With artful skilled strokes, Carol Fountain Nix designs the path of the Crafts Center as well as her own.
Arts NC State is pleased to present the “Meet the Arts NC State Directors” series. This spotlight features Carol Fountain Nix, director of the Crafts Center. Nix discusses how traditional craft leans into technology to create new products, art, and technique.
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What is your name? Position at Arts NC State?
I’m Carol Fountain Nix, director of the Crafts Center and C:LAB Makerspace. I’ve been at NC State for nine years. I was previously at the College of Design, where I served a dual role as Assistant Professor of the Practice and the Director of Marketing and Public Relations.
Other connections to NC State?
I can say I have NC State in my blood. My first visit to campus was as a young participant in Coach Kay Yow’s summer basketball camp. Coming from the mountains of NC, I thought Raleigh was the hottest place in the world and wondered how people survived here. Coach Yow was one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. Little did I know at the time that I would be back at NC State as a graduate student in the College of Design, where I received my master’s degree in visual and industrial design.
During that time, I was awarded a paid internship with a Chicago firm and worked there for six months. When I returned to complete my thesis, I began working for Forma Design, one of the area’s premier design firms, which was run by two College of Design alums. At Forma, I received an invaluable, lifetime education in the business of design: working with clients, pricing and financial management, project management, and new technologies. We had an international account that required me to travel abroad several times, which added to my education and broadened my experiences. This prepared me to start my own business a few years later – in Raleigh – and yes, it’s still too hot!
Background/interest in the arts that led to today?
I’ve always been interested in letters and typography. When I was in high school, I was on the yearbook staff. Back then (I’m telling on myself here!) there were no computers and advertisers didn’t send in digital files. I literally drew their logos and hand-lettered the ads. Once I discovered calligraphy, I was hooked. This led to a lifetime of living, learning and teaching calligraphy – in all styles and forms.
It is an art form that is extremely technical and endlessly creative. I enjoy the challenge to make “perfect” letterforms as well as the opportunity to bring words into a visual context. Most people think of very traditional, formal lettering when they think of calligraphy. My work is a contemporary mixture of abstract marks and mixed media with embedded layers of calligraphy.
I also enjoy teaching calligraphy. During quarantine, I set up my home studio and taught several Crafts Center sessions on Zoom. I’m particularly excited about combining new technologies such as digital engraving with calligraphy to create signage, homewares, and all kinds of customized items.
I’m also proud and honored to be collaborating with the NC Poet Laureate, Jaki Shelton Green, using her amazing poetry to create a series of works in mixed media. Her words are powerful and they demand a high level of visual interpretation, so I’m learning new techniques and relishing the opportunity to create works that have lasting impact.
What are three words that you would use to describe the Crafts Center?
Community. Creativity. Craft.
The Crafts Center is the largest university crafts center in the nation and is a longstanding gem on this campus. It has evolved from a woodshop in the 1950s to a vibrant hub of creativity, skills-based instruction and academic support. The term “craft” signifies a high level of artistic skill. Our mission is to teach our students life-long skills – once someone achieves proficiency in a particular skill, they have it for life. The center is also a destination for members who come in and work during open studio hours. There is just a good “vibe” here with students of all ages working together, exchanging ideas and enjoying the creative process.
The opening of our new C:LAB makerspace has added a new dimension to our offerings. We’re now able to broaden the scope of our programming to teach courses in professional development, digital media, and 3D modeling as well as fuse traditional, handmade work with new technologies to achieve groundbreaking results. The Crafts Center is the center for creativity on NC State’s campus.
We are open to the public as well as to all university affiliates, so the center has a broad reach across the Triangle community. Our staff, instructors, volunteers and students comprise a vibrant community of makers within a very unique and welcoming environment.
What are you excited about with regard to the Crafts Center and the 2021/2022 academic year?
We have a big year planned! I’m most excited about a campus-wide initiative we’re spearheading called “Art of Remembrance,” a series of events, lectures, academic projects and exhibitions to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
We will host a memorial commemoration ceremony in Stewart Theatre on Saturday, September 11 at 7 p.m. that will feature dance and music performances by our NC State students, as well as emotionally compelling videos and presentations from alumni, a poetry reading, and comments from the chancellor. We hope this series will provide some framework and historical context for our students, many of whom were not even born in 2001. It is important to learn from the past in order to understand and prepare for the future.
I’m also excited about our new CraftCARE Wellness Through Creativity series in collaboration with The Counseling Center. During quarantine, our team did a miraculous job of retooling all programming and offering virtual classes. Many people have said that our classes “kept them sane” throughout a very difficult time. This fall, we are featuring a class where students learn to make and customize their own cajon drum, then learn to play it in a final session led by a drumming and wellness expert. I truly enjoy creating “full circle” classes that reach new audiences and broaden the creative experience for students.
Additionally, the new C:LAB Digital Fabrication and Conceptual Craft Makerspace will be open starting this fall. [“C” for: craft, creativity, connection, collaboration, conception and code.] This has been an extremely exciting project to get off the ground and we were fortunate to secure the necessary funding to make it a reality. The C:LAB’s goal is to augment traditional craft media with digital technology to create new forms, prototypes and even commercial products. So many of our students and community members are interested in entrepreneurialism, design and creating/launching their own product lines.
