Spaces in Between: Sondheim Prize finalist Christos Palios ’02 discusses his art

Christos Palios ’02, visual arts, a photographer whose work is displayed in public and private collections across the country, is a finalist for the 2016 Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize. Before the award is announced tomorrow, Palios talks about his approach to his art, and how his education and background inform his photography.
Give me a brief overview of your post-UMBC career trajectory. After a brief stint doing multimedia design for a firm in Baltimore, I quickly realized I preferred the liberty of navigating on my own schedule. Subsequent voyages abroad (France, Morocco, Greece, the latter being where my heritage resides) forged a deep interest in subjects and stories that transcend mere beauty. Since 2007 I’ve been practicing my art full-time and selling directly to individual collectors, corporations, and the government.
Markopoulo I
Markopoulo I, by Christos Palios. From the Unfinished series.

Your body of work focuses a lot on empty spaces and non-populated areas. What draws you to those spaces? What makes you want to document that type of isolation? There’s a compelling surrealism to unoccupied spaces usually peopled to the brim or at least with a constant flow; a sociological intrigue arises without their expected human counterparts. Think Miami Beach in the dead of night, or an abandoned new structure frozen in the construction phase — such spaces transmute and take on alternative meaning.

I’ve somehow always gravitated to forgotten, ambiguous environments for the potential to tell alternative stories in universal ways. Aside from serenity and thought-provoking aspects to such spaces, I seek irregularity, deviation, and discreet subtleties to make a connection. I ask “why?” a lot.

What in your background has influenced your art? Is there anything about your UMBC experience that has influenced your work? My parents’ openness and encouragement was paramount. Additionally, I recall my professors constantly encouraging honest discourse and unabashed personal expression. Depending on student personalities, it wasn’t always pretty, but nonetheless we expected honesty and a semblance of politeness among one another during critiques. In the beginning, this was very new to me; suffice it to say, I learned to appreciate that quickly.

During one of my first art history lectures, I well recall a classmate not understanding one of Jackson Pollock’s abstract drip paintings as art. In response to this sentiment, he politely interrupted, and as all heads rose in eager anticipation, he boldly asserted his opinion: “I’m sorry, but this is total s***!” The lecture that day veered toward a different and serendipitous course of personal expression in art.

Your bio says you started out in design and animation. What made you decide to move into photography? Demand for the kind of work I aspired to do (special effects) required a move out-of-state to NYC or Los Angeles, for example. Which is something I didn’t wish to pursue at the time, particularly since it entailed moving further away from my family. (Greeks stick together, it’s a thing.) Additionally, by then my dabbling in photography grew into a more serious interest. So looking back, it wasn’t a decisive moment where I just knew this was it; rather, it became something I transitioned into experientially beginning with my travels in Southern France and while visiting family in Greece.
Catharsis, by Christos Palios. From the Conversations series.

What advice do you have for young artists, particularly those in college? There is much truth to the overdrawn maxim of “get out and shoot.” To that I’d add: be open. The more commonplace images I’ve captured [and thought were awesome], the greater my desire grew to hone my craft, to look deeper into subjects. I’m a proponent of unyieldingly challenging oneself and to consider conceptual aspects of stories. Search for narratives untold, or familiar ones expressed uniquely and cohesively from one’s point of view. This is a good way to gradually foster a unique visual style. If one feels a project hasn’t matured, try putting it aside and look back in a short while, as hard as it may be; a lot of truth and clarity may rise to the surface as a result of that discipline.

I’ll echo one more piece of advice I was given by a photographer friend: visit galleries and museums frequently, it’s a tremendously invaluable source of education and inspiration.

— Julia Celtnieks ’13

Music for a Cause: Rebecca Metheny Mason ’01 on advocacy through art

5295991In 2008, when Rebecca Metheny Mason ’01, music, heard a moving speech on human trafficking, she knew she had to act. So, she helped form a task force at her church. She and her husband Steve Mason ’01, biological sciences, became involved with Love 146, a Connecticut-based organization that seeks to educate the public about child trafficking. But she was most inspired to take unique action when a choreographer friend put on a benefit performance for the victims of trafficking, with dances inspired by their stories.

