Nearly three decades ago, the Savannah College of Art and Design opened its doors in a renovated brick building on Bull Street, the former site of the Savannah Volunteer Guard Armory, which was constructed in 1892. At the time, the fledgling college had eight faculty members and 71 students and had the feel of a grand experiment.
Some 30 years later, however, the college is thriving, with more than 60 buildings, 37 fields of study and two additional satellite locations. SCAD students now come from all 50 states and more than 90 countries and compete in a variety of intercollegiate sports – the school even has an equestrian team.
SCAD's stunning transformation has more than a little to do with Paula Wallace (M.Ed. '73 and Ed.S. '76), one of the college's original founders and its president since 2000. A two-time graduate of Georgia State's College of Education, Wallace began her career teaching gifted children in Atlanta public schools. After founding SCAD in 1978 along with her then-husband Richard G. Rowan, and her mother and father, May and Paul Poetter, she served as academic dean and the college's provost before ultimately assuming the presidency.
"SCAD surprises me every day," says Wallace, who in the past few years has been named one of the "100 Most Influential Georgians" by Georgia Trend magazine, among other honors. "To know that the tiny seed of an idea that four people had 30 years ago has grown bigger than all of us – and that this idea ended up bringing people from all over the world to create a 'United Nations of art' at SCAD – is pretty humbling."
Under Wallace's leadership, SCAD has amassed a long list of accolades and was most recently lauded by Kaplan as one of "25 Cutting-Edge Schools with an Eye Toward the Future." The college has established an off-campus site in Lacoste, France, and a comprehensive campus on Peachtree Street with SCAD-Atlanta; launched an e-learning program; and cemented its reputation as a leader in historic preservation. The addition of high-profile fashion shows and film festivals has also brought big-name celebrities like Marc Jacobs, Jane Fonda and Tommy Lee Jones to campus.
Speaking of Hollywood, the college has become so popular with the Los Angeles-based Rhythm & Hues - a film production company whose resume includes work for the big-screen adaptation of "The Chronicles of Narnia" – that the studio employs 30 SCAD alumni, a number so large it could technically constitute its own alumni chapter.
"They can’t seem to get their fill of SCAD graduates," says Wallace. "One reason is that our graduates bring in high-quality portfolios, and they present them with polish. But SCAD graduates also come in knowing how to produce results, and they come in responsible and able to communicate. They have the technical ability – the aesthetic sense – and they feel comfortable in a demanding, fast-paced environment."
Of course, Wallace is practically an expert when it comes to demanding environments. Aside from her rigorous professional schedule, she's also a mother of four (her children range in age from a preschooler who loves to sing and dance to a college graduate who works as a fibers artist), and in her spare time, she writes books. Her "World Of" series for children (Gareth Stevens, 2003) explores a variety of topics in a global context, from sports and food to holidays and birthdays. Her latest release, A House in the South (Clarkson Potter, 2006), which was co-written with Frances Schultz, is based on her own experiences growing up in the South and designing interior spaces.
Creativity has always been a part of Wallace's life. That's why now, at what one could argue is the pinnacle of her professional career, it's especially fitting that she's sitting at the helm of one of the country's premier art and design colleges. But her work isn't the only thing that energizes her.
"I enjoy every medium that the human imagination has been able to create: painting, sculpture, architecture, fashion, interior design, all of it. That includes music," says Wallace, an accomplished pianist who still plays regularly. "Music is a tremendous piece of who I am. I just get lost in it, the way artists get lost in their work. Someone called it flow . . . to be so enraptured by creating what you’re creating that you don't really notice time passing."
This article was published in the Summer 2008 issue of Milestones Magazine, a publication of the College of Education.