Our new “Digital Development Series” will offer classes focused on specific software programs, professional development, personal branding/marketing, and more. Our students live in a digital world and the C:LAB is designed to “meet students where they live” by providing relevant programming and new technologies that can dovetail with our traditional craft education. I can’t wait to see what our artists and students will come up with!
If you had to name one thing that you are most proud of in your career, what is it?
I started a branding/design firm, NIXdesign, in 1992, after I completed my graduate work at the College of Design. I remember trying to come up with name for the company and I sketched out dozens of possibilities, but none really resonated until a drew out: “NIXdesign.” The irony is that “nix” essentially means “to get rid of,” so my clients had a lot of fun saying, “Just NIX it!” At least it was memorable.
NIXdesign was consistently rated one of the Triangle’s “Top 25 Multimedia Firms” by the Triangle Business Journal. Those days were magical even though I worked 24/7! We were one of the very first firms to create websites and utilize the new technologies, so the business grew rapidly. We worked with national clients such as Robert Isabell NYC, Burt’s Bees, and The Body Shop. I designed the Quintiles logo and we became the transnational company’s agency of record for many years, creating all of their brand materials.
I loved creating work that catapulted our clients’ success. I experienced the “boom” of the early 90s and renovated a downtown office space on Dawson Street and eventually expanded to the second floor, renovating it as a loft apartment. Back then, that area of Raleigh was not exactly the safest. The fact that no one would believe someone lived there was my safety.
My open-space loft was incredible – it even had a rope-powered lift between the two floors. We would go out on the roof and look out over the city. At that time, Raleigh was not even close to the burgeoning city it is today. Living and working in such an untapped, urban area was renegade, edgy and creatively inspirational. My clients loved it! So many of them were high-tech start-ups and I think they felt like they were in a larger city, working with a cutting-edge firm.
At one point I had 15 people – my staff was comprised of a premier group of incredibly talented designers and programmers. We were very future-forward, which contributed to our success. Some of the software we developed is still being used today. Had the crash of 2008 not happened, we’d probably still be rocking! That experience made me much more aware of how cultural, political and thus, economic events, affect businesses. It made me “think forward.”
Entrepreneurism is in my family and is definitely an ongoing part of my career path. I have licensed my artwork for several product lines and designed products that are still on the market today.
I hold several design patents and started my own product line, FountainArts, in 2014. “Fountain” has been a middle name in our family for generations. I love bringing products to market and teaching students how to commercialize their work. Our C:LAB curriculum will focus on entrepreneurialism and creativity, teaching artists the business of design, marketing and self-promotion.
Tell us something that might surprise us about you.
I lettered in four sports in high school and was selected for the NC All-State basketball team in my senior year. Sports taught me so much about life, business and teamwork. I was a “ferocious competitor,” as I was recently told, which has always been a part of my work ethic.
What is the strangest job you’ve ever had?
Strangest? Babysitting. One time I left the room to answer a phone call and came back to find that the two boys had pulled both sliding closet doors off the tracks, strewn all the nicely folded towels and linens all over the place, and climbed up onto the top shelves with their toy guns. That was a bit much for 50 cents an hour!
I once worked in a wallpaper store and my wallpaper hanging skills were so bad, the owner relegated me to sign-making – which went much more smoothly.
What is your favorite indoor/outdoor activity?
Indoor: Calligraphy and abstract painting – making art. My mother-in-law named my downstairs studio, “The Hole.” Now she often asks, “Is she down in The Hole?” I don’t get much time in my studio, but I try to at least get in 30 minutes minimum each day. A day without creating something just feels a bit empty to me. I struggle with the “right brain/left brain” dynamic: the business side questions the value of my time and the worth of what I’m creating. Yet art is a deeply intrinsic part of who I am and not everything has to have a dollar sign attached to it. The joy I receive from creating and making is indeed priceless. I guess the right side always wins!
My best calligraphy teaching gigs were at Facebook and Adobe headquarters a few years ago. I taught calligraphic forms to the folks who design the typefaces we use so often. They had never picked up a pen!
As a professional designer, there is a process to everything I create. In my work at the Crafts Center, the practice of “design thinking” is constantly a part of my process: Who are our audiences? How might we create alliances and collaborations to solve problems, provide value, and improve the lives of our students? How can we create user-friendly environments and experiences – within our spaces, our communications and our practices?
Outdoor: Cycling. I’ve had a bike for as long as I can remember. As a child, it provided a sense of freedom and adventure. Later on, I got into cycling quite seriously and rode an average of 200 miles a week. My longest ride was for an annual multiple sclerosis fundraiser ride where I did the “Century,” over 100 miles each day. My wife and I recently got e-bikes and it’s been a gamechanger. We ride everywhere!
If you could learn to do anything, what would it be?
I would like to learn guitar theory and lead guitar. I have played guitar, mostly by ear, since I was 10 and have never had the time to really dig in and learn more to improve my skills. I purchased my first guitar, a Martin D28, when I was 12, using my saved babysitting money, so I guess it was worth it after all.