A shape-shifting, yellow blob slowly morphs into an enormous prism. Moments later, a grey hand swoops in, snatching the golden mass from its resting place. I’m watching “The Big Cheese,” a stop-motion film created in 2003 by then 13-year-old Pallas Bane for her animation class with GAVA (The Greenbelt Association for the Visual Arts). Seated next to me is George Kochell, aka Mr. Geo, Pallas’s former instructor and the current vice president of GAVA. We are watching student animations on Mr. Geo’s desktop in the Greenbelt Access Television (GATe) film studio. For many years, GAVA and GATe have coordinated to offer engaging animation courses for youth ages 7-18 across Prince George’s County.
Pallas’ animation is one of several hundred student films produced by GAVA/GATe animation students since 1998. “It’s like a refrigerator drawing for mom and dad,” Mr. Geo tells me as he pulls up the class’s YouTube channel.
GAVA/GATe animation courses are popular, but they aren’t the only classes available. GAVA also offers programs in painting, printmaking, and even comic book drawing. Special courses are also available for homeschoolers and special needs children.
GAVA’s history begins with Barbara Simon, who passed away three years ago yesterday. Simon, a native Greenbelter and staunch arts advocate, began GAVA roughly 20 years ago to promote art education in Greenbelt. Simon studied art at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. While living in New York, she began teaching art to children. After moving back to Greenbelt, she started teaching locally at Paint Branch Montessori School in Silver Spring and Friends Community School in College Park.
Simon eventually began offering after-school art courses in the Greenbelt Community Center after the elementary school there was moved.. She also utilized the large kitchen at Mowatt Methodist Church, which made for a perfect art classroom.
Simon’s support for Greenbelt extended far beyond her work with GAVA. She helped found Friends of New Deal Cafe Arts, a non-profit sponsoring outdoor festivals and arts at the New Deal Cafe and Roosevelt Center. She was also an active member of the Arts Advisory Board, serving as the chair for several years. Simon even spent multiple nights guarding the “Mother and Child” statue at Roosevelt Center after it was vandalized one Halloween.
Despite splitting her time between numerous community organizations, Simon succeeded in expanding GAVA. Shortly after founding the non-profit, she began searching for additional help. At the Labor Day Arts Festival one year, Simon met Mr. Geo, who was drawing caricatures for festival-goers. Simon inquired about Mr. Geo’s animation and comic experience, and soon after, he began teaching for GAVA at the Greenbelt Community Center. However, it was several years before Mr. Geo discovered the equipment and workspace available at GATe’s studio just one story above his classroom.
In the early 2010s, as the non-profit continued to grow, Simon sought additional help with her printmaking courses. “She spent hundreds of hours just cleaning meat trays,” recalls Ingrid Cowan Hass, a local art educator and the co-founder of Beech Tree Puppets. Styrofoam meat trays make for cheap yet effective printmaking supplies. Nowadays, they can be purchased in bulk online, but as Hass points out, resources weren’t always so accessible.
Hass began teaching painting and printmaking alongside Simon roughly eight years ago. After Simon passed away, Hass stepped up as GAVA’s president. Much of her work as GAVA’s president has involved schools in Greenbelt.
In addition to the courses it offers, GAVA provides funding and support for art-integration at Greenbelt Elementary School (GES). Art-integration is the initiative of former Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) CEO, Dr. Kevin Maxwell. Art-integrated schools offer alternative pedagogical approaches compared to traditional educational practices—their primary function is to teach courses through art. Through visual art, dance, poetry, and even puppetry, students are taught science, English, and history among other subjects.
Implementing art-integration can take multiple years since teachers must attend bi-monthly workshops to learn new instructional methods, and due to Dr. Maxwell’s resignation following a series of recent scandals involving PGCPS, execution has been partially suspended. However, with support from GAVA, GES was officially recognized as an art-integrated school this past year.
GAVA plays a vital role in the success of art-integration at GES, due to its connections with local artists. “We’re a sort of liaison for the PTA,” Hass tells me during an interview at her Greenbelt home. The Family Fund for the Arts, which combines resources from GAVA and the PTA, sponsors artist residencies at GES. Hass speaks with members of the PTA before reaching out to artist educators such as dancer, Angella Foster, who in 2017 taught second graders about the Perseus constellation through dances creatively titled, “movement labs.”
GAVA also provides funding for art-integration at GES. This year, it won a Jim Cassel Award to fund a puppetry unit organized by Beech Tree Puppets. Students learned about the zodiac calendar through shadow puppet storytelling.
GAVA has also been awarded grants from the Prince George’s Arts and Humanities Council as well as the Greenbelt Community Foundation. Additionally, the organization receives annual special appropriation grants from County Council Member, Todd Turner. Many of the grants GAVA receives were initiated by Simon, who regularly attended City Council meetings and public events to promote GAVA. Today, Hass continues Simon’s mission by writing grants each year.
In 2018, GAVA completed one of its largest projects by donating $10,000 for the construction of a mural outside Greenbelt Elementary School. The mural, designed by students with the help of local artist, Valerie Theberge, was used to teach students about pollinators. Though fourth and fifth graders completed most of the mural, the project was a community effort that required help from students of all ages and their parents.
GAVA’s students have garnered high praise for their artwork, particularly those in Mr. Geo’s animation courses. Several students have been finalists and prize-winners in film festivals, including the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, the Kalamazoo Animation Festival International, and the MHz Film Shorties. Former student Pallas Bane even won the Gouda Special Award—the actual wheel of cheese in the photo above—in the 2003 Ottawa International Student Animation Festival for her work on “The Big Cheese.”
GAVA alumni have also pursued careers in the arts. Pallas Bane received a Theatre Degree at the University of Maryland and has designed sets at Interlakes Theatre in New Hampshire and Wolf Trap in Virginia. Gerald Foster, also a former animation student, now studies Writing for Film and Moving Image at Stevenson University. Joel Mason-Gaines, who studied under Mr. Geo in the late 90s, is currently a photographer and video editor at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
At his computer, Mr. Geo now pulls up “Dude!” a 21-second video of a skateboarder being sucked into a spiraling red portal backed by noisy, experimental music. The creator of “Dude!,” Matt McLaughlin, is now a professional printmaker, art exhibit curator, and adjunct faculty member at the University of Maryland.
According to McLaughlin, GAVA/GATe animation courses played an important role in shaping his early career. “Initially, they heavily influenced my career as I went to a summer program at Ringling College of Art and Design for animation,” McLaughlin writes me in an email. When McLaughlin realized how much sitting was involved in a career in animation, he switched to illustration before deciding on studying fine art printmaking. “I think the process-oriented way of making prints really connected with my GAVA time because of how hands-on the stop-motion class was.”
McLaughlin believes youth arts programs such as those provided by GAVA offer fundamental benefits unavailable to many school systems. Having worked with Creative Kids Camp for multiple years, McLaughlin witnessed how arts programs create space for children to explore their imagination and let their minds run free. “So much of education now is about memorization and specific information and not about truly learning about the world, but arts programs still allow for that space.”
McLaughlin’s comment resonates with an important belief shared by Simon, Hass, and Mr. Geo: the idea that art possesses valuable knowledge that cannot be taught from a textbook. This notion has led to the hands-off approach that Mr. Geo and Hass employ in their teaching. When given space, students develop their own ideas and solutions by thinking creatively. Undoubtedly, this shared mantra has contributed to the nonprofit’s continued presence in the community.
Today, GAVA and its members are taking a step back from the ambitious changes Simon sought to install. As not only the president of GAVA, but as a mother and an artist, Hass only has so much time to commit to GAVA’s advancement. For the time being, preserving the programs and support that GAVA has provided for years is enough—and by no means is that a small feat. Youth are still enrolling in after-school art courses, and art at GES is more prolific than it has been for years. Even so, an organization that inspires young artists is bound to receive the help of some creative minds in return.