Faculty Spotlight: Studying Art, Touring History

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John Nolan with his tour van

Photo by Abby Joy Studio, used with permission

Assistant museum director, curator, tour guide, author, local historian, art teacher — these titles can describe only one faculty member at BJU. John Nolan, who teaches in the Division of Art + Design, runs Greenville History Tours as the sole tour guide. Whether he’s grading assignments or giving tours between classes, he’s found his niche where art meets history.

History at BJU

Said Nolan: “I had gotten saved when I was a sophomore in college at Bowling Green State University, and I knew I wanted to go to a Christian university if I went to grad school.” Since a friend already attended BJU, Nolan decided to visit. He found that he appreciated it, especially the Museum & Gallery.

“I grew up near some great museums in Toledo, Cleveland, Detroit,” he said. “But this is pretty world class. . . . It was the stuff that was appealing to me, and just that it was here in this sleepy little southern town is pretty amazing.” With BJU’s vast Baroque collection on campus, Nolan wanted to study and create in the space. After being accepted into the graduate art program, he attended BJU in 1992.

Once he completed his master’s degree in studio art, he worked as the assistant director of M&G. During this time the administration solicited feedback from faculty and staff for improving the University. Nolan submitted two M&G-centric ideas: a gift shop expansion and an apprentice figure for Dr. Bob Jones Jr.

Said Nolan: “I kind of recognized that Dr. Jones Jr. was getting pretty old and that he was the only one that knew everything (about the Museum & Gallery). And so, I said, someone really should be gleaning the information that he knows so it’s not lost when he passes on. So that worked its way up the chain, got to him, and I was called into Dr. Jones Jr.’s office.”

Learning from Dr. Bob Jones Jr.

In Jones’ office, Nolan explained to the Museum’s founder why he had submitted those ideas. “He asked questions about my background and art history and art,” remembered Nolan. “And he ended up pretty soon after that saying, ‘Hey, do you want to be this guy? Do you want to shadow me and learn what I know?’ And I said, ‘Of course!’

“He just was like a grandpa. I mean he was that old, and I didn’t know him maybe when he was a little more of a harder personality, I guess. So he was very much a grandpa-type figure and funny and pretty spontaneous sometimes. . . . I certainly had the respect I needed to for him, but I knew him in a way that a lot of others didn’t.”

For the next few years, Nolan split his time between working for BJU Press and shadowing Jones. Although he didn’t originally seek the apprenticeship for himself, Nolan valued the store of knowledge the chancellor shared. He said, “I never really got as much time as I wanted to with him, but I was thankful for what I got, and I learned a lot from him directly. So, when he died, they made me curator.”

See Also: Researching Art, Discovering History

Transitioning to Tours

After assuming the mantle to continue Jones’ art legacy, Nolan discovered his love for tours. “I . . . did a lot of tours, a lot of studying and research of the artwork, and realized how much I liked giving tours and showing people fun and interesting things.” Coupled with his love for history and art, this new experience with tours would shape his future.

Around the turn of the century, Nolan began noticing Greenville’s growing popularity. He saw a chance to preserve and explain the history of the city for newcomers and visitors alike.

Said Nolan: “The trigger for me was, my wife and I were walking on Main Street downtown and saw someone kind of inquisitively looking at buildings. And I (thought), ‘I bet you if they were offered a tour, they would want one.’ So, I just started reading everything I could about Greenville history and found out there was a lot there and came up with a business plan.

“Being an art curator, an art historian, has merged my love of art and art history. And so that — feeding the love of history and aiding my research in Greenville history — is, I think, the biggest connection.”

Drawing from his art education, research and communication skills learned in speech class and on the job, Nolan developed his first walking tour. He wanted to advertise with a sidewalk sign but didn’t know where.

“I met with the city attorney and told him what I wanted to do and he (said), ‘You have to have a physical building to be able to put a sign on the sidewalk. . . . But what you’re doing is something that the city needs. We’re going to help you.’ And so, we worked it out that I could put a sign in front of City Hall, and they charged me $1 a year.” He also met with the mayor who loved the idea.

Growing with Greenville

By 2006 Nolan had launched Greenville History Tours as the only touring service of its kind in the city. He gave tours whenever people showed up and grew his business as Greenville expanded. Soon after his company’s genesis, a publisher in Charleston asked him to write a book on Greenville history. A Guide to Historic Greenville, South Carolina came out in 2008.

For more information about tours in Greenville, read this article.

Nolan began teaching full-time at BJU in 2015. Following the temporary closing of the Museum & Gallery, his focus has shifted to teaching, giving tours and writing. He estimates that he’s given walking, driving and culinary tours to about 80,000–90,000 people over the years.

See Also: A Museum & Gallery Update

Said Nolan: “One of the most gratifying things that I have come to enjoy (is) being able to offer experiences where people can come together, no matter what they think or how much they might fight with other people. They come on the tour, they have a great time and they talk with people, they meet new people . . . and don’t worry about any (division).”

Although he typically leads tours on nights and weekends, he’ll squeeze tours in whenever he can — even before a class. “If I get out of class at 1:50 and I have a tour at 2:15, I could just go right down and start,” he said. The secret to balancing his responsibilities is knowing the material well and understanding his limits.

Nolan loves to help both locals and visitors alike fall in love with Greenville. He said, “I love that (Greenville’s) a city that I can be proud of. I love being in a city where we want to tell everybody about it.” Whether conducting his favorite At the Chef’s Table Tour or creating new culinary and textile tours, he connects Greenville with its past and champions its future.

Said Nolan: “What I’m really thankful for is that I love what I do at this school. I loved being curator. I love teaching, and I love to do tours. . . . It’s a lot of work, but it doesn’t feel like work. It’s enjoyable. So, I’ve been pretty fortunate in that light.”

For more information about Greenville History Tours, visit the website.