The Women of Tryon Fine Arts Center

Published 4:23 pm Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Cast of Chracters: Diane Cathran, Robyn Rosenberg, Michelle Fleming and Marianne Carruth

Cast of Chracters: Diane Cathran, Robyn Rosenberg, Michelle Fleming and Marianne Carruth

Written and Photographed by Kirk Gollwitzer

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Hello from your man-on-the-street reporter in search of a scoop. Today I would like to share with you an interview I recently had with the four women responsible for the daily operations of the Tryon Fine Arts Center. Let’s step inside, shall we, and have a look around? 

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The first thing I noticed prior to my interview with Marianne Carruth, Robyn Rosenberg, Michelle Fleming and Diane Cothran, was the picture of the mysterious woman on the wall in the lobby. Have you ever wondered who the woman in the portrait is, hanging high above, peering down on everyone? [dim room lights except spotlight on portrait]

I wondered the same thing as well, until someone suggested that I talk to Chris Bartol, who just happened to be within an arm’s reach of my microphone. Take a listen to this:

(Recorded earlier)

Me: Um, excuse me ahh, Mr. Bartol, I’m wondering if I might have a bit of your time?

Chris Bartol: Time for what? (Chris answers with a questioning look)

Me: Well, I’m wondering if you might be able to tell me something about the woman in the portrait up there on the wall?

(As if he wanted privacy he urged me to step into another room)

Chris Bartol: Well, briefly, (lowering his voice to almost a whisper) that woman was my Great Aunt Violet Erskine Parish-Watson. She was the sister of my grandfather, Ralph Erskine. They had no children, but my great aunt, uncle and grandparents appreciated the arts so much that they wanted a way to preserve something, or to have a “house” for the arts. So Violet provided $25,000 in her estate to go toward an art center, but with one condition.

Me: Okay, and what condition was that?

Chris Bartol: Well, provided that no fewer than 100 people would make up the difference.

Me: So, how did it work out?

Chris Bartol: So, 100 people came forward and raised another $55,000 and they built this building in the mid-60s. The wonderful thing about this is (gazing up at the ceiling) there is no tax money in the building, it’s all contributions.

Me: Really? So I’m guessing this place must be pretty special to you?

Chris Bartol: It is very special to me, but more than that, my mother, father, aunts, uncles along with Tim Brannon’s mom and dad and many other movers and shakers in this community who chipped in — made this thing happen!

(I knew that the ladies in the other room were waiting on me so I had to quickly move on.)

Me: Well, thank you for your time. Now I must step into the other room and have a chat with the Women of TFAC.

After my short but interesting conversation with Chris I walked through the lobby and glanced back up at the woman in the portrait. She appeared strangely different to me than she did earlier and for the life of me I couldn’t say why.


Okay, let me set this story up for you. One of the most striking characteristics within the walls of this fine building, aside from the auditorium, which is dormant at the moment, is the number of women at the controls.

As I entered the room I surveyed the four ladies assembled around a table. I detected a slight bit of nervousness — perhaps because of my large microphone in my hand. I decided to ease into the interview carefully. Listen to this:

(Recorded earlier)

Me: Hello ladies, first of all I would like you to forget all about this microphone. I promise it won’t bite. (Awkward pause) I’d like to start off by asking each of you what it’s like working as a woman in this field.

(Looking directly at Marianne)

Me: When did you start working for TFAC?

Marianne: Me? Well I started in 2009 as capital campaign manager, public relations and marketing for arts and education.

Me: Did you have a background in theatre?

Marianne: Yep, theatrical arts. The first play I was ever in was in this very building, when I was only 12 years old. I really came through the doors as a teacher.

(Turning my microphone towards Michelle)

Me: And you? And by the way, I must say that you have the prettiest eyes.

Michelle: Well thank you. I’ve been here six months…started this summer.

Me: And your responsibilities are?

