At the Culinary Institute of Virginia campus in Norfolk, instructor Shelley Kilby reviews the lesson plan for her A La Carte class. Along with a variety of succulent meats and fish, Shelley tosses colorful vegetables, healthy whole grains, and aromatic herbs into “mystery baskets.” Her students will later use these ingredients to create a sumptuous meal.
Not far away, Mary Ahlman, a Regent University film student, reviews a screenplay, pondering the multitude of details to be ironed out for her latest video production.
Colette, Shelley, and Mary represent the fortunate women among us who are living their passion. From fabric to food to film, the common theme is the embodiment of the creative process—taking colors, spices, and scripts and transforming them into meaningful expressions.
Studies have shown that everyone has the capacity for creativity. Flexing the right brain can be daunting and chaotic, however, yet with practice and courage, creativity can become a trusted, learned skill for even the most “left-brained.”
Melding creativity and career can be a lifelong ambition or a straightforward career path. Those who create this balanced lifestyle successfully combine their artistic energy with fearless spontaneity. Here are a few inspiring stories.
Originally from Australia, Colette Johnston previously worked in an administrative role for a government agency. A move to Hampton Roads several years ago and remission from her battle with breast cancer marked the beginning of her transition to the creative side of life. After carefully considering her options, Colette walked through the doors of Tidewater Community College’s interior design department last year at age 47. It was the first time she had stepped into a school in over 30 years.
“I come from an artistic, musical family,” Colette recalled. “You could say that creativity was somewhat in my blood. For me, it emerged as dabbling in interior design and home improvement. So when the opportunity presented itself to return to school, I grabbed it.” Now well on her way to an associate of applied science degree and a new career as an interior designer, Colette is living her dream.
TCC’s interior design program includes 200 students—primarily women in their mid-20s to 50s, some retired military, most with life experience, each drawn to the comprehensive, hands-on approach that the college offers. Senior citizens also audit the classes for free. The degree program focuses on a broad array of skill development in such areas as commercial and residential design, building codes and estimation, lighting design, and client presentations. Certificates are also offered for associate designer, green interiors, and kitchen and bath design.
“We are a full-fledged design program and not a decorating program,” said Robert Pappas, adjunct professor. “We do more than mood boards and staging. We teach design with projects based on real-world problems.” Field trips are an important part of the program, and guests frequently lecture in specialty areas such as window treatments, flooring, and fabrics.
The TCC interior design department boasts eight instructors with backgrounds in antiques, architecture, Auto-CAD, feng shui, and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Instructor Peggy Joy Cross, a former real estate broker and sales promotion manager, began her career in interior design in 1988, focusing on the residential market. While still consulting in feng shui and color selection, Peggy also teaches a variety of classes at TCC. In her Styles of Furniture and Interiors class, for example, students explore ancient patterns and symbols still in use.
“I try to convey an understanding of how interior design is a reflection of our entire society—past, present and future,” Peggy said. “We might see Egyptian and Byzantine wave patterns showing up in fabric, tile, and wall coverings. Or we might study the universal themes of circles and crescents and how these symbols are manifest in today’s architecture.”
Ultimately, Peggy’s goal is to prepare students like Colette for the workplace—to create spaces that support clients and the life and work they want to experience. “Much of interior design is creative intuition,” Peggy said. “We take the student’s interest to a deeper level, to a knowing of space planning, costs, presentation, and products.” For Peggy, the joy in teaching interior design is seeing students grow in their skills and understand their talents in new ways.
SENSE OF COMMUNITY
Shelley Kilby is one of 22 instructors for the Culinary Institute of Virginia (CIV). She teaches a buffet of courses—basic sauces, correct knife cuts, nutrition—as well as classes in butchering fish, calling orders, and mastering Scandinavian, Greek, Cajun, and Spanish cuisine. “I’ve always loved to cook,” Shelley said. “Growing up, I recall visiting my grandfather’s farm and fishing, crabbing, and roasting oysters. It seemed my family was always growing, cooking, and eating together.”
A native of Virginia Beach, Shelley has worked at many local restaurants, including Sugar Plum Bakery, Bella Monte, and Blue Pete’s. In addition to sharing her passion for cooking with students at CIV, Shelley has her own catering company, Shell’s Catering, which features her signature southern cuisine—think crab cake over cheese grits with remoulade sauce and asparagus. Even Shelley’s children are involved in cooking. Her two kids recently attended a summer fishing camp, where campers catch, clean, and cook the fish.
