Interview with P. J. Johnson
Vice President of Savannah College of Art and Design: Atlanta
I am a Savannah native and attended UGA for a Business Administration degree in accounting. I was in the ROTC program and joined the Air Force after I finished college. Originally it was a 4-year commission, but I enjoyed it so much that 4 years turned into 28. I worked in logistics, fuels, transportation and aircraft maintenance during my Air Force career. At the age of 40, I married my wife, Annie. In 1999 I retired and moved back to Savannah because my Mom became ill, and I needed to take care of her. That also meant I had some spare time. I started back to school at SCAD for a masters in Historic Preservation. It was a wonderful experience. What a joy it was to attend college in such a beautiful and historic city like Savannah.
I’ve always been interested in history and architecture. I thought I would enjoy the masters program but didn’t know the breadth and depth the program would take me. There was a moment in the first class I had at SCAD, like an epiphany, when I could see and feel my choice with the program validated. It motivated me more to do my absolute best. It also solidified my affinity with SCAD. My thesis was on antebellum architecture in Evans County, Georgia, and how the building styles migrated into the region. I hand-measured all the antebellum structures and took hundreds of photos for the thesis. It ended up being published as a book where each chapter covered a structure and its owners.
After I graduated, my wife was reading the Savannah Morning News and saw SCAD had positions open. I applied for one of them. The first interview was with Pam Poetter, vice president of admissions and communications, and Lesley Hanak, director of human resources. The interview was more like a friendly discussion about SCAD. It was uplifting and I enjoyed it. I didn’t get the position I applied for because they felt I wasn’t the right fit, but wanted me to try for a different position. I said sure. The second interview was with President Paula Wallace. Again, it was less like a typical interview and more of a great conversation about the college. On January 2, 2001, I started in administration and moved up to become President Wallace’s chief of staff. I did a little bit of everything. I was involved with students, helped manage community relations and oversaw the day to day operations of the office. I never lacked things to do, because so many varied subjects came to the president’s office. It was a new adventure every day because you never knew who would call or who would stop by. Above all, the students came first. Every decision made always supported SCAD’s mission. President Wallace is the most inspirational leader I have known. She always has the students first and foremost in her heart. She has enormous talent as an educator, designer, writer, and mentor. She is the center of gravity for our college and the reason for our success. We all want to take the best possible care of our students. I served in President Wallace’s office for three years. My Mother passed away in 2003, and after that I moved to a position with a firm in Norcross, Georgia. I took the job not knowing the SCAD Atlanta campus would open in 2005.
When SCAD Atlanta started, President Wallace asked me if I would like to return to SCAD. I said “yes” and what a great decision it was for me. The first quarter of operations here was in spring 2005. It mainly functioned as an off-campus program for Savannah that first quarter. I arrived that summer as Vice President for the campus, and I was thrilled to return to SCAD. We started with 77 students and 7 years later, this fall, we will have 2000+. We started with 60,000 sq feet and now have over 600,000 sq feet of building space. We expanded from 10 to 20 majors. It took a great team to make the success possible. Associate vice president Teresa Griffis, associate deans, staff directors and employees have all been involved with the growth of SCAD Atlanta. It has been a team effort, and I’m glad I could play a role. I predict great things for the future of SCAD. It provides the best art education you can receive. It has been interesting to watch the meager beginning evolve into the entity SCAD Atlanta is now. Most of all, I enjoy the phenomenal student body, faculty and staff. You could have the best facilities and top-notch technology, but what makes a school great is the faculty. They are a very dedicated group. They all have worked in industry and embrace the emphasis on careers. We want every student to find viable jobs and have successful lives. We don’t want to create starving artists.
Did you know Atlanta is the #2 city in the U.S. for art and design jobs per capita? This is a great place to study in and immediately find a place to work in your field. There is so much here for artists and designers. I really enjoy going to events and exhibitions by SCAD and its students. I have a keen interest in seeing and experiencing our campus life as much as possible. You can never tell when you are going to be somewhere and make and important contact. It could be with a student, a parent, or a member of the community. It is a great way to network and meet others in the arts community, and I enjoy doing it. My job is a source of joy, and I couldn’t have a better one. A major part of this position is to experience as much of the campus and city as possible. To do that you have to try to be everywhere and engaged.
A few months back I looked into the mirror and saw an old man, (laughter). Another epiphany occurred. I felt like I had reached the time where I wanted to pursue some of the other interests I have in life. And I have a lot of things that I enjoy. I have a small farm 50 miles from Savannah in Bellville, Georgia, with deer, quail, turkeys, and a fish pond. I’ll be there spending time with Annie, researching and writing, enjoying working with Photoshop and video editing, listening to Elvis, playing my guitar and pondering the truths of life…
But I’m staying close by SCAD. I will still be involved with, and attend events, at both Atlanta and Savannah campuses. I will continue to be a fan of SCAD for the rest of my life.