“She’s able to use her passion for dance and combine it [with work for a cause]…what can I do?” Metheny Mason asked herself. Then it clicked: the classically trained flutist and one-time Linehan Artist Scholar would start using her music to make a difference. She’s hosted benefit concerts for various anti-trafficking groups since 2011, and now, while parenting two young children, is continuing to establish her brand of activism in the D.C. area.

Before dedicating her life and art to this cause, Metheny Mason had been a private flute teacher for many years, coaching students in a variety of age groups. One job had her going into middle and high school band rooms to coach students for competitions and concerts. When she first became aware of how pervasive human trafficking was (and is) throughout the world, she was living in New York City and finishing her D.M.A. at Stony Brook University, playing with a small orchestra in Staten Island and teaching private lessons for undergraduates.

For her first benefit performance, held in 2011 over Freedom Week, she paused in between songs to discuss trafficking statistics in the composers’ countries of origin, and proceeds went to the Girls’ Educational and Mentoring Services (G.E.M.S.). For her second benefit for Love 146, she decided to take a more emotional approach, selecting pieces that would evoke the idea of love, the idea of children.

She held her most recent benefit this past March for the D.C.-based organization Polaris, and she says she’s pleased with both the turnout and the response to her brand of awareness-raising: “It’s been very, very positive.”

Metheny Mason says people are often surprised to learn of the real scope of human trafficking…and that it often happens in their own back yards. But she hopes that her performances will help spur people to action, and now that she, her husband, and their children have relocated from New York to Northern Virginia, she still tries to perform whenever she can, though she says her family keeps her “very busy.” She envisions her next benefit as a wine and cheese tasting with a slate of French music.

Her hope, when her children are a little older, is to go back to teaching college students. For now, though, her focus is on her family and her advocacy. It’s not always easy — she mentions rehearsing for her benefit concerts while her youngest daughter naps in the afternoons — but it’s worth it.

“Do whatever works,” she says.

Have an exciting project you’re working on? Let us know in a class note!


Katie Dix ’10, American studies, on the Bay, Baltimore, and jumping in

Every so often, we’ll chat with an alum to see what they’re up to and how they got there. Today, we’re catching up with Katie Dix ’10, American studies. She’s now the volunteer program manager for Blue Water Baltimore, and also happens to be one of the Daily Record’s “20 In Their Twenties” honorees for 2016.

katiedix1Name: Katie Dix

Job Title: Volunteer Program Manager, Blue Water Baltimore

Major: American Studies and Political Science

Grad Year: 2010

Tell us a bit about Blue Water Baltimore and your role in the organization.
Blue Water Baltimore is a regional, environmental non-profit dedicated to protecting and restoring our local waterways. As the Volunteer Program Manager, I work with all staff to mobilize volunteers to assist us with advocacy and community restoration projects. Annually, over 4000 individuals serve the organization during tree plantings, restoration projects, trash cleanups and routine water quality monitoring.

I am a believer in service; organizing people around a common mission and goal has always been a rewarding experience for me and I am thankful to do it full time with Blue Water Baltimore. There are so many people who want to better their community but need guidance and resources to do it. I always look forward to expanding the capacity of a group by utilizing the skills and talents of volunteers and celebrating the work that we can only accomplish together. I want individuals and organizations that volunteer with Blue Water Baltimore to feel ownership of the programs and projects they work on, a connection to our collective mission to achieve clean water and appreciation for their hard work and dedication.

We live in a city that depends on the landscape. Baltimore’s economy, politics, and culture are defined by our relationship with water that surrounds us: the Chesapeake Bay.

What is your favorite thing about the work you do?
Working with communities and volunteers is the best part of my job. I believe there is power in working alongside someone. When you plant 100 trees, clean a stream or build a greenhouse, you feel a sense of ownership over the project. More importantly, you feel a connection to people that also put in the work. You don’t just walk away from it; it becomes a part of you.  I have a large network of communities because of this work. My profession is covered in sweat and soil and  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

You were recently recognized by The Daily Record as one of Maryland’s “20 in Their Twenties.” How did that make you feel, and what’s next?
It feels really satisfying to make the list. There are so many talented and hardworking people that are recognized. It is a great honor and I am glad that there will be some attention on the work that I have been doing with so many others.

