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September 13, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
A former gas station clerk is turning his passion for art into a fulfilling career. George Szabo can’t remember what first got him interested in art, but he remembers drawing a Smurf on his bedroom wall when he was about 3 years old. His interest in drawing stuck with him even though a number of his in-class doodles landed in teachers’ trash cans.
Years later, during one of his late-night gas station shifts, Szabo cartooned on a brown paper bag to pass the time. Local watercolorist Byron Smith noticed Szabo’s work and encouraged him to return to school. Szabo, 30, has been teaching classes at the Columbia Art League since 2010 and will graduate from MU with a bachelor’s degree in fine art and art education in May 2013. He plans to start teaching public school next year and wants to make his lessons as interesting for the students as possible by using videos and comics to help the students relate.
For more than two years, Szabo has taught children in summer camps and home-school workshops how to make creations such as cartoons, animation and basic video games.
“I’m still a kid,” Szabo says. “I read comic books; I play video games.”
Like a lot of gamers, Szabo wanted to learn how to make what he was playing, and he believes that video games are a way to reach kids who would otherwise be uninterested in the arts.
Szabo found a computer program, Scratch, developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. It’s a simple programming language that makes it relatively easy to build your own video game. This eventually led Szabo to put his students’ games on display.
“I brought in eight laptops … and we opened up a little arcade so the parents could come in and play the games their kids were making,” Szabo says.
His excitement makes it clear; his students inspire him. Sometimes Szabo will be stuck in a rut with something he’s working on, but he will go in to teach and witness his students’ excitement. Seeing them enthralled by art gives him enough motivation for him to finish his own artwork. “I think I get more out of them than they get out of me,” he says, laughing.
Parents and coworkers alike describe Szabo as creative and exceptional. “He’s just really special at teaching artists,” says Patty Jaconetta Groening, educational director at Columbia Art League. Groening says that she recently watched Where the Wild Things Are, and it reminded her of the way Szabo teaches. All she could think about was summer camp, Szabo and his ability to bring out children’s best art by seeing the world through their eyes. “There aren’t very many like him,” she says.
Siblings Mitchell Norton, 12, and Brett Norton, 15, have taken nearly a half-dozen classes and summer camps with Szabo since he first started teaching. “They can relate to him, and he can relate to them,” their mother, Suzanne Norton, says. Szabo interacts with students on an equal plane; there’s no hierarchy in his teaching structure. Suzanne believes that children respond to the mutual respect Szabo always gives them.
Szabo has built his career around his passion, and he seems eager to make a living out of helping others do the same.