Former Rchmond artist Laura Pharis and her husband drove to Sweet Briar College on Christmas Day 24 years ago. Pharis had just applied for a job.
“The snow had settled and the sun was going down,” she recalls. “I knew at that moment there was no way I could go on living if I didn’t get the job.”
At the time, Pharis was traveling around the state by Greyhound bus, serving as one of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ representatives. “It was one of those programs where you go to a museum affiliate, show slides of your work, teach a drawing class,” she says.
Pharis got the job and has built a 24-year tenure as an art teacher at Sweet Briar. She hopes to keep the position — even in the wake of the school’s closing.
“To be honest, we’ve been talking about ‘lean times’ from the moment I got here,” she quips. Pharis is what people might call a gentle soul. Her casual, charming diction could make you think she was an English professor. So it’s a wake-up call when Pharis lets loose about the much-debated and sudden closure.
“Wait until you lose your damn job, your income, your insurance, your computer, all your friends, your studio!” she says, raising her voice before clearing her throat. Pause. “Sorry, I got a little emotional there.”
Pharis is responding rhetorically to school administrators. They feigned hurt feelings when alumnae filed lawsuits against them. But Pharis has a sensible plan. This summer, she’s part of an effort to reopen the school. Despite the odds, her campaign holds promise. And like a true artist, she’ll be finding an outlet through her craft.
Near the bucolic hamlet of Amherst, less than 20 miles from Lynchburg, Sweet Briar College made national news this spring when an interim president unexpectedly announced that school would be shutted — forever — in June. The college complained of a scourge that’s affecting even elite universities: low attendance.
But Pharis cites analyses by her colleague Dan Gottlieb, published in the Roanoke Times. As Gottlieb puts it, the closure seems to have been done more out of desire than necessity. To add insult, Pharis says that faculty termination letters were received on April Fool’s Day and casually addressed professors by their first names.
Pharis has her own ulcer-inducing anecdotes to rally the troops. Many include pomp and circumstance conducted mere weeks or days before the closure announcement. James Jones, the interim president, publicized a thank-you note to an alumna who said the school’s foundation would receive $1,000 when she died.
Anger can be fuel, Pharis says. She’s busy making sure Sweet Briar has the requisite employees if a lawsuit allows the school to reopen. Her social media accounts have become an up-to-date source on the #SaveSweetBriar affair, too.
“I feel like all I read any more is Facebook,” she says, with a weary laugh.
Printmaking has predisposed Pharis to seek the diamond that can emerge from patient labor. When she graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1970, she taught in Richmond’s Montessori schools for five years. But she couldn’t let go of creating art.
She remained particularly attached to etching and the meticulous work of small-scale, wood engraving. “That’s a very [obsessive compulsive disorder] art form,” she says. “But I’ve always channeled that hard energy into dreamlike images.”
Veteran local artists might recall Pharis as a founding member of One/Off, a printmaking collective that recently showed at the Hill Gallery. The printmaking workshop on the 1500 block of Cary Street, which she helped run for seven years, wasn’t exactly bohemian. “It used to be a funeral home,” she says, “with a hole in the ceiling to transport caskets.” She frequently teaches weekend workshops at the Virginia Museum’s Studio School.
The fight for hope is a daily struggle. Pharis has to pull herself out of reverie sometimes, wondering what her future would be like without the butterfly gardens, the students who bring horses instead of cars, the campus dress code of pajamas and pearls.
“Something gets snatched away and it makes you love it more,” she says. S