Growing up in the theme park capital of the world establishes a strange sense of unreality from an early age. There’s this weird mental disassociation that ends up happening when you’re steeped in fantasy worlds through three main theme parks planted practically in your back yard. It’s no wonder Orlando produces creatives that are just a little off from center. My journey through the arts is no less off-kilter and a bit like the classic rides from my childhood: wild and wacky with a slight hint of the grotesque.

I’ve meandered through various mediums involved in creativity, constantly searching for new ways to tell a story. It began with traditional studio art: drawing, sculpting, painting, etc. I’ve always loved to create and from my earliest memories, I can recall sitting at whatever flat surface I could find to sketch out my latest creation. My grandmother liked to joke that I was born with a pencil in my hand, which must have been extremely uncomfortable for my mother (sorry, mom).

In middle school, my art teacher recognized my passion for the arts and quickly took me under her wing. She tutored me in different drawing mediums and began to lay the foundations of how to analyze the artistic process. I vividly recall spending all my free periods and my lunches in Ms. Freeman’s studio classroom soaking up everything she had to say. She was the first art teacher to make a significant impact in my life, but she certainly wouldn’t be the last.

High school was a strange new world when I entered the Visual and Performing Arts Theatre Magnet program at Dr. Phillips High School. Recognized as one of the top theater programs in the country, some of our notable alums include Wane Brady, Joey Fatone, Matt Lauria, Michael James Scott, and Valery Ortiz (a classmate of mine). It was like being thrown in the deep end, in pitch dark, with your feet tied together. Our Director, Karen Rugerio, was the other side of the creative coin: blunt, demanding, and artistically relentless. She pushed me far beyond what I thought I was capable of, and finally gave me the nod of respect when I pushed back. I look back now and recognize the work ethic she drilled into me is one I carry with me to this day.

College became a series of adventures, first with Interior Design, then with Visual Language — now called the Character Animation program. Interior Design taught me to love art created on the computer, but it was stiffing in its rigidity. Drafting floor plans and 3D mock-ups was a transcendent experience (You mean I can create anything I want? Cue kid in a candy store), but the limitations inherent in transitioning these remarkable things into reality never really lived up to the wonder of the original. I wanted more.

Character Animation, however, taught me how art on the computer could expand beyond things as tame as reality. That program pushed me harder than anything I’d encountered before, forcing me to pull from all of my previous experiences playing with different mediums. Finally, I’d found a world where the only limitation was my imagination (and the funds available for equipment and software, but that’s a story for another day). The program also introduced me to a cadre of talented educators that mixed theory with practical experience. None, though, would have a bigger impact on my life than Cheryl Briggs. Her guidance, encouragement, and no-nonsense approach was the reason I started my own business after graduating (she also got us our first client).

Owning an animation studio is weird. It’s both the most rewarding and the most painful period of my life; I’d never go back and undo it, but I don’t think I’d ever repeat it. I could ramble for hours on the joys and pitfalls of being a blindly optimistic if a bit (read massively) naive entrepreneur, but my experience boils down to this: I learned more in those 7 years than I have in all the other periods of my life combined. We specialized in the emerging field of projection mapping (because it looks sooooo cool) and figured it couldn’t be too difficult to figure out. I was lucky enough to land two brilliant Partners: Chris Brown and Joe Rosa. Chris’ brain operates in 1’s and 0’s, and his analytical nature tackled laid waste to the procedural complexity of projection mapping. Joe, the consummate salesman, got out there and convinced people we knew what we were talking about. A tenuous claim at best. My job in all of this was to make it look pretty, and I dove in head first. We built large projections and small, maintaining the cash flow with batches of corporate explainer videos while we dove deep into R&D. Standing at an event hearing the gasps and awes as solid objects appeared to transform in a spectacular light display will forever be embedded in my memory.

After that life-changing but exhausting experience, I decided to relax a bit by going to graduate school. Within the Emerging Media — Animation & VFX Track MFA program (I don’t know how they fit it on the diploma fully spelled out), I’ve been given the opportunity to steep myself in theory and debate; to laser focus on updating a skill set that had become patchworked by the time constraints of running a studio. I’ve debated the anti-technocentric undertones in animated media and analyzed the complex use of color in experimental films, but creating my own short is a big check off my bucket list.

In all of my explorations of varying mediums, from studio art to theater to interior design, I enjoyed aspects of each but felt discontent with their respective limitations. Animation, with its inherent unreality, allowed me to combine all the elements I loved into one insanely powerful storytelling package.

In the end, the medium itself is entirely secondary to my drive to tell compelling stories in interesting ways. My thirst for knowledge and desire to experience new things has propelled me down a path less defined by milestones as it is by a collection of marvelous experiences. I continue to grasp my wonder tightly, exclaiming to anyone willing to see, “Isn’t this so freaking cool?!”