Happy Hour with Charman Driver
Local writer and V&V friend, Jamie Williams, sat down with Charman Driver, Chair of the Board of Directors at Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) and owner of Driver Mindbody. Read their conversation, then come hear more from Driver at Vert & Vogue’s next Happy Hour event, Friday, March 16, from 5:30 – 6:30.
Charman Driver has been doing this her whole life.
The daughter of a Marine, Driver was born in Jacksonville, NC, and raised on bases all over the country. As a child, moving school to school, town to town, she learned to make friends quickly, not to blend in, but to stand out.
“I just learned to be confident and meet people,” Driver said. “It’s something that I’ve been able to do my entire life. I can walk into any situation and own it. It’s served me really well.”
It’s not a defense mechanism. It’s the opposite. Driver leans into conversation. She locks your eyes and holds your gaze.
A few minutes before we met at Hummingbird Café in Raleigh, I sat in the car, making notes and nervously running through the questions I’d prepared. It’s an hour into our conversation before I look at them again.
Throughout the morning, Driver and I discussed growing up in North Carolina, going away and coming back. We talk about art, fitness, and development. Mostly we talk about finding a community, finding a place you can thrive, and then bringing everyone you can into the fold.
Can you give us a quick version of the Charman Driver origin story? Where are you from?
I’m from Jacksonville, NC. My father was a Marine. We moved around a bit through the military and that experience really allowed me to be able to relate to so many different types of people. My parents divorced when I was 11 and then my mother married another Marine and we moved around some more.
When it came time to go to college, I wanted to go somewhere I didn’t know anyone. To some people that sounds odd, but I think I was so used to being in new situations and wanting to meet new people that it’d become part of my DNA. So, I went to Elon. It was small, this was when it was Elon College, not Elon University like it is now. And I met some of my best friends there, people from all over the country. I loved that. I loved the school. I loved the size of it. I loved the professors because I really got to know them. I was babysitting their kids.
Elon had a great travel abroad program, so I was able to spend a year in London. That experience really changed my life.
What was it about London that really connected with you?
London, like many great cities, is just an unbelievable melting pot. I loved meeting new people, experiencing new cultures. You can go from one part of the city to another and feel like you’re in a totally different country. That really fed my curiosity and gave me great energy. After that year, I came back to Elon, graduated, and then moved back to London. I spent one year there. I worked as an assistant to a regional manager with Christian Dior. Then I spent two years in Rome, where I was writing for an American magazine called Inside the Vatican. The magazine would go around and take photos of all these cathedrals in Rome and I would write about their history and architecture.
What brought you back to the United States?
My dad told me that I should come back and go to law school. I had a degree in English Literature, I was gallivanting all around Europe, and he was like ‘what are you going to do?’ I took the LSAT at the American University in Rome and then was on a plane back. I started law school at Campbell (when it was in Buies Creek), which about killed me. After a year and a half, I was living in Raleigh, and I called the NC Museum of Art, told them I was a law student and asked if they might have a job for me. They did not. But they told me I could volunteer if I wanted to. By the end of the summer, I think they knew I didn’t really want to go back to law school and they said they would hire me on full time. I was working in external affairs, doing fundraising. That was really my foundation in the art world, and my foundation in Raleigh.
You and your husband – Frank Thompson – were instrumental in bringing CAM to Raleigh’s Warehouse District in 2011, when there wasn’t a lot going on in that area of downtown. What was that like?
There really wasn’t much down there at all. A few businesses, a few people living there, but it certainly wasn’t a destination, people didn’t have any reason to go down there. But, we found this amazing building, an old produce warehouse. And we were able to renovate into the beautiful space we have now. Since then, it’s been transformational for the area. There’s the Union Station project being built, there’s the Dillon, it’s been incredible.
CAM now sits in the heart of a growing city. How important is it for you to not just welcome people, but to take your work out to the community?
I’ll give you a few examples of our educational outreach programs that I’m so proud of. First is CAM's middle school docents program.
The thing about CAM is that we are a contemporary art museum which means we don’t deal in dead people. All of the artists are alive and well, and the kids can meet them. That interaction is really what gets them interested and excited about art. Kids meet the artists and think ‘maybe I can do that, too.’ It’s an eight week program, which takes a lot of commitment from the students and the parents. But over that time, the kids learn about the art and the artist and then when we have an opening event, it’s the kids that are working as the docents, educating visitors about the work.
That program, in my mind, isn’t really even about art. Art is just the vehicle. It’s about leadership skills, it’s about standing in front of an adult and telling them about something you didn’t really know anything about 8 weeks ago, but are now an expert on. We hear from parents all the time about how this program has given their child so much confidence.
We also have our CAM to Go program. The point of CAM to Go is to take the art to the kids. We do it in Boys and Girls Clubs and other after school programs. There is a CAM to Go box, and whatever exhibit we have up at the moment, we’ll have materials related to the exhibition in the box. We have really great educators who facilitate the program, and the kids are able to create art.
You’re also involved with Dorothea Dix Park, another project which can transform Raleigh. What are your hopes for the Park?
This is an opportunity to promote the wellness of our entire community. A park is for everyone. No matter your resources you can go to the park. You can take your family and have a picnic, or have a birthday party, and spend time with each other and also spend time with others in our community. So much of a community is defined by the things that we give to everyone. To make a healthy, beautiful, burgeoning community, we have to bring everyone with us.
It’s not just the ‘haves’ who get to keep everything and then give a little out, it’s the entire community. I think that Raleigh is poised to be at the forefront of that. Raleigh has a very collaborative community in the arts, in the restaurant culture, I’ve never seen anything like it. I have never seen a city that’s so collaborative. No two hands bake the same cake, my grandmother used to say that, and I truly believe it. Why not share, why not collaborate? I always learn more from others.
What motivated you to start Driver Mindbody?
Here’s what I believe with the depth of my being: It’s everyone’s social responsibility to be healthy. Mind, body, spirit -- the whole person. And of course it’s physical and it’s what you eat and exercise but it’s also mental and being able to be a part of a community and be surrounded by beautiful art and architecture, and books, and music. I feel like it’s in the best interest of the community if everyone can be a part of that. The foundation of a person has to start with your health. I call it your NEST: Nutrition, Exercise, Sleep and Time.
There will always be cracks in the foundation, but you have to be able to be resilient and understand how to patch up and heal things. Nutrition can help with that. Exercise helps with that. Sleep is a huge part of that. And time, which means meditative time, but also time to go to museums, time to sit and appreciate great music, work in the garden, take a walk in the park.
I don’t want to tell people what to do. I’d just like to present myself as an example. There’s so much information out there about health and nutrition. It’s easy to find. But, I think if people can see someone they know and respect, they will be more likely to ask ‘what are you doing?’ and more likely to try something new themselves.
Finally, can you give a little preview of what you’ll be discussing at the Happy Hour event?
I’m going to talk about my foundation and how I became who I am and the journey I continue to be on. I get a lot of calls from women in this community asking me how I do what I do. The thing I tell people all of the time is where you are right now is exactly where you’re supposed to be. And from this moment you get to decide. And start from where you are, find what resonates. You have to feel it. The problems of the world can feel overwhelming, but start in your community. What do you believe in? Everything isn’t going to move you and that’s ok. Find what resonates with you and get out and do something.
WE HOPE YOU'LL JOIN US ON THE 16TH TO VISIT WITH OUR SPECIAL GUEST, CHARMAN, AND ENJOY A DRINK ON THE HOUSE!