Arts at Tyler Graduates
Chris Gregory was stuck, spinning his wheels in a place he didn’t know and didn’t want to be.
A week after his high school graduation in 2007, his mother announced that the family was moving from their home in East Orange, N.J. to Richmond, Va. East Orange, says Gregory, “wasn’t bad, but it was kind of crazy. My mom didn’t want to raise my baby sister in an environment like that….Everything just happened so fast. We threw our stuff in the back of a pickup truck and left.”
The family moved in with Gregory’s aunt. When she died in 2008, Gregory found himself caring for his baby sister and two cousins, while his mother worked double shifts. Nights and weekends, he worked at a movie theatre. “It was a very stressful time for me… a tough year. There were things I wanted to do. My mind was on lockdown.”
Lonely and adrift, Gregory began to think about the future. He had always loved movies. At age eleven, he had a cherished conversation with Oscar-winner Ron Howard, when the director was filming “A Beautiful Mind” on Gregory’s grandparents’ street in East Orange. “It was just him and me... walking down the street. It was a monumental moment for me. He planted an invisible seed in me. I thought, ‘One day you’re going to make movies of your own.’” When accompanying his mother to the movies, Gregory started paying more attention to how films were put together, noticing camera angles and how directors built tension. “That got me very excited.”
But, he wasn’t sure how to begin. No one in his family had been to college. “I remember my aunt mentioning something about John Tyler. I was new to college. My mother never went. She didn’t know about financial aid and how it all worked.”
After a false start at JTCC, he registered and enrolled in fall 2009. “[Assistant Professor of Art] Cris Silvent became my advisor. I liked his attitude: he was a straight shooter,” Gregory said. “The next thing you know, we’re making films. It’s happening! This is really happening.” When he started classes, he noticed a big shift in his thinking. “It made me realize what I was capable of. I didn’t realize I could do this stuff until I started doing it.” Gregory also discovered something he didn’t expect: seemingly unrelated course work, like English, public speaking and drawing, made him a better filmmaker. His drawing class, for example, helped his sense of composition, an essential skill when framing film shots. “My knowledge was very limited. I had taken a two-year hiatus, and I feel like [the academic environment] helped me creatively.”
Gregory also found friends at John Tyler. “It was such a big relief. I felt solace. There was a group of people interested in what I was interested in. I met my best friend here. We took screening together and worked on projects together.”
In 2011, Gregory earned an associate of applied arts degree in visual arts with a photography and film specialization. Now that he’s gotten a taste of what he can do, he wants more. His plans include a four-year degree, studying multimedia, game creation and creative writing. His dream is to direct and write feature films. Gregory’s sense of what is possible has expanded. “There’s so much that I want to learn. I want to learn new languages. I want to learn to eat the right foods and work out more. I want to learn to play an instrument. John Tyler gave me the idea that I do have opportunities – that I can excel. “
Jennifer Craig is enrolled in an expansive area of study: learning. Craig herself is administrator of the program. And classes never end.
After graduating from Patrick Henry High School in 2005 with a 4.0 grade point average, Craig earned an associate of liberal arts degree from J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. From there, she moved on to John Tyler, where she completed an associate of applied arts degree in visual arts with a visual communications specialization in 2011, with a 3.9 GPA. Now, Craig is enrolling at Longwood University, where she is pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts, with a concentration in Graphic Design.
"I'm a lifelong learner," Craig says with a smile. "I wasn't able to take an anthropology course [at John Tyler], so I borrowed the textbook. That's how much I like to learn! I like finding the connections between the disciplines."
After graduating from J. Sargeant Reynolds, Craig wanted a place to grow her art skills; John Tyler fit the bill. "I started looking around at community colleges that offered graphic design. The curriculum here is in-depth. The teachers really care. About your experience. About helping you learn." Craig's online portfolio can be seen at http://jmcdesigns.portfoliopen.com/.
"I'm the first person in my family to get this far in college. I'm kind of a guinea pig, trying to figure out how college works. I've been able to teach my sisters the system from what I've learned - my youngest sister started here in Fall 2011. I talked up John Tyler to her during her senior year in high school. My other sister, Amanda, is studying theatre here."
Graphic design is a marriage of visuals and text, a combination especially suited to Craig. In high school, she says, "My journalism teacher nicknamed me the Mad Poet. I got a poem published at age 11 in an anthology of young poets. In high school, I was inspired to learn design by my high school graphic arts teacher, Mr. Saunders." At age eight, Craig says, "I put on an art show for my parents in my room, with poems and drawings all over the walls and laid out everywhere."
Craig says finding connections among disciplines contributes to her graphic design skills. "I like to learn about how people learn, how they see the world, in terms of marketing. How they think and learn and react to things. That will help me with my design work, and help me understand my audience better."
Ian Glass looks baffled when asked why he makes art. “It’s something that you kind of have to do,” the John Tyler graduate says.
That compulsion is reflected in Glass’ art resume, which is broad and deep: it includes painting, drawing, video, metalwork, printmaking, and his particular love, ceramics. Glass graduated in 2009 with an associate of applied arts degree in visuals arts and a fine arts certificate. He currently works as a Graphics Lab Assistant at the Midlothian Campus and continues to take classes.
While his approach and subject matter vary, an organic quality runs through Glass’ work. “I’ve noticed that,” he says. One ceramic piece, entered in the 2011 John Tyler Student Art Show, resembles an oversized pod, pocked with tiny mountain ranges; the piece seems to sprout from the tree branch Glass chose for a base. A video piece juxtaposes flowing images of the James River with the harder, geometric forms of buildings. And while his work includes a dialogue with nature, Glass says he approaches each piece without preconceptions. “The things I’ve done, I have not thought of thematically.”