Michelle: I’m marketing, public relations and technical associate, and I also work with Jimm Brink on some of the technical aspects upstairs. I also do all of our websites, social media, press releases and public relations.

(Diane seemed to be quietly studying me from the moment I walked in and seemed a bit guarded. I approached her with caution.)

Me: And what are your responsibilities?

Diane: (Responding carefully) I was hired for the position that Marianne had when she first started here — capital campaign. But most everything within my job is within the silent phase right now. (Awkward pause) But I can say this: I’ve been here seven months and I just love it.

(I had to think for a moment: Was she putting up the wall-of-silence on me?)

Me: Well okay then. Let’s move on, shall we? To you, Robyn, tell me about your history here at TFAC.

(Robyn’s smile was so broad that I almost forgot my question.)

Robyn: Well, I started as a volunteer here in 2013 and really enjoyed being here a lot. So when the job was created for box office manager and volunteer coordinator I applied for it and got it. I also have a management background and a passion for the arts.

(Moving the microphone back to Marianne)

Me: So why do you think that you chose this field?

Marianne: Why I chose the arts?

Me: Yes.

Marianne: Well I think it just came naturally, I guess. It comes from following your passion. It comes from following what lights you up.

Me: I know—right? Go on.

Marianne: So when I started teaching theatre, it sort of led me through the back door. But, I do like the administrative parts of this job as well. I enjoy making the numbers work. I think one of the greatest things about this job is that I get to work with all of the interesting talent that comes through those doors every day.

Me: You mentioned Arts and Education. What’s up with that?

Marianne: Well prior to me coming on board, there were no Arts and Education outreach programs to the schools. I remember the day we finally got a line item on the budget for that and I said ‘Yes!’ (Wow! That was a bit of an outburst, I thought, and her fist-pump startled me bit). Now we have a whole series of numbers devoted to it. (Marianne suddenly glances over at Michelle with a look of pride) So then Michelle comes on board and she likes playing with cables and stuff and …


Michelle: I really do! I just love the work of putting on a show … it’s my passion. But I’ve always had a secret passion for PR. I did plays all through college and I remember sneaking out during my lunch breaks and writing press releases for the shows I was involved with. Now it’s my full time job!

(Pause. Marianne glances at Robyn with admiration, who is sporting an even a broader smile)

Marianne: I must say, when Robyn applied for the job, what made me pay particular attention to her was her level of excitement and how she seemed to love working with the volunteers. I could see how lit up she became.

Robyn: I think that we all try to make it appear to the public that our jobs are easy, when in fact they are not! There’s a lot of administrative work that goes on behind the scenes, let me tell you!

(Diane continued to quietly decode me from behind her wall of silence)

Marianne: So — enter Diane! Aside from her work on capital campaigns, she is our much-needed administrative assistant. So here we each have on these fancy hats and Diane says: “uh…I really just want to make sure that the bookkeeping is taken care of.”

(All laugh)

Robyn: But not only the bookkeeping, we all jump in where we are needed. I mean, she’ll sit behind the front desk (pointing to Marianne) or she (pointing to Michelle) will sit at the front desk or she (pointing to Diane) will sit at the front desk, too. We all just work together very well.  Whatever we need to do to help each other out and keep this place running.

Me: So, is this it?

All: So, is this all what?

Me: So, you guys are the Women of TFAC? Right?

All: Oh, you bet! (each broadly smiling—especially Robyn)

Marianne: Yep, us and a huge team of volunteers. But don’t forget about our phenomenal board.

Me: Tell me about the board: men, women, good, bad?

Michelle: This is my favorite board that I’ve ever worked with in my career. And I’ve worked with many nonprofits. I’ve been just so blown away with how willing they all are to jump in … and go line-by-line on whatever challenge we are working on. The board is our support system, which we all appreciate.

Marianne: We count on them big-time especially because of their experience — and yes, Kirk, many of them are women!   

