The Queen Bee

Words by Kellie McGann
Photos by Chia Chong

Paula Wallace, the founder, president, and face of Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), has spent the 2018-2019 school year celebrating her 40th year of educating students in the arts. All these years later, SCAD stands tall, with four campuses across three continents, graduating nearly 15,000 students. It is a rare accomplishment to have founded and successfully scaled a university. The journey getting there wasn’t always as picturesque as the view from the Lacoste campus is now.

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For President Wallace, the last 40 years of creating a university from the ground up have been full of long days and nights. She set out to create a new type of art school and has seen that dream come to life. While having been around only four decades, SCAD has become well-known for the alumni it produces and for the innovative majors it offers. SCAD has recently announced a 99 percent post-grad employment rate, something most universities can’t honestly advertise. 

The success of such a young university is impressive, but the origin story is similarly surprising and powerful. Where does one get the idea to start an entire college? How does someone take that dream and turn it into a reality that has impacted thousands of young people around the world? Paula Wallace, the woman behind the legacy of SCAD, believes that dreams such as these are meant to be pursued relentlessly for the betterment of the world around us. 

In Paula’s early years, you could often hear notes of a classical piano floating out of the windows and doors of her family’s childhood home. The home was tucked away in a small Atlanta neighborhood, where she lived with her parents and sister. 

Raised by parents who lived through the Great Depression and two world wars, Paula was no stranger to tenacity, hard work, and never throwing away leftovers. The family spent Saturday mornings scrubbing and cleaning the house, a pastime that would be later utilized in the early days at SCAD. 

Growing up before the time of cell phones and the Internet, imagination was core to Paula’s upbringing. From a young age, Paula and her sister organized performances for their family on the front porch. Sheets were hung as makeshift curtains, and a flashlight held by their aunt lit up the “stage.” Paula recalls these memories with fondness. “They prepared me in more than one way for the journey ahead.” 

When she wasn’t playing classical piano for porch night performances, Paula was often seen en route to the Adams Park Library with armfuls of books. “Literature has always made my heart sing and brain buzz with visions of what could be,” she says. Perhaps the first hint into her future as the founder of an academic art institute was sparked in these trips back and forth to the library, dreaming of what could be, and what she might do in the world. At age 12, Paula began teaching piano to the neighborhood kids, combining her love of art, education, and entrepreneurship for the first time. 

This same love of education and art led her to pursue a Master’s in Education. It wasn’t long before she found herself teaching elementary school students in Atlanta, the city where she grew up. Paula attributes the moment of SCAD’s inception to the moments she spent in the classroom with these students, along with finding out she was pregnant with her own child. “What will happen to these children?” she wondered. 

The students in her classroom were the same children building forts in backyards and performance stages on porches. She saw her childhood self in them and wanted to provide them with a different kind of arts education. These were the same children she believed would build our future, and she asked, “How will we prepare them for that?” There was only so much one elementary school teacher could do. 

The idea to start a college came naturally to Paula. While a seemingly insurmountable task, her determination and enthusiasm outweighed the unknowns. There was much to learn and much to do to establish a school. They needed a building, teachers, a curriculum, and of course, students.

Paula started selling everything she owned, including her canary yellow VW beetle and her home in Atlanta. There was no turning back. She managed to find a building in the sleepy coastal town of Savannah, and slowly, pieces began to come together. With so few staff at the school in the early days, Paula recalls taking part in almost every job herself, from dusting and mopping to single-handedly researching and writing SCAD’s first academic catalog. 

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In the first year, Paula journeyed around the country to cultivate donors and support for the new school initiative. She found herself in the offices of one of the largest charitable foundations in the South. Proud of her mission, she believed that if only the president could see how the school was revolutionizing art and design education, he’d surely want to contribute. 

Not only did he not want to lend financial support, he refused to hear Paula’s story at all. While she believed her undertaking was worthy of being heard, it was then she realized that her vision for education and the arts may not have been as important to the rest of the world. 

In the journey of SCAD, Paula would encounter countless other naysayers. However, she would never let them slow her. She surrounded herself with people who came alongside her, shared her vision, and helped make it a reality. “I learned to give my time and attention to my fellow visionaries,” she says. 

The lesson she gleaned from naysayers followed her in her years to come. “If you have a dream, you have to be the one to make it happen.” Despite the negativity sometimes encountered, she says she always took her mother’s advice: “Rise above it.” 

In the early days of SCAD, this advice shaped the school, and in many ways, prepared Paula for its coming success. In the Fall of 1978, there were just 71 students enrolled. Out of this small, tight-knit group, a familial tone was set, and a culture that valued individualized learning grew. This precedent allowed Paula and SCAD educators to listen to their students. 

Fashion, one of SCADs most popular majors, was born out of this very idea. Paula says, “I did not have the idea for a Fashion major at SCAD. One of the students from Miami who was majoring in fibers suggested it. I told her that if she could get at least six students together, then we would have a class. And then we had one class, and now, fashion is one of our most popular majors—something we’ve become renowned for.”

As SCAD has expanded its list of majors, it has evolved to include some of the most innovative in the art education community. Beyond traditional art fields such as Interior Design, Photography, and Writing, it has established a User Experience Design degree in partnership with Google, along with Interactive Design, Game Development, and Immersive Reality degree programs. 

As Paula reflects on her 40 years with SCAD, she encourages SCAD graduates to, “Embrace ambiguity. There is no path of certainty, no perfect 10-year plan. You can’t conjure the knock of opportunity, but you should always be ready to open the door.” Much like Paula’s journey of founding SCAD, there was no perfect plan, and no one expected it to turn into what it did. Only through intense dedication, Paula’s relentless pursuit of her dream, and the support of the people around her, was SCAD able to become such a success. 

For the future of SCAD, President Paula Wallace hopes that grads and students will continue to create good in the world. She believes in the future generations to combine their love for art, design, and invention, to make the world a better place. One student at a time, change is happening in profound ways.