creativity for the university ever since. Since I became president, we’ve been received with love in Atlanta, in Lacoste, France, and in Hong Kong, as well.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
“Let nothing go to waste,” my Dad always said. I remember when my parents came to Savannah in 1979 to help rehabilitate the old armory building where we started SCAD. Dad didn’t want to throw anything out, even the glass ketchup bottles from a derelict old greasy spoon on the first floor of the building we purchased. That philosophy of saving in order to redeem, infusing the old with love and imagination, led to SCAD’s renown in the adaptive new use of buildings ranging from an old coffin factory and department store in Savannah, to a former television studio in Atlanta, to a colonial courthouse in Hong Kong, to a medieval farmhouse in Lacoste. It seems like a simple maxim, but it has produced spectacular results.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
I’ve been asked that question a lot recently! I must be getting old. Honestly, I haven’t thought about it much. What I’ve been thinking about is the students. Ultimately, their success is my greatest legacy. There’s nothing I love more than to receive notes or calls from alumni sharing their career stories and achievements. In fact, we’ve been around long enough now that the children of many alumni have come to SCAD, so the stories are multigenerational. I get a little emotional even thinking about it. I was practically a child myself, just 28 years old, when we founded SCAD. I hope SCAD students and graduates are emboldened by my own story, of risking it all to create something you believe the world needs.
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Great conversation is one of my lifelong indulgences. SCAD abounds with invigorating dialogue — exchanges with expert faculty and discussions with guests at Savannah Film Festival, SCADstyle, and other university events, who share insights into their professions. Last spring, I was honored to interview Carolina Herrera while she was in Savannah to speak with students before the SCAD Fashion Show. I always come away with valuable tips for leading our students, which I treasure. I also appreciate a subtle fragrance, like magnolia blossom. My final must-have is Russian tea, especially at this time of year. On a chilly morning, a single cup warms my heart all day.
Thank you to Paula for sharing her story and impressive legacy with us today. Learn more about Savannah College of Art and Design here.
Meet more amazing women from Atlanta and the surrounding community in our FACES archives. Click here to get inspired!