Q&A: Meaghan Steele (’11) and Leigh Anne White (’11)

The 5&Under program at the Wake Forest University START Gallery invites recent Art Department alumni who are five years out – or less – to exhibit their work and speak with current students about their transition after graduation and developing a career in the arts. Recently, Meaghan Steele (’11) and Leigh Anne White (‘11) returned to campus to share insights with students about their experiences and art-related careers. The following is an edited, condensed interview with news intern Dwayne Peterkin II (’17).

Tell me about your career.

Leigh Anne White: I’m an exhibit designer at Design Dimension Inc., a design firm in Raleigh. My role is to take a concept or idea from a client turn that idea into a three dimensional world.

Meaghan Steele: I work at Sotheby’s Auction House in New York. I work for the International Managing Director of the Jewelry and Watches division as his executive assistant. In addition to scheduling and coordinating various projects, I also work with our global jewelry and watch teams on various strategies and initiatives that are in the fold.

What inspired you to pursue a career in art?

White: I knew I needed to do something that wasn’t just sitting at a desk all day. It’s part of the reason I became a studio art major; I enjoyed creating tangible things for my studio classes and I needed a career that followed suit. Leigh Anne Hallberg and Paul Bright did a good job of pushing me in that direction and making me believe that I could find a career as an artist or designer. Not a lot of people are art majors and it can seem intimidating when you’re surrounded by people on different career paths, but I was given a foundation that I could confidently leap off from. The liberal arts background I obtained from Wake made me a stronger candidate because it made me well rounded and able to work with a variety of subjects, not just art. Being able to quickly learn about a different subject or topic is surprisingly a large part of working in the arts. A lot of people don’t understand working in the arts means that you’re also working with science, history, and business. I guess I knew that my passion was creating.

Steele: I agree. A lot of people don’t understand that working in the arts mean that you’re working with history, science, and business, etc. A Wake education helps you realize that the arts is a diverse field.

Are there any lessons you learned at Wake that you carry with you into your career or daily lives?

Steele: The one thing that you don’t think about when you’re writing all those papers in college is just how important it is to be a strong writer post-graduation. The amount of time we spend writing emails is quite amazing. Another one is just not being afraid of trying something new. There are these connections between everything you’re doing at Wake and the opportunities that you’re presented with post-Wake. History finds a way of sinking into your current life and while at Wake you don’t spend all your time in college thinking about how you’re being prepared for real life, but your professors are helping shape how you think and how you act.

White: I agree with Meaghan about the writing. I don’t personally write much because my career is so visual, but that being said, I am able to understand clients’ writing. I am able to offer advice on creating conducive text for visitor experience. I give full credit to Wake for that. I also say just take advantage of every professor and opportunity. That is something that has definitely helped me. I am back today because these professors continue guiding me and they continue to care about their students even past graduation.

Steele: That’s something that I think is really special about Wake is that the relationships with your friends and the people you meet along the way don’t end. It really doesn’t end with your professors either. Whenever Paul Bright or Leigh Anne [White] are in New York I try to see them. There is always dialogue as to what the other one is doing. I think it’s really amazing that the people you had rooting for you in college are still there and still your biggest advocates. That‘s something special about the art department.

What makes the art department at Wake Forest unique?

Steele: The thread between all Wake departments is that they instill a work ethic in each student. At some point in your four years, you have to learn how to multitask and to be proactive. You see a lot of students at other schools struggling to figure out how to deal with a crazy schedule and not letting any detail fall through the cracks. Wake students have that mentality of doing more and also wanting to be social. It’s difficult to know how to balance work and life post-college; to get everything done during your 9-5 and yet be able to have a life outside of work.

White: For the art department, specifically, you have to learn how to stand up for yourself as an artist. I think people at Wake in the art department have the advantage of being surrounded by people who aren’t in the arts. I remember being in college and my friends telling me that I didn’t really have work compared to them and having to make them realize my work is just as challenging, but different. It takes effort, intelligence, and skills to be in the Wake Art Department. That is going to continue in the real world because the arts are such a small sector. I learned how to stick up for myself as an artist at Wake. It has allowed me to really flourish in my career and work well with clients from all backgrounds. That is a huge thing that Wake provided for me.

Steele: I think the special thing about being in the arts here is that you are in sort of a subset of the Wake Forest population. For me a lot of people don’t understand what my job entails. You can read about the arts and auction in the newspaper, but what I do on a daily basis has a lot of connecting threads to what my friends in business and other industries are doing. It’s always fun for me to explain what I do to those outside of the arts, and for them to also discover the similarities between my job and theirs.

How has the arts program transformed and what do you think about its direction?

White: They are working on doing a lot of new things and are passionate about pushing the art department to be even greater and more prevalent on campus. This lecture series is something that wasn’t here five years ago. It’s a wonderful opportunity for the students because it’s scary to feel like you don’t know how people got where they are. To have the opportunity to hear from people who aren’t much older than you who have found careers in something maybe you’ve been considering is exciting. Watching the professors still greet students out in the lobby of Scales shows that they have intentional and personal relationships with their students which I think is pretty rare in a larger college setting.

Steele: I think it’s been exciting to see how the department has evolved and how visible it is on campus. The fact that START Gallery is still up and running is tremendous because it was just starting when we were here. When we started our freshman year, the arts at Wake Forest were Scales, art history, the studio department. All you really knew of was the collection in Benson. It’s been amazing to see that it evolved a lot over our four years here at Wake and continues to evolve.

What was it like to come back and speak to students?

White: It was very weird coming back and feeling like I was old enough to offer wisdom. I remember being a student, watching alumni return and making me realize that what I had here was special and that people had truly succeeded after leaving Wake. We will hopefully offer the same to students. It shows you a great side of the art department and how they want the alumni to connect to current students.

Steele: When I was in the process of looking for my first full time job, the conversation was, “Okay, it’s time for you to network with various people in New York that are in the arts and speak with them about how they got to the position that they are in.” It is a process of using the network that you have. Everyone who goes to Wake Forest loves talking about it and it is an automatic conversation starter, but then when you speak with other Wake Forest arts alumni, there’s just another level of excitement.

Has coming back made you miss anything from your time here as a student?

White: The community and being able to walk around campus.

Steele: You spend four years here. You become so fortunate to establish strong relationships with people that you had no idea existed and these are the relationships that completely change your life. Three of my closest girlfriends from Wake and I were recently talking about how these relationships have changed us. It’s just wonderful to be able to come back here where you take your first steps as an adult.