In the beginning, the center operated out of the basement of a building at The College of Wooster, where William’s parents, Ted and Yvonne Williams, taught. Lesley Williams took classes in drama and photography and drawing and eventually moved to dance. “I just remember it being a place I came with some of my friends,” she said. “I just remember it was so much fun there. Welcoming and fun.”
The center moved to the former Walnut Street School in downtown Wooster, and Williams graduated from Wooster High School and moved on to Yale University.
And she’s come home to Wooster and to the place she said “fed me in some really important ways.”
Williams was hired late last year to serve as the center’s operations director, though she said she was not necessarily looking to relocate from North Carolina, where she’d worked for 15 years for the North Carolina Arts Council Folklife Section and the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina. Prior to that, Williams worked as the first folk arts program director with the South Carolina Arts Council.
Working as a folklorist, Williams said, means doing much more than collecting stories. In that field, she would research, document and present tradition culture in a given area, whether it be quilting, basketry or forms of musical expression. After all, she said, folklore literally means “the wisdom of the people.”
Many traditions are passed down orally, so it is important to have a record, even though you’re “interrupting the cycle because you’re trying to get a record of it,” Williams said.
Still, she said, “it was such an opportunity to meet a variety of people and have the type of conversations that you don’t get to have in everyday life.”
After the recession of 2008, Williams said, both public and private monies to support arts organizations started to dry up, so she went out on her own and freelanced, as well as worked for a nonprofit organization and for a chamber music organization.
She was home to visit her mother, who suggested she might want to visit the arts center, which had a new executive director and some other new staff members. Executive director Dayna Sear is “such a dynamic go-getter type of person,” Williams said, and the two hit it off. The conversation culminated with a job offer.
She is happy to be back in the mix after working on her own or in a one-person office. “Taking this job,” she said, “gave me the opportunity to be in a vibrant work environment” where the goal is to offer arts experiences to everyone. To that end, Williams will oversee gallery shows and course offerings like the new Super Saturday program set to begin in March. That program, Williams said, will happen monthly and will begin with some sort of performance at 10 a.m., followed by activities for the entire family.
A good number of center staff members have been hired in just the past year, so Williams described the current atmosphere in the building as “a little chaotic, but a lot of fun.” The goal of everyone, she said, is to offer as many arts experiences to as many people as possible. And doing that forces them to be creative in ways that stretch beyond the arts. “Creativity also is about how to make things work,” she said, “with what you have.”
It is a bit unusual to have an arts center in a town the size of Wooster without having it tied to a local government. It has happened locally, Williams said, because of the degree of commitment from the community.
And while she’s been gone awhile, William has not completely lost touch with her Wooster roots. “It’s not 30 years cold turkey,” she said. “It’s fun. It’s fun and disorienting at the same time.”
And she’s ready to stay. “I just picked up my life and moved 500 miles,” she said. “So I better be.”
Published: February 16, 2015