Sitting in her home office, an off-white enclave cut out from an Estée Lauder blush pink colored wall. Her desk surrounded by SCAD student artwork from Russ Noto, Monica Cook, and Marcus Kenney. Ari, a brown mini goldendoodle, at her feet. Paula Wallace SCAD President continues to masterfully conduct the orchestra that she has built over her 40 plus years as Founder and President of Savannah College of Art and Design.
An educator at heart, an entrepreneur by nature, Wallace’s journey to SCAD started four hours away from Savannah, over four decades ago, in a four walled home in Atlanta when she was still an elementary school teacher. She was passionate about the creativity and unbridled imagination of her students and couldn’t help but to be enthralled by the worlds they built, and the stories they told. Watching their light dim as they moved through the traditional education system, she felt the need to found a school where these souls could continue to create.
“All around us, dreamers were dreaming up new ideas: Star Wars, The Clash, Apple. I was nearing thirty … and wondered if I could do more,” Wallace said in an interview. She sat down with her parents, Paul and Mae Poetter, to design and build what is now SCAD – the university for creative careers. Those early conversations revolved around one simple question: ‘How do you start a school?’
“It was a little audacious, I guess,” she admitted, but the lack of knowing what was holding her back, ultimately allowed her to succeed. She found an old brick armory in downtown Savannah, sold her yellow Volkswagen Bug, and meticulously designed a course catalog. Seemingly nothing could hold her back, not even a hurricane. A summer was spent transforming what is now Poetter Hall into the first SCAD classrooms, home to 71 of the very first SCAD Bees.
Poetter Hall has changed dramatically over the years. Where there was once the ever-present smell of diner grease, dust and an armory of old, now is home to SCAD Story, an immersive story telling experience, ShopSCAD, and a seemingly endless array of student art. Walking into Poetter Hall today, it is easy to understand why Paula Wallace is continually recognized as a top leader in education.
Today, Wallace’s office is adorned with awards, accolades, and priceless art. She was named the Inaugural Elle Décor Vision Award from Elle Décor magazine. She is a member of the National Advisory Board of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She was named to the “100 Most Influential Georgians” by Georgia Trend magazine. In 2019 she was inducted into the Interior Design Hall of Fame. Each award building upon the last. Each recognition a reminder that she accomplished the seemingly impossible.
There is a photo of her and Oprah, smiles beaming, from SCAD’s 40th graduation ceremony in Atlanta – and your first thought is how incredible both of these women are. Each one built an empire out of passion, determination, and incredible business sense. Neither was handed anything, and yet, both stand tall, knowing that their life’s work changed lives, shaped students, and provided new opportunities for countless individuals world-wide.
Time and success have not slowed Wallace down. Her calm and focused energy permeate the room. She is deftly handling a global pandemic, her community’s progressive actions to recognize and support students of color, and taking a creative institution online. She bounces back and forth between conference calls with medical experts and couture designers. She is writing op-eds and writing to-do lists for the next day’s meetings. She is a mother to four, two still in school, and navigating the same challenges parents across the nation are facing daily, while finalizing a book to be used in elementary school curriculum.
Paula Wallace is seemingly unstoppable. She has achieved her original mission – she has built an institution that will allow countless thousands of artists and creative individuals the ability to fulfill their dreams for decades to come. “SCAD shows that we can educate students and prepare them for successful careers in creative fields,” Wallace said. “That was a revolutionary idea when SCAD began. If I leave any kind of legacy, there’s nothing more joyful than that.”
Read more from Paula Wallace here: https://medium.com/@paulawallacesocial