In the next 20 years, I see myself focused on community growth and cultural sustainability through effective land use. I intend to be a public servant that will guide our cities to function in a more humane manner, restore the environment, and operate in a way that is responsive to population needs. It is my goal to engage in planning methods that not only enhance the natural resources and built environment of a community but also its culture. To get there, I am seeking experience and philosophies that help me serve a public and advocate for justice (both social and environmental). I expect — and hope — that this will be a lifelong process.

This fall, I will leave Baltimore for the first time to study Community & Regional Planning at the University of New Mexico. While it will be difficult to leave the city during such an exciting and hopeful time, I am excited to return to school and to live in a landscape so culturally and physically different from where I have lived before. I know I have experience to share and personal views to challenge.

Was there anything about your UMBC experience – a class, a professor, an internship experience – that inspired you to go into nonprofit work? What was your path after UMBC?
Dr. Ed Orser, Dr. Nicole King and Dr. Warren Belasco changed my life forever. The AMST courses I took with them challenged both my perceptions and lifestyle. I had the opportunity to explore concepts of food security, public spaces, community development and cultural sustainability; this led me to my undergraduate research on urban environmentalism and ultimately, the work I do now. I also owe gratitude and recognition to faculty and staff I worked with at UMBC: Dr. Tyson King-Meadows and Jennifer Dress. They pushed me harder than I thought was possible by simply feeding my motivation, providing me with the resources I needed and making me think.  I can’t say enough about any of these people. It is such an honor to know them and they are in my thoughts often.

My training in the humanities and social sciences has helped me perceive my work in a context much different from my science trained colleagues: civic ecology as a way to address many of the complex social ills that plague our urban communities.  Aside from environmental decline, Baltimore faces many other challenges; poverty, crime, systemic racism, poor public transportation and government dysfunction plague the urban community. Environmental degradation is directly tied to these issues. The culture, history, and economy of the city and state are directly tied to the water.  I feel a strong connection between the environment and issues of food security, public spaces, community development and cultural sustainability. While the last few years my work has been focused on natural resources, I have always been interested in one thing: people and an increased quality of life. For the last decade my academic pursuits, professional career, and volunteer activities have been directed towards this goal; they have also put me in a position to create networks and programs that allow us to work effectively towards a more humane metropolis.

After graduation from UMBC, I accepted a position as the Community Greening Resource Network (CGRN) Coordinator with the Parks & People Foundation. CGRN, pronounced “See Green,” an annual membership program assisting individuals, community gardens, schools and green spaces throughout the City of Baltimore. Restoring vacant lots, exploring opportunities to alleviate food deserts, advocating for site development and land protection, organizing communities and educating the public about health became my full-time life. I began this position as an AmeriCorps*VISTA and transitioned to a full-time staff member to continue the development and implementation of the program.  After I moved to Blue Water Baltimore, I joined the Board for the program.

As a first-generation college student, my family did not understand the correlation between my degree and paid stub or my major and chosen career field. They still don’t but to me, it all makes sense. Everything I have chosen to do since my graduation from undergraduate school is connected to the concepts I explored in my classes and in my undergraduate research.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give an incoming UMBC student?
Jump. Put yourself out there and explore. Dive deep into the things that get you excited or angry or blissful. Connect with your peers and professors. Ask questions that make people think. Explore the things that will make you think for a lifetime.

I started UMBC in 2006 when we were celebrating the 40th Anniversary. I remember listening to speakers just before the fireworks went off above the library, knowing that I was in the right space. UMBC is something special and you should celebrate that grit and greatness this year and well into your years as an alum. You are surrounded by a community of knowledge, wisdom and support. Everyone around you wants you to be a part of the revolution: contribute new knowledge and innovative ideas to address the complications and issues that are present in our world.

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Read about where your fellow Retrievers have been since graduation, and tell your own story here!


App-tivism: Daniel Carter ’11 on making a difference in tech

Daniel Carter graduated in 2011 with a degree in political science and information systems.

When Daniel Carter ’11, political science and information systems, first arrived at UMBC, he thought he’d be an attorney, but he also had an interest in computer programming, so he did the math and decided to add a second major. This led him down a much different path than he’d expected, and when he graduated, he entered GE’s Information Technology Leadership Program instead of law school. But that doesn’t mean he’s not using both sides of his education to call attention to various issues, from diversity in the tech sector to the effects of mass incarceration.

