Paula Wallace | Books

Arms to Arts

Poetter Hall at the Savannah College of Art and Design

This week Design Observer has the pleasure of posting three excerpts from the memoir of Savannah College of Art and Design President and Founder Paula Wallace.
The Bee and the Acorn weaves together personal memoir, institutional evolution, and the urban history of Savannah. Wallace recalls the challenges and the discoveries made, the luck and good will rendered, and the reward in perseverance. 

Established in 1978, the Savannah College of Art and Design is a private, nonprofit, accredited university, offering more than 100 academic degree programs in forty-two majors in Atlanta and Savannah, Hong Kong, and Lacoste, France. The university s innovative curriculum is enhanced by professional-level technology, equipment, and learning resources, as well as opportunities for internships, professional certifications, and collaborative projects with corporate partners. 

The Bee and the Acorn traces the journey of Wallace and her family to the historic Georgia coastal town of Savannah, where they set about creating a new university for the arts. The tiny college would be a radically different kind of institution, buzzing with progressive ideas about what education could be and what it should do for students. Nearly forty years later, SCAD has become one of the largest and most highly regarded arts universities in the world.


In 1977, the world was ready for something new. All around us, dreamers were dreaming up new ideas: Star Wars, The Clash, Apple. I was nearing thirty fast and wanted to do something new, too. I’d been teaching elementary school in Atlanta for seven years and loved it, but I wondered if I could do more. 

“What’s on your mind, Paula?” said the man across the table. Here was no mere man, but the one, the only, the immortal Charlie Pepe, my supervisor, the principal of Sarah Smith Elementary in Atlanta, Georgia. He was larger than life, always in a tie and always laughing, sitting across the table with a mouthful of food, nodding, eyeballing my plate once his was empty. “Do you mind?” he would ask, forking a piece of chicken off my tray. “Please,” I’d say. But that day, he wasn’t looking at my food. He was looking at me. “Pardon?” I said. “You appear to be lost in thought, young lady.” Charlie was very much of the old school, the sort of administrator who once roamed the halls of so many public schools across the nation, as full of opinions as lunch, a ring of keys and a head full of stories at the ready. He was a native of Brooklyn and a graduate of Tufts but seemed as Southern as you might expect an Atlanta principal to be, with a jowly smile and a playful twinkle in his eyes. For me, he was part boss, part mentor. He could talk the hind leg off a mule, as my mother would say, but he knew how to listen, too.

“What’s on your mind?” he said that day in the cafeteria, as I sat alone, making notes in a notebook I’d kept hidden from everyone. He glanced at it. He wanted to know what I was working on. I knew if I told him, he’d laugh. But I had to tell him. “I’m thinking about starting a new school,” I said. “Ha!” he said, bringing his hands together in a thunderclap. He smiled. I’d been thinking where my career might go next. I’d been back in my hometown for nearly a decade and enjoyed my work with students immensely, but some unnamed ambition had come alive in me, and I found myself wanting more. Could I do it? Start a new school?

I’d been wondering when to bring it up to Charlie. I knew his reaction would speak volumes. If he believed in somebody, he let them know it. He was not full of false praise. But when should I bring it up? When is the best time to announce a crazy idea to your mentor, so as to seem as uncrazy as possible? At the end of the school day? On the playground? No, the only time to make crazy seem good, at least to Charlie, was at lunch. Food always put him in the most sanguine mood. “What kind of school?” he asked. “An art school,” I said. “For children. For students like mine.”

“Why not make it a college?” he asked. “An art college?” 

“Why Savannah?” family friends asked, when we told them our moving plans. “It’s historic,” I said. “The architecture’s elegant, everywhere you look. And the beach is twenty minutes away.” “Have you been downtown?” they said. “It looks apocalyptic.” And yet: The light was luminous, I explained. As were the squares. Students would love painting and drawing and studying in the squares. The weather’s great all year. 

The city will be the classroom, I told them. “If they don’t get mugged.”

“They won’t get mugged.”

“How do you know?”

I wasn’t sure. Faith, maybe. By the time we actually moved, faith was about all we had left.

In fact, Savannah was a curious, lovely place, a city on the margins, at the edge of a continent, in between the New World and the Old, a safe place on a bluff on a river in the wilderness.

They called it the Armory. It was silent, cold, damp, dusty, gargantuan. Many years later, students would nickname it “Hogwarts.” But in 1978, the building had no heat, no air. It was a 36,000-square-foot fortress, with peeling paint, every surface coated in a greasy, lurid dust. Many windows had been boarded. In one window, in lieu of boards, hung a Schlitz beer sign. “Go for the Gusto,” it read. The Gusto, it appeared, had gone too.

And yet, I loved it, the history of it, the castle-like aspect of its façade. The grime could be cleaned. The Gusto could return. But there was one thing I worried about. “I think maybe it’s way too big,” I said to our broker. “Yes,” the broker said, “huge.” For a second, I thought she might be talking about me. The building served as headquarters for the Savannah Volunteer Guards. Could we make an art school in a ponderous old building like this? Could we transform a hall designed for military drill into a library? Could these weapon rooms become studios? 

I loved the paradox of it, the surprise. 

Comments [0]

Jobs | October 29