Written by Lindsey Osborne
Photography by Angela Karen
When Jimmy McGowan encourages people to pursue that thing they’ve always been into but never had the time to try, he’s talking from experience. After getting his degree in art education, McGowan spent more than two decades in the corporate banking world. Though he says he was able to use his creative side to some degree in his position, he’d never really been able to be immersed in the world of art, which is what he loves. So when a merger cut out his corporate position, he found himself free to do what he’d always wanted to do—and that was to teach art. “I’m very fortunate in that I have a wife who’s very supportive. She said, ‘You’ve always talked about your second career being in the arts,’” he shares. “So I took my severance package and went back to UAB. Doors kept opening in the art direction, and I thought, ‘Obviously, this is the path that in this stage of my life I need to take.’ It’s been so enjoyable.”
McGowan went back to school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham to obtain his master’s in art studio and now teaches visual arts at Mountain Brook Junior High School, which he calls his day job. “It’s exciting having a new group of kids each semester,” he says of teaching, “because they’re all looking at the world differently. I might be teaching drawing again, but it’s got a whole different meaning to each kid.”
His night job? Arts coordinator of the Samford University Academy of the Arts. It’s another full-time gig that he began in January. McGowan says he saw the posting and thought it would be a good fit for him, even though it would obviously add a lot to his plate. “It sounded fun, and at this stage of my career, I’m not going to do it unless it’s fun,” McGowan says. “Plus I like a challenge.”
For McGowan, the challenge is two-fold. First is his transition into the art world, not with one position, but with two. He is learning how to manage both of his endeavors and still have time to devote to his family, which includes his wife, Nancy, and their daughters, Morgan and Melissa. He begins his day early and is in his classroom at Mountain Brook Junior High by 7:15 a.m. He is careful to take full advantage of his planning period for school planning and grading. By 3:30 in the afternoon, he’s in his office at Samford, where he usually stays until 8 in the evening. “I still have people ask me, ‘How do you do it?’ For the most part, I haven’t even thought about the time or how many days I’ve been doing it. I’ve just been enjoying it. When you’re doing something you enjoy, you don’t think about the schedule as much,” he says. “I’m very fortunate that the principal at the junior high school is so supportive. When I told him about it, he said, ‘Oh, that’s huge! The students will benefit from that also.’ He sees the big picture, that I’m going to be learning and meeting with other artists in the community and I can bring that into the school.”
The other challenge has been revamping the Samford Academy of the Arts program, which is the art division of what used to be the Samford After Sundown program. Samford After Sundown included classes from law to pharmacology; now, each school is handling its own extended learning program. McGowan’s task is to expand and improve the arts division. He says that his business background has served him well in this new role. “So far, those two have worked well together. It has been an adjustment for me—the university world is definitely different than the corporate world,” McGowan says. “I’m not an instructor; I’m more like the middleman. I get to recruit instructors and connect them with the community. At the same time, I’m responsible for the marketing, watching the numbers, putting the curriculum together.”
The heart of the program, and what McGowan is working to share, is to provide art curriculum to the community. “This is an opportunity. It’s a noncredit and it’s nontraditional, but you can pursue your interest,” McGowan explains. “It’s also an opportunity for artists. There are so many talented artists in Birmingham who want to share their passions, and this gives them that opportunity.” Classes are open to anyone aged 16 or older and range from acting to creative writing to ceramics to drawing to the most popular, the photography class. (McGowan heads up the art division, but the Academy of the Arts also offers a number of music classes as well.) There is also a children’s general art course available, as well as a number of art, music, and theater summer camps for kids. And McGowan says he’s open to hearing what the community wants as far as continued arts education. “Just like the program, the curriculum is evolving,” McGowan says. “I like to go out and meet the community, go to art shows and festivals, and I tell people, ‘I want to hear what the community wants. What kind of art courses do you want?’ And then I’ll find an instructor and we’ll put something together.”
Along with exploring an interest or talent further—or discovering new ones—is the opportunity to connect with your community, which includes both artists and others who are interested in, say, calligraphy, like you are, McGowan says. “It’s a much more informal setting,” he explains. “You can just have a good time. You can go into a class and see a couple of students in their 20s and a couple of students who are retired professionals, a couple of lawyers who are getting into creative writing. It’s a neat mix.” With smaller class sizes—an average class has about 10 people—interacting is even easier and students are able to get plenty of one-on-one time with the instructors.
In addition to bringing art to the community, McGowan wants to connect the community with its artists. He is constantly scouting for new people to bring into the fold. He frequents art shows and community events like the Magic City Art Connection, where he often strikes up conversations with artists whose work he finds intriguing. This pays off for both of his endeavors; his students love to meet real artists, so McGowan occasionally brings them in to speak to his classes. And of course, he’s always looking for potential instructors for the Academy of the Arts. “I look at their work, and if it’s interesting, we start having a conversation,” McGowan explains. “I ask them if they’ve ever considered teaching. I just get a feel for them, and we swap business cards. Later, I’ll meet them at their studios—I like meeting artists at their studios because it tells me a lot about them and their work and helps me to see if we’re going to be a good fit.
“That’s the best part of my job, getting to meet creative people,” he says. “I get bored sitting behind my desk with my computer all the time, so I love getting out in the community and meeting these great people.”
For more information on the Samford Academy of the Arts, visit their website at Samford.edu/go/aota. Registration for classes is ongoing.