A native of Wales who grew up in Florida, Joan Falconer Byrd was drawn to North Carolina by the stories of her younger brother Frank who went to college in the state in the 1960s. He told her that North Carolina was a state for the arts with thriving communities of potters and painters. A young woman in her 20s who had just finished graduate school, Byrd was working at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts when Frank convinced her to take a summer job at a camp in Henderson County. She hoped to eventually find a teaching position in the state.
Meanwhile, in Jackson County an hour away, academic offerings were expanding on a campus that had just become a regional university. High-rise residence halls would soon be going up to house more students. The fledgling art program’s first department head, Perry Kelly, had met Byrd while working in another job in Raleigh and was impressed with her background, an artist-scholar who had served in the Peace Corps. WCU representatives visited for a job interview while she was working at the summer camp and quickly hired Byrd to join the small art faculty. She arrived on campus just before fall classes began in 1968.
Her first year, working with students in the ceramics room in muddy clay up to her elbows, she dressed in skirts and blouses. “Mother had more or less always wanted me to wear skirts, and even in the years in the Peace Corps, I was always slogging around in skirts. But here I switched to jeans,” said Byrd. “Mother became reconciled to them toward the end of her life and that was a good thing, because I’ve worn them for years and never looked back.”
After 46 years on the faculty, Byrd, a diminutive figure for whom the jeans became a trademark style, is retiring from her position as professor of art. Her last day will be June 30. “Really, it’s quite staggering to me to think that the university has been here for 125 years, and that I’ve been here for more than a third of that time,” she said. “And in all of these years, I never looked for another job. I have been extremely happy here and had very good times with my students. Teaching is a rich life, that’s all there is to it.”
Over the years, through the administrations of nine presidents and chancellors, Byrd served in many roles in the School of Art and Design, as the art department is now known. In addition to teaching classes, she filled in as department head when there was a vacancy, coordinated the Master of Fine Arts Program, curated major North Carolina glass exhibits and other displays, published dozens of scholarly papers and wrote the biography of a major American artist.
As she did all of those things, Byrd also was busy making beautiful wood-fired functional ceramic ware at home.
She and her husband and fellow potter, George Rector ’78 ’80 MA ’88 have a studio, Caledonia Pottery, where she plans to devote more time when she retires. She and Rector also are deeply involved with a land trust of 145 acres that they own in the Speedwell community near the WCU campus. They are organic gardeners active in environmental preservation causes.
Byrd chose pottery as her art medium while in college. “I have always liked getting my hands into clay, so that’s what I gravitated toward,” she said. “I’ve never been particularly well coordinated, but when I throw I feel very coordinated. I feel as if I’m in touch with the benevolent forces of the universe when I’m at the potter’s wheel.”
In nearly half a century of teaching, she prodded, nurtured and challenged countless art majors. Byrd has a reputation for having high expectations. Yet she also is known for being generous with her time and opening doors to opportunities. Years after they graduate, many students stay in touch with her.
“Joan was always a taskmaster and I have memories of her strolling around the classroom to look at the work we were doing. She pushed hard if you were an art major because she felt your work should be a cut above,” said Mary Yakush ’76, a former student who is still close to Byrd and edited a book she wrote. “I thought Joan was the coolest person I had ever met. She was independent and strong and intellectual, and I wanted to be just like her.”
Susan Parrot Ward ’76 was so grateful for the positive experience and encouragement she received as a struggling work-study student that she and her husband, Randall Ward, a successful Raleigh businessman, said “thank you” with a $150,000 donation to the School of Art and Design for the ceramics program. The endowment established through the gift makes it possible to bring prominent artists, including many alumni, to WCU for workshops. “To be able to bring great artists to campus is a terrific experience for students that has enriched and enlivened our program, and we owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to Susan and Randall,” said Byrd. The Wards also made a gift of $35,000 for a car kiln for firing large pieces. In March, they announced plans to establish an endowed scholarship fund to honor Byrd and support WCU ceramics students, with an initial gift of $10,000 and a challenge to alumni and friends to help the fund reach $20,000.
Workshops on campus and field trips to studios that Byrd arranges for her students give them the opportunity to meet the artists they often read about in class. Don Reitz, considered to be one of the best ceramic artists in North America, is one of her former teachers. Byrd has brought him to WCU to demonstrate his sculpture techniques for her students and Reitz, in turn, has invited students to his studio in Clarksdale, Ariz., for learning experiences. She also had a close relationship with Arie Meaders and often took students to the Meaders family pottery studios in northern Georgia. Meaders, who died in 1989, was the matriarch of the famous family of Southern potters whose work is now in the Smithsonian.
Byrd also has long-standing ties with Penland School of Crafts, an international center for craft education for which North Carolina is well known. Penland is a frequent destination for WCU ceramic students’ field trips. “North Carolina is the most important state for ceramics in the entire country,” said Byrd. “That’s exciting and one of the reasons I’ve been so happy teaching here. We have potters whose work is rich in tradition, who were taught by their fathers and grandfathers going back to the 18th century, and we also have potters doing contemporary work that is cutting edge.”
Born in Cardiff, Wales, Byrd is the daughter of an English father and an American mother who were both teachers. Her parents, sister and brother survived bombing raids in Cardiff during World War II, but the school building where her father taught was devastated, and the family came to the U.S. in 1947. They settled in Lakeland, Fla., where Byrd’s father was head of the English department at Florida Southern College. An uncle, Eric Byrd, a well-known painter who divided his time between Canada and South Africa, inspired her childhood interest in art.
As a young teenager, she dreamed of an acting career but changed her mind while a student at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., and majored in art. After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where in 1962 she was one of the six students in the first class taught by Harvey K. Littleton that began the groundbreaking studio glass movement. She graduated with a master’s of science degree in 1963. Two years of Peace Corps volunteer service followed in Sierra Leone, where Byrd taught art, English and math. While there, she had the rare opportunity to study with Michael Cardew, the world-renowned potter from England who set up a pottery training center in Nigeria.
After the Peace Corps, Byrd returned to the University of Wisconsin to work on a master of fine arts degree. Though she had settled on ceramics as her own artistic medium, she continued her close association with Littleton and wrote numerous articles about the glass movement. Molten glass had up to that time been used only in factories to produce commercial ware. Littleton, who recognized the great potential in glass as a medium for artists, brought it to the studio. On a trip to open a glass exhibit at WCU in 1976, Littleton decided to relocate to North Carolina after visiting Penland, where one of his former students had introduced glassblowing. He moved with his family to Spruce Pine, where he was living at the time of his death in December 2013 at the age of 91.
Byrd told Littleton’s story in the biography she wrote, “Harvey K. Littleton: A Life in Glass,” published in 2012 by Skira Rizzoli Publications Inc. of New York. Yakush, her former student, served as the book’s editor and convinced Skira Rizzoli to publish it. The book’s research and writing was a 10-year project for Byrd. “I was fond of Harvey and always looked up to him,” she said. “Because I was in that first class and part of the early glass movement, I felt I could tell the story accurately. I have always loved Harvey’s story.”
Matt Liddle, director of the School of Art and Design, said Byrd is a great role model for students and will be deeply missed. “She’s the person who always steps up wherever there’s a need. Even after all these years, she continues to be fresh, vibrant and caring,” he said. “She’s responsible for the nice collaborative energy we have in the ceramics shop, which is a solid program with great connections, ready to go to the next level, thanks to Joan.”
Contributions to the newly formed Joan Byrd Scholarship Fund may be made online at give.wcu.edu.
Checks should be mailed to the WCU Foundation, 201 H.F. Robinson Building, Cullowhee, N.C. 28723. Designate that the gift is for the Joan Byrd Scholarship. For information, contact Meg White at 828.227.3343.