Shelley most enjoys sharing her love for the culinary arts with her students. Currently, 420 students attend CIV with a typical class size of twenty. As part of a diverse group of instructors, Shelley shares CIV’s commitment to hands-on educational experience. Each student makes every single sauce, for example, and creative expression is consistently encouraged.
Skills so carefully practiced in the kitchen are tested in the fast-paced environment of CIV’s mock restaurants. Students are also required to work in two different externships in local restaurants. As part of its community service endeavors, the school participates in Kids Café, a Foodbank program that helps feed area children.
The opportunity for creativity in the culinary arts world is virtually limitless. It was this creativity combined with a fun, fast-paced environment that drew Shawna Cummings, 24, to CIV. “The art comes in how I cook the foods,” Shawna said. “Do I want to braise, sear, or roast this beef? How do I spice it? Then I take the techniques I’ve learned in school to create the complementary food pairings. In this field, you’re always creating on the spot.”
Shelley also loves the creativity of on-the-spot cooking, as well as the sense of community at CIV. “For me, it’s all about being part of a community of people who love the same thing,” she said. With eight-hour days in close quarters, instructors become close to their students as they help them hone skills and discover their personal niches. And, within this artistic community, the creative sparks play off of one another. Inspirational culinary decisions perfected through experimentation and fine-tuning follow the linear logistics of an efficient kitchen line—all the way to the customer’s table. Shelley and Shawna agree that while the creative process is what drives their passion, the ultimate goal is for the prepared dish to look and taste delicious—and for the customer to walk away smiling.
There’s no doubt that modern film has a significant impact on our society. With a captive audience being stimulated through sight and sound for 100+ minutes, Mary Ahlman—currently working on her MFA in directing at Regent—knew this industry was the venue through which to tell her stories.
Mary believes she has been slowly led down the road to becoming a film director. She grew up with a mother who constantly encouraged her to tell stories and think outside the box. Mary took a film course during her undergraduate work and instantly became enthralled with the industry. She began her studies as a screenwriter and slowly migrated to the directing side of the film world as her confidence grew and her talents came to light.
“I am a very visual person with an ability to see complex layering in relationships, said Mary, 30. “Plus, I’m a natural multi-tasker. Those characteristics combined with my experiences in writing naturally led me to film directing. I’m part businessperson, part storyteller.” With an unfathomable amount of details to line up for each film—from make-up to wardrobe to actors—film production is undeniably a collaborative art.
Mary is firm in her conviction that the best way to be a storyteller is to be fascinated by the world. Where does she find her stories? Almost anywhere! Mary reads books on quantum theory, magazines on photography and painting, anything it seems. “In seeing someone else’s spark of creativity, I can file that idea away and later incorporate it into a script,” she said. Mary bends toward independent film directing and currently shoots dramatic science fiction films—never wanting to play it safe, always pushing the boundaries in complexity.
Her ability to create with confidence was nurtured and molded by the professors in the communication and arts department of Regent University. Like her protégé, Lorene M. Wales, PhD, is fueled by her passion for film. For 14 years, Lorene has taught students like Mary the intricacies of film production. Teaching from a real-world perspective and relaying the mistakes and successes she has made during her career is how Lorene now “gives back.”
Lorene has a passion for stories about “the forgotten,” whether they’re special needs children, victims of racial and gender bias, or simply little known historical events. “The story stems from a passion inside me. It has to come from there. If I’m angry about something, I’ll make a film about it,” Lorene said. It’s this passion, this willingness to take an idea, explore it, and then relay the technical details to students that exemplifies Lorene’s teaching style.
Mary Ahlman appreciates the expertise of her professors, Regent’s flexible curriculum, and the nurturing atmosphere at the university. “I was very green and not at all confident at first,” she said. “The professors just kept encouraging me that I did have talent.” Through hard work, courage, and positive reinforcement, Mary now believes she can be extremely competitive in the film environment. “Sundance and the Academy Awards are out there for me,” she said.
Whether creating for a living space, “on the spot” for the palate, or a collaborative visual story, these women stimulate the senses as they shape and form products with meaning and purpose. And, while we might think of creativity as a purely right-brained function, it is in fact a discipline of the mind and spirit that lassoes ideas and transforms them into something that fulfills us all.
And, that’s a wrap…
Debi Wacker is a freelance writer, and owner of LightSource Marketing, a marketing and advertising firm dedicated to helping organizations grow. She lives a creative life with her husband and three children in Virginia Beach. For information, call 757-647-6603 or visit www.lightsourcemarketing.com.