Me: What do you think a woman might bring to this job that might be different than what a man might bring?

(Robyn averts her eyes from me)

Robyn: Well, I’m not sure I’d say there is really any big difference.

Me: Well — can you offer me anything here? Surely there must be something!

Robyn: Okay then — the women I know at TFAC seem to be very detail oriented and organized,  or at least we try to be.

Me: (Amplifying my question) So is a woman any different than a man in this job?

Robyn: Well I don’t know if we’re that much different than a man in that respect? Perhaps women are conditioned differently, because of the nature of being mothers. We really have to be flexible with things that come up.

(I was now digging in for answers, and they knew it)

Me: How do you see women operating in their jobs, here at TFAC, differently than a man might?

Marianne: (looking perplexed) I have a hard time with that question; I don’t separate things out by gender.

Me: Well then, picture yourself as a man in this same job. Boom! You’re now a man — now talk to me?

Marianne: (laughing) I don’t know, Kirk! “Perhaps” women “might” listen a little better than men … “maybe.”

Michelle: Well, I went to an all-women’s college and have always worked for women. But on the technical side of theatre, it is normally dominated by men.

(Okay! Now we’re getting somewhere!)

Me: Yeah!—and how did that work out for you?

Michelle: I think that when you have a lot of men on stage with a lot of power tools, they tend to be … maybe a bit less flexible? Jimm excluded of course.

(Of course — I thought!)

All: Oh definitely not Jimm. He’s the best!   

Robyn: Yes, we all happen to work with the most respectful, nice and experienced man in Jimm Brink. Working with Jimm is just a joy.

(That one fizzled on me!)

Robyn: Kirk, we’re really just four strong women. Not just in strength but in determination as well. But even so, the men we come in contact with, in general, are all so very gracious and respectful of us.

(Grr … Hmm … Let me try this approach)

Me: Choose a word which best describes yourself?

Marianne: Positive!

Michelle: Independent!

Diane: Organized!

Robyn: Friendly! (Smiling more broadly than ever before)

(That’s it! I’m winding this interview down—)

Me: What are your personal challenges?

Marianne: Keeping TFAC vibrant as we approach our 50th anniversary.

Michelle: I want to find new segments of the community to welcome into TFAC. I’d love to see different ages and groups of people who in the past may have never come through the front door.

Robyn: Mine are the volunteers! I really want to retain our volunteers, by helping them enjoy their time here. I mean we are a nonprofit, and we depend upon volunteers.

Me: And you, Diane?

Diane: Let’s just say, I try not to worry…okay? But here’s something for you: I worry about the copier not working!

Robyn: Selling tickets and filling the seats is probably our primary goal.    

(Well, I came up dry on the men vs. women thing)

Me: Well, ladies, our time is up. I’ve run out of recording tape. I want to thank all of you for this most exciting interview. It has been a pleasure!


As I walked through the building dragging my microphone behind me, the four women quickly ran off to tend to their duties. I stood in the lobby alone in silence. The overhead lights had dimmed, and for some odd reason I glanced up for a final look at the woman in the portrait. 

To my utter amazement I found that her expression had changed even more! Significantly more!  Violet Erskine Parish-Watson’s eyes were now beaming down upon me with pride. Even her smile had increased as she surveyed the lobby. She seemed all knowing, almost as if she might have actually listened in on our entire interview. But that would have been impossible right?

One final mention as I sign off — and please don’t quote me on this. I believe, quite firmly, that Violet Erskine Parish-Watson actually winked at me as I turned my head and walked out of the building into the cold dark evening.


About Kirk Gollwitzer

Kirk Gollwitzer is a freelance writer frequently writing articles for Google News Service, and other media organizations. After a successful career in software development, Kirk found his true passion telling a story through writing, photography and video. He is constantly projecting people, products and ideas into the national media. Kirk has a passion for music and major interest in people. He is also writing a novel which will be adapted to a screenplay.

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