Today, in addition to his day job as a senior software engineer at FireEye, Carter is working on several applications that propose solutions to public policy problems. Right now, he and his childhood friend Julian Porto are developing a project called GETmaps (“GET” stands for “growth economic trends”), which uses geographic and demographic data to visualize small business impact in different areas. Users can view maps that show, for instance, how much a government invests in small business in a certain area, as well as how many small businesses a locality has.

“The point of it is to bring more attention around the impact that small businesses have on the national economy,” he says. The app was born at a hackathon sponsored in part by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and they’re working with that agency now to bring the app to life.

GETmaps was born at the Free Enterprise Hackathon last October in Washington, D.C.

Carter and Porto are are also the creators of Just Hires, which was mentioned in a recent Bustle article about D.C. tech activism. That app works like a TurboTax-Tinder hybrid to match ex-convicts with businesses looking to hire returning citizens. (At this writing, they have tabled that project to focus on GETmaps.)

When asked which of his UMBC experiences have influenced him the most, Carter can point to way more than just one. He says he wasn’t the most social kid coming into college, but that his involvement with the Filipino American Student Association (FASA) helped to break him out of his shell. He held several leadership positions within that organization, and even had the chance to build the registration site for FASA’s national conference.

“I was, like, 19 at the time, and I had just learned to program,” he says. “That was the coolest thing, to use it to help.”

He also cites the interdisciplinary nature of his education as a major influence on him: “Everything I’m doing…I’ve had a class that touched upon that.” He’d advise incoming UMBC students to take on internships, because, as he says, “the learning doesn’t stop in the classroom…You need to apply what you’re learning in your classes outside of [school].”

He realizes his path has been unconventional in more than one way. But Daniel Carter sees his efforts as part of a larger goal to balance the playing field, not just in the communities his apps are built to serve, but in the largely white, largely male tech workforce as well, especially at a time where calls for more diversity and equal representation have rung out across multiple prominent industries.

“It’s an important subject to me because I want to be able to show and talk to other people who are underrepresented. I definitely want to serve those communities, and that’s where my poli sci background comes in,” he says. He adds that since he’s graduated college, he’s been told by multiple people that his particular career trajectory has inspired them in their own.

“They saw that I’m doing it, so they can do it,” he says.

Julia Celtnieks ’13

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Leaping Ahead: Samantha Walls ’12 on running a neighborhood day care center

Walls at the Leaps Ahead open house in November 2015.

The Leaps Ahead Learning Center currently makes its home in one corner of the former Ascension School in Arbutus, a large, sand-colored 1960s-era structure where pictures of Jesus and Mary still line the corridors. It’s a small business in a big building with an even bigger ambition behind it, and that’s courtesy of Samantha Schene Walls ’12, psychology, the young owner and director of Leaps Ahead.

“I don’t ever stop doing things,” Walls says in Ascension’s front office one bright, chilly spring morning. “I’m one of those people [who says], ‘Ok, this is done, now what can we do next?’”

Walls, who took classes year-round at UMBC while holding down a full-time job as a preschool teacher, says this is only the beginning, and that she plans to expand Leaps Ahead to other locations in the area.

The newest incarnation of Leaps Ahead is its second, having begun as a small center in the basement of Walls’ home. She’d started her own business after working in a commercial child care center for several years, and she soon found that the demand for an affordable neighborhood day care was high. People kept calling, and “I was maxed out [on spaces] within two weeks,” she says.

Walls attended Ascension for elementary school, and when the space became vacant, she met with the archdiocese, signed a lease in September, and got to work. She and her husband Erik Walls ’13, geography and environmental systems, spent two months’ worth of nights and weekends fixing the place up before opening the doors to her first class in November, and by the following April, what started out as about a dozen children in her care had ballooned into the thirties.

“We’ve more than doubled,” she says. “It’s been fantastic.”

Walls says she wears many hats as the director for Leaps Ahead. She does the billing, the payments, the hiring and staffing, and she’s been planning field trips for the summer. As word spreads in the community about the day care center, she’s given more and more tours to prospective Leