Paula Wallace

Photography by Chia Chong

Paula Wallace serves nearly 15,000 students and more than 40,000 alumni as president and founder of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), a private, nonprofit, accredited university offering more than 100 academic degree programs. The university has locations in Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia; Lacoste, France; and Hong Kong, and has been recognized for its revitalization of historic buildings by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and UNESCO. Wallace is known for creating many of the university's signature events, including the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, SCAD aTVfest, SCAD deFINE ART, SCAD FASHWKND, SCADstyle, and the SCAD Sidewalk Arts Festival.

Wallace is an honorary member of the AIA, a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council, a Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Palmes Académiques, and a Georgia Trustee. She is the winner of the 2017 ASID Nancy Vincent McClelland Merit Award, 2016 Arthur Ross Award for Stewardship, 2016 Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award, and 2016 Roger Milliken Honorary AIA Legacy Award. In 2016, she was featured among Blouin Artinfo's "Power List: High-Wattage Women of the Art World" and named one of Condé Nast’s Daring 25. Wallace is the author of children's books, interior design books, and a memoir, "The Bee and the Acorn."

Wallace earned a Bachelor of Arts from Furman University, Masters in Education and Specialist of Education degrees from Georgia State University, and an honorary Doctor of Laws from Gonzaga University.

3 words to describe Nature?

Resourceful. Tenacious. Sublime.

3 lessons Nature taught you?

Nature has taught me that anything is possible, with determination and patience. I titled my memoir The Bee and the Acornin recognition of two of nature’s wonders that inspire me most. Both are incorporated into the SCAD crest.

The bee (our mascot!) symbolizes hope. Back in 1978, when my family and I created SCAD, many people said our little dream would never fly. Our mission to focus on creative careers was very much ahead of its day. Seeking encouragement in those early years, I was reminded of a study completed by French entomologist Antoine Magnan, who noted that a bee’s flight shouldbe impossible. The bee’s body is far too large, its wings minuscule in comparison. The bee, of course, flies anyway, appearing to defy the laws of physics and rising to great heights. I guess bees have never paid much mind to what others think! And neither does SCAD.

In the South, where SCAD was founded, the acorn is a symbol of strength arising from humble origins. From tiny acorns, they say, mighty oak trees grow! Our students are acorns that flourish and grow into a mighty grove with broad limbs that touch and support one another and their communities. SCAD Savannah (among a family of four SCAD locations worldwide) is stippled with enormous live oak trees. Their comely limbs, draped with Spanish moss, sprawl across streets, boulevards, entire greenspaces. All of us at SCAD remember: each began life as an acorn.

3 most treasured Nature spots?

The first is easy! Any view from SCAD Lacoste — where every evening is a new palette, every morning a study in color theory. For centuries, artists (Matisse, Picasso, others) have cherished Provence for its natural beauty and wondrous light. There’s a magnetism to the way the days move in Lacoste, stretching lusciously into the Luberon horizon. Lacoste both arouses the senses and quiets the soul.

My second choice would have to be Winn Park in my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, a short walk from SCAD Atlanta. This park is an oasis of green and one of many beautiful public parks in the city. With a meandering stream and an enchanting iris garden, this vernal treasure offers many spots for a meditative retreat from urban bustle.

And third is my side garden in downtown Savannah, verdant and blossoming nearly all year round. I enjoy its brilliant red roses, the fountain’s murmur, the aromatic herbs in terra-cotta pots, reminiscent of my childhood. The side garden acts as a portal between my busy, professional life and a cozy, familial one.

When you look at the ocean, it makes you feel...

The lure of the voyage. The promise of grandeur beyond the horizon. Savannah is one of the great port cities of the world. At Tybee Island’s North Beach, where we host our annual SCAD Sand Arts Festival, you can watch immense container ships wend the Savannah River. These ships’ magnitude and power astound. As they drift into the Atlantic and become smaller and smaller, I imagine where they might travel next — it’s the same feeling I get when I watch SCAD’s students and graduates sail off across the globe. The ocean makes dreamers of us all.

When you see a forest, it makes you feel...

As though I’m home. I grew up around trees in Atlanta ("the city in a forest," they call it) and at my grandparents’ farm in Mississippi, where trees offered respite from the hot summer sun.

When you see a volcano, it makes you feel...

The power that rests beneath our feet. They say an ancient super volcano left the island of curious hexagonal rock columns off the coast of Hong Kong, near our SCAD campus on Sham Shui Po — it’s like nothing I’ve seen before. This formation impresses on me the infinite ways that nature asserts itself, and how our art stems from its beauty.

When you see a sunrise or sunset, it makes you feel...

Possibility. As a girl in Atlanta, I heard Scarlett O’Hara’s refrain aplenty! Tomorrow is, indeed, another day. Both sunrise and sunset denote the opportunities that time affords to create.

When you hear thunder, it makes you feel...

The reprieve from a sultry summer day, as the afternoon storms drift along the coastline. The thunder storms bring winds and rains that make the bricks steam. The relief never lasts long, but a nice cool iced tea helps make the humidity bearable.

When you hear the wind howling, it makes you feel...

Nostalgic. One of my favorite books, A Wrinkle in Time, begins with the line, “It was a dark and stormy night.” The winds of that storm carry the reader straight into the book’s plot. It’s wonderful that Ava DuVernay adapted the book. Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey, and Mindy Kaling all have visited SCAD and shared their wisdom with students. It’s a joy when a beloved classic from childhood comes to life on film as the result of the leadership of visionary women behind the camera and on the screen.

Are you an Ocean, Mountain, Forest, or Desert person?

All four! SCAD’s locations in Savannah and Hong Kong reside next to two of the world’s great ports. Hong Kong is also situated alongside mountains, surrounded by country parks and nature reserves blanketed with forests. I would be remiss if I neglected the trees at all of SCAD’s campuses — live oaks in Savannah, maples in Atlanta, banyan in Hong Kong, and the cedars of Provence. Provence can even have a desert feel with its dry, hot summers. And, of course, Provence leads one to the Alps. We are surrounded by such loveliness on all sides!

On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is Nature to your well-being?


Would you share with us a childhood nature memory?

I fondly recall reading books under the magnolias on my grandmother’s farm near Collins, Mississippi, and shelling peas from her garden on the front porch. Porches offer the best views of nature and civilization. They create connections among indoor worlds, people, and the outdoors. I have fond memories of my parents’ porch in Atlanta, too, where my sister and I would pretend to be Laura and Mary Ingalls. Other times, I would sit tucked beside my father on a glider as he listened to baseball games on the radio against the backdrop of leaves rustling in the breeze.