Memphis Daily News Chandler Reports Nashville Ledger
» Subscribe Today!
The Power of Information
The Ledger - Est. 1978 - Knoxville Edition

Forgot your password?
Skip Navigation LinksHome > Article
VOL. 43 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 16, 2019

Arrowmont's best friend ... again

May's mission

By Nancy Henderson

Print | Front Page | Email this story

For Bill May, what happened on Nov. 28, 2016, was the unfortunate result of “the perfect storm.”

Drought had parched the fallen leaves blanketing the ground at Chimney Tops 2 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg. “Like everybody, (we thought we were okay) until the wind changed direction and got up to 90 miles an hour and the rain didn’t come and the fire started hopping all over the place and power lines started going down and starting new fires,” says May, 66, executive director of Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.

“But when that wind started blowing, everything started moving and it was literally just a matter of what seems like minutes but obviously was several hours.”

Ultra-protective of the school where over the years he’d taken and taught classes, eventually overseeing operations, May headed to the nearby fire station to make sure Arrowmont was on the list of priority places to save. Firefighters assured him it was.

Driving back to the school, he saw a glow emanating from the park. “And when I got to the far end of town,” he explains, “there were flames coming down the mountain behind the buildings.”

Bill May, executive director of Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, has been a businessman and artist. Arrowmont is his passion project. 

-- Photos By Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

Born in Birmingham, May majored in psychology and English at Tulane University in New Orleans, thinking he might become a college professor but yearning to travel first. While living in Washington, D.C., where his cousin was the bureau chief of The Los Angeles Times, he entertained the idea of becoming a journalist, but changed his mind and earned his master’s degree in English before admitting he needed a real job. After earning his teaching certificate, he taught high school English for a year in the late 1970s, but decided that education wasn’t his cup of tea either.

“I had many incarnations and I’ve never pursued a career,” May says. “I’ve pursued a place to live and I’ve pursued interesting work and some people would say I’ve pursued any job where I didn’t have to wear a tie and a coat.”

In 1980, May moved to his chosen place – Sevier County – to live close to the land with a few animals and a garden. “I came (in the past) with my Boy Scout troop and my Explorer Post and had spent a lot of time doing winter backpacking in the Smokies,” he recalls. “I thought it was the most beautiful place in the world.”

Arrowmont's library includes galleries with work by former and current students and staff.

-- Photo By Adam Taylor Gash |The Ledger

So he bought 16 acres, moved a 1970 Airstream travel trailer onto the property and lived in it for seven years while he researched, designed and built what is believed to be the county’s first passive solar house. The home, where May still lives, faces south-southeast, with a glass front to absorb light and heat, a first floor constructed underground to moderate the temperature, and an active circulatory system to move air around inside.

The hankering to design his own environmentally sound residence, he says, can be attributed to “an overactive curiosity and sense of imagination. I like to understand how everything works. We didn’t even have a toolkit in our house (when I was growing up). My dad was not at all mechanically inclined, but when I was young I bought a car and rebuilt the engine on it. So I’ve always been very hands-on.”

Besides, he adds, “I never was too interested in doing what everybody else was doing anyway.”

Creativity, he asserts, isn’t just for artists. “The truth is that living is creative. If you built a company, you’re creative. If you practice law well or you practice medicine well, you are creative. … Creative people, people who are generative, tend to not be mindless consumers.”

While working on his new place, he became intrigued by glass art and got a job as a stained-glass apprentice to help fund construction. That’s when he heard about Arrowmont, which happened to be only eight miles from his house. He signed up for a community drawing class there, then took lessons in fused glass, stone sculpture and other media.

Arrowmont offers an array of classes including sculpture, woodworking, pottery, basket weaving, instrument making, glasswork and other arts and crafts. 

-- Photo By Adam Taylor Gash |The Ledger

He also converted a barn on his property into a stained-glass studio and in 1993 began accepting architectural commissions for churches, libraries, hospitals, businesses, restaurants and private homes, ultimately employing assistants and doing installations in seven states.

May’s windows can still be seen at All Saints Catholic Church in Knoxville, First Presbyterian Church in downtown Sevierville, the Anna Porter Public Library in Gatlinburg, and University of Tennessee athletics director Phil Fulmer’s river cabin, among others.

In the late 1990s, May was invited to teach his stained-glass techniques at Arrowmont. He joined the board of directors in early 2010 “out of a sense of wanting to give back,” but not before beating late-stage colon cancer despite a grim prognosis. “That was way before I knew I was going to be called upon to lead Arrowmont, but I did because I survived,” he says. “I got another chance to live a different life and accomplish something.”

The famous totem poles at Arrowmont in Gatlinburg were created by American Association of Woodturners.

In January 2011, the board asked May to serve as interim director while they conducted a national search for a permanent one. His art business was booming, but he did know a lot about Arrowmont, having been a student and teacher there. His children had gone through the programming, too, and he and his wife, Anne, attended just about every lecture on the agenda. And, he reasoned, it would only be for a short time.

Six months later, when he asked how the search was going, “They said they weren’t looking. They thought I’d make a great director.”