Glass was born in Richmond. At age eight, his family moved to eastern North Carolina, where his energies were directed toward music, not the visual arts. “I was a band geek for a long time,” he laughs. “Both my parents were music majors. After high school, I saw a newspaper article about the instructors at a local community college having an art show. I don’t think I even saw the show. But I realized, hey, you could take art classes.”
When Glass returned to Richmond, he wanted the best option to continue his arts education, and John Tyler offered an unusual opportunity. “The diversity of the program is very strong. You have a well-developed graphics lab. A very strong ceramics lab. A very strong faculty. Most of the faculty are practicing artists. A lot of our [adjunct] faculty teach both here and at Virginia Commonwealth University.”
Cost was a factor, too. “It’s much cheaper than a four-year college.”
And Glass has taken advantage of other opportunities at John Tyler: he is the only student to ever hold all four offices in the college’s Art Club. He also made two trips to New York with the group to take in galleries and museums. He works as a computer lab assistant at the Midlothian campus. And of course, he can often be found in the College’s art studio.
He continues to take classes, because the college's arts resources are affordable. Glass has enrolled in the Ceramics I class six times. “It’s a good opportunity to get access to a lot of equipment that would be prohibitively expensive otherwise.”
Where will Glass’ passion for creativity take him next? He’d love to travel and make art. “That would be my dream job.” But wherever he is, Glass says he will always make art. It’s something he has to do.
Alleigh Scantling generates both heat and light. Scantling’s passion is theatre, and like the lighting technology she knows so well, she has one goal: shine when you get the chance.
“I like to live by the idea that it’s better to regret doing something than regret not doing it. I like to try everything, and learn something. If it doesn’t work out, at least I tried. I can file that away in my memory bank.” She used to be more passive, she says. Not now. “It’s my life. I’ve only got one.”
The Chesterfield County native earned an associate of arts, liberal arts degree with a theatre arts specialization from John Tyler in 2011 and is now pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in lighting design at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I’m excited.” At John Tyler, “I usually show up and end up running both the light board and the sound board.” What does Scantling love about lighting? The immersion. She has handled other theatre roles, such as stage management, but loves learning everything she can about lighting. “It’s something I can focus on. It’s me and my lights.”
Scantling says she has tried to bring that same engagement to other aspects of her college career. “I try to get involved in a lot of things. Involvement is big with me. You don’t really get the flavor of a school unless you get involved in the activities outside the classroom.” She is excited about plans for a theatre on the Midlothian Campus [in the long-range master plan], to go along with the one at John Tyler's Nicholas Student Center on the Chester campus. "I'm tethered to this theatre company. I want to be here when they get the new auditorium. I'm excited. I'd build it myself if I could."
When Scantling was exploring life after high school, the first-generation college graduate says that John Tyler Community College’s affordability was a big factor. "I think my family had $1,500 to pay for college. Thankfully, I got financial aid," says Scantling. “It’s obviously a lot cheaper [than a four year school], to get the same material.” And John Tyler has provided a rich environment in which to explore. “I think one of the common misconceptions about a community college is that it is just a stepping stone. It has its own set of experiences, its own ecosystem. One of the biggest things it has taught me is how to deal with all kinds of people. It’s more diverse. You aren’t going to find that in a four-year environment. John Tyler has given me a great foundation for going into the real world. You have to learn how to deal with people, and make a show work either way.”
Seated behind a dizzying expanse of theatre electronics controls, Scantling looks like a navigator on the starship Enterprise. But where will she steer the career she has launched at John Tyler? "I want to get involved in the local theatre community – start establishing myself as a lighting designer. There's also the whole dream of moving to New York and being a lighting designer. If you can live through the abuse and weirdness that you find in the theatre in New York, you can survive anywhere," she says, grinning. Of her John Tyler experience, Scantling says, "I wouldn't trade it for the world, because the experiences I had were what got me into VCU and what will hopefully get me a job in theatre."
For Ilona Strunk, life is a journey that began half a world away and continues at John Tyler.
The Ukraine native moved to the U.S. in 1999 after meeting her husband. The new military family settled at Fort Lee, near Petersburg.
Strunk wanted to pursue higher education, but she was busy with children, and the language barrier seemed daunting. "My English wasn't the best."
Strunk had always enjoyed fashion and art, and she began thinking of ways to combine the two. "I was thinking of becoming a hairdresser. I went to beauty academy. I did it for a couple of months and, after that, decided it wasn't for me. My husband gave me some advice, actually. He said, ‘Honey, why don't you go to school and be an artist? Or a fashion designer? That's what you've always wanted.’"
As a girl in the Ukraine, Strunk was familiar with the life of a fashion designer. “That was my dream. Ever since I was 8 or 9 years old. My mom used to be a fashion designer. That’s how I know about the profession. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking, maybe I just like nice clothes,” she laughs. “I took some art courses: watercolor, oil paint. I’ve been thinking lately that I would like to be an artist of some kind or maybe an illustrator.”
Strunk earned a fine arts certificate from John Tyler and wants to apply that credit toward an associate of applied arts, visual arts degree. Ultimately, she would like to transfer to Virginia Commonwealth University. “I just love John Tyler. It’s affordable….The teachers are very nice, very friendly. If John Tyler offered a bachelor’s, I would stay for four years, of course,” she says.