Meeting at the nexus of art and math

In a left-brain-right-brain world, Interlochen Arts Academy alumna Christina Wallace (IAA 99-01) draws her inspiration from great geniuses and Renaissance men like Da Vinci and Einstein. And like them, she understands that art and science, rather than existing on separate planes, are overlapping and complementary disciplines.

When Wallace’s older sister, Stephanie, discovered Interlochen Arts Camp in 1998, Wallace was about to begin her sophomore year of homeschooling. Her talents in math and piano had outstripped the offerings of her small local school, leaving Wallace and her parents struggling to find a school that could challenge her academically and artistically.

At the end of the summer, Wallace’s sister signed up for the 1998-99 school year at Interlochen Arts Academy. The following summer, Wallace did too.

“Interlochen was the first place where I felt like I could really do all of the things that were exciting and that challenged me and made me feel like a whole person,” Wallace said. “To be able to do it all in one community was a huge relief for me and my family.”

While Stephanie threw herself into the artistic rigor of Arts Academy—practicing six hours per day and taking three lessons per week—Wallace was eager to explore everything Interlochen Arts Academy had to offer.

“Piano was awesome, but I wanted to do everything else,” Wallace said, adding another “I did everything” for emphasis, with a laugh. “Everything” included singing in the choir, participating in student council, playing cello in the orchestra, and competing with the math team at the University of Michigan.

Competing with the math team proved the most influential of her Academy activities. A lifelong lover of math, Wallace had always been two or three years ahead of her classmates in that subject. For several years before her arrival at the Academy, she had not had a math teacher: her small school, ill-equipped to handle a student of her talents, gave Wallace more advanced textbooks and a quiet corner where she could teach herself. At Interlochen, for the first time, Wallace found herself in classes—and a community—that challenged her.

“Ellen Kamischke was one of the most important teachers in my career,” Wallace said. “She helped me form an identity around my ability in math.”

With Kamischke’s encouragement, Wallace decided to study math in college.

“Until I met Mrs. Kamischke, I would ask, ‘What do you do with a math major?’” she said. She believed the only options available to a math major were teaching and accounting, neither of which appealed to her. “(Mrs. Kamischke) told me, ‘There are so many things you can do with a math major!’”

Wallace’s resolve to study math was solidified at Emory University in Atlanta. After taking two courses to fulfill her math requirements, her professors encouraged her to pursue mathematics as a major. Remembering her artistic past, Wallace picked up a second major in theater, which she called a “rebellion” against her past in piano and cello.

After finishing her undergraduate degree, Wallace was faced with a new challenge: should she make her career in math, or in art?

“I was both a math and theater major, and I was equally involved in both worlds,” she said. “While I was in college, I was working to pay off my loans as an artist. I was a stage manager, carpenter, assistant director, piano teacher and music director as a church. I made my living as an artist.”

Wallace considered pursuing graduate-level education, but decided that the seven-year commitment to a narrow topic that is required of most Ph.D programs was not the right fit for her. Instead, she moved to New York City and began applying for jobs in the arts.

“I got one interview,” she said with a laugh. That one interview happened to be with the Metropolitan Opera. Wallace was offered the job and started work on the same day that Peter Gelb began his career as the General Manager of the Met.

“It was a huge time for the Met,” Wallace said. “They were deciding what kind of institution they wanted to be in the 21st century, which kind of overlapped with my bigger question of ‘how do you run business in general?’”

Wallace decided to pursue a masters in business from Harvard Business School, intending to build a career in arts management. Shortly after she began her masters, Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, causing a shift in the way that business is studied and introducing her to entrepreneurship for the first time.

“I had never considered starting a business, but for the first time I saw the connection to a lot of the things that I had done in the arts: taking an idea to making a thing to finding an audience,” she explained. “It was very similar to start-ups and entrepreneurship. A lot of what I had learned translated directly to business. I credit art education as a big formative piece of what got me there.”

One particular area that interested Wallace was the technology sector. One of her most notable startups is a partnership with the American Museum of Natural History called BridgeUP: STEM, which helps introduce girls to opportunities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

As a woman in a technology field herself, Wallace understands the struggles that many girls face in entering STEM fields. “When it comes time for them to pick one thing, they don’t feel welcome in STEM. Girls tend to think, ‘I have options, I can do a lot of things. Why am I pushing for a field where I’m not welcome?’”

Wallace says the key to helping girls get involved in STEM is to help them change the way they create their identity throughout their school years. “Forming my identity of ‘I am a math person’ at Interlochen helped me when I got to college,” she said. “I struggled for the first time in college—I got a B—but it didn’t shake me because I had that identity in place.”

One identity that Wallace has not forgotten is her identity as an artist. Despite her busy schedule as a businesswoman and an entrepreneur—she started a new job in August teaching Fortune 100 companies about entrepreneurship model—Wallace remains active in the arts by singing in a local choir and public speaking, which she says is her “new form of acting.” She also continues her involvement with Interlochen by serving as a member of the Interlochen Engagement Council, on which she has served since 2012.

“You don’t have to just pick one thing; you can be a human Venn diagram,” she said. Wallace’s passion about the relationship of art and science has resulted in her Forbes podcast series, “The Limit Does Not Exist.”

“‘The Limit Does Not Exist’ came out of the fact that every single time people ask what I majored in in college major, they say ‘What? That’s so different.’ When did right brain and left brain become a part of psychology?” Wallace said. “People like Leonardo Da Vinci and Albert Einstein were both doing brilliant science, architecture and inventing as well as painting, sculpture and music. They’re not on separate planes.

“I try to showcase the idea that creativity and logic and the arts and science are all overlapping concepts, and that you can draw inspiration from everything.”

For Wallace, keeping active in art and technology is crucial to the maintenance of the identity and sense of wholeness she developed at Interlochen.

“I try to keep one foot in a couple of different worlds,” she said.

—Melissa Luby