Despite his personal experience with the school that he says “shaped my whole working life and my career,” and his expertise as a teacher and small-business owner, May’s decision to come on board permanently wasn’t easy. He’d spent nearly three decades establishing a rapport with developers and architects who often recommended him for stained-glass projects.

“We were sort of hitting our stride in a way,” he acknowledges. “We weren’t looking for work. Work was coming to us. But the truth is that it was an opportunity to attach myself to something that I believed in totally and that was much larger than myself. I felt it almost as a calling.”

Alejandro Gomez, attending his fifth week in a summer work and study program at Arrowmont, sculpts a clay figure. 

-- Photo By Adam Taylor Gash

The transition turned out to be the right thing at the right time for both May and the school. The Pi Beta Phi Fraternity for Women, which opened what began as a settlement school for general education and health care in 1912, had already suspended funding for Arrowmont in favor of other philanthropic efforts. In 2013, the second shoe dropped when the fraternity announced plans to sell the 13-acre property. If the school wanted to buy the campus, it would have to come up with $8 million – in cash, and in just seven months.

Tens of thousands of people had gone through the school’s workshops and classes, and some of them, May knew, were now bankers, doctors and other professionals of means. But until now, Arrowmont officials had never needed to ask for support.

Upon hearing the news, fans of the school stepped forward to keep it from closing or being moved out of Gatlinburg. May, a quiet man who describes himself as “an introvert with great social skills whose idea of a rousing good time is to sit on the porch with a book and look out at the mountains” emerged from his comfort zone and organized a coalition of citizens, government leaders, developers and private foundations.

“The goodwill that we had garnered was almost like a deposit in a savings account somewhere, and suddenly we had a legitimate need,” he says. “People simply responded.”

A student works on pottery at Arrowmont in Gatlinburg. 

-- Photos By Adam Taylor Gash

Frances Day, who had applied for the position of Arrowmont’s director of institutional advancement but was told all major hiring decisions were on hold until the fundraising campaign was completed, watched the effort from a distance. “I was very interested in the approach and the fact that this small businessman who had no fundraising or nonprofit management experience had taken on a task that would be daunting to an expert in the field,” she says. “I had a feeling he would be successful, and he was.”

The Arrowmont Board of Governors bought the school in April of 2014. The next year, May received the 2015 Governor’s Arts Awards for Arts Leadership for his role in saving the school from dissolution.

A year later, Arrowmont – and May – faced another, very different, threat. Not long after he returned to the campus after speaking with the Gatlinburg firefighters on that fateful evening in November 2016, one of the artists in residence pointed toward the studios. The fire was now sweeping down the hill toward them. With as much calm as he could muster, May instructed his staff to evacuate, and they formed a caravan and followed his wife, who works in the development office, away from the site.

But May, who is seldom deterred when convinced that a certain course of action is the right thing to do, wasn’t about to leave. Grabbing a water hose, he began wetting down the studios and other wooden, historical structures where the fire would no doubt hit first. Spotting a glow from the upper end of campus, he dashed to his car and drove there to find three buildings – the maintenance shed and two dormitories – in flames. The blaze was already spreading behind a third dormitory.

May quickly headed to a fire unit two blocks away to get help. “I would say three things happened,” he recalls. “The firefighters began immediately to put water on the fire to try to keep it from encroaching. About that time, the wind subsided. And very shortly after that, it started to rain.” By midday on Nov. 29, he says, “I knew that everything was going to be okay.”

That night, when May’s cell phone started working again, he was deluged by text and voice condolences from across the country in response to erroneous national media reports that Arrowmont had burned to the ground. Soon after, a journalist from The Weather Channel interviewed him, and his own Facebook updates were picked up by news outlets. The calls of support soon turned to offers to help rebuild the three destroyed buildings. “The outpouring financially, but also just the goodwill and the good wishes, was absolutely one of the most powerful experiences I think anybody at the school has ever had,” May says.

Although he refrains from giving himself credit, his staff will never forget what he did next. According to Day, her boss contacted every local artist who might have been affected by the fires, offered at-cost art supplies and free studio place to those who had lost theirs, handed out free lunches to anyone in need the entire month of December, and hosted a free Christmas dinner for area residents who had lost their homes or simply needed companionship.

May’s responsibilities have since shifted away from day-to-day management; he is now “the face” of Arrowmont, representing the school at conferences, juried exhibitions and other events on a national level. He is also leading a major comprehensive capital campaign to pay for deferred maintenance, expanded programming and a scholarship endowment for school teachers, military veterans, university students and others. The school is about $2.8 million from reaching its $30 million target.

“The goal is simply to ensure that Arrowmont survives and is healthy and stable, basically forever,” he says. “I simply want to make Arrowmont an institution. I want it to never be in the fragile, tenuous position we were in nine years ago.

“I came here 35 years ago as a student,” he adds. “I want to make sure that 35 years from now, or 135 years from now, someone can come and have the same amazing experience that I had 35 years ago.”

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter & RSS: Nashville Editon