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Going Full STEAM with Gary Schwartz

The intrepid animator, artist, educator and international vagabond just got out of prison.

Gary Schwartz, animator, artist, educator, and international vagabond, met up with me at OIAF in September, 2016. It seems he just got released from prison.

Gary got a gig at the Malcolm County Jail teaching juvenile inmates animation methods and techniques. He was funded as part of the US Federal Title 1 Grant established in 1965 by President Johnson’s mandate of bringing the arts to “underserved” populations.

Gary Schwartz.

While he isn’t allowed to reveal anything about the inmates, Gary did say the juvenile jail is for serious crimes. The program is part of a current controversial approach to incarceration, focusing on treating the trauma that led the majority of juveniles to commit the crimes rather than merely parsing out punishment.  Some of the correctional officers – Gary corrected me when I used the term “guard” – were very supportive of his work with the kids. Others were not, sneering, “If it were up to me, I’d shut this entire program down.”

Gary had 11 students, ranging from 13 – 17-years old. His first of four programs was to teach fundamental animation drawing and storyboarding, using an “exquisite corpse” method. After getting them to agree on a central theme, like “animal,” he had them do a drawing on animation paper. They then traced the drawing and handed over to another student to visually bridge the two drawings, in effect, creating the in-betweens from these two keyframes. The drawings were photographed, synched to a sound track, and played back as an animation.

Prison is not a place to talk about emotion. Gary said he couldn’t ask the students directly how they felt about doing the drawings, handing them to someone else to continue the drawing, and watching them come alive in animation. So he had to judge their reactions from their faces and body language. The students looked stunned, Gary said, “transmogrified by the self-realization of their power to create.” The person heading the prison’s reformation program reported, “she couldn’t believe what I’d done.”

Gary returned 3 more times, teaching them different animation techniques, pixilation with bodies, zoetropes using paper cutouts and drawings. He wants to go back and do more.

What concerns Gary is a myopic focus in filmmaking education. “I teach creativity, imagination and self-expression, but I see a lopsided focus on technical skills.” 

There is a parallel split in elementary and higher education in general, a false labeling of societal benefit as either having scientific or artistic value. Many schools adopt a “STEM” approach to education – spending most resources on teaching Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematical skills.

But there is an alternative approach to education. It highlights the kind of critical and imaginative thinking used in the Arts as “STEAM” to drive the engine of the future.

STEAM takes issue with the myopic view that logical thinking is the only process needed to do science and math, and that science and math are the only domains in which logic is practiced. Real world science includes “what if” scenarios, taking risks, asking hard questions, having a willingness to confront failure, sustaining motivation and discipline, and juggling being an independent voice in a team-based practice.

Obviously, animators get this picture of their practice. Personal expression may be a motivating factor in creating art, but it’s not the only requirement you need to survive as an artist.

So, after getting out of prison in September 2016, Gary took off to Stepanakert, Armenia, teaching there as part of the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies, then judging at the ReAnimania in Yerevan, Estonia, before heading back to San Antonio, Texas. There, Gary was artist-in-residence at Luminaria.  Gary took part in a community-initiative, inspiring and teaching kids from the local community the multiple skills needed to do team-based animation. The participants were learning about the mechanics of animation, but from a real world, collaborative design perspective.

And if the inmates get lucky, Gary will be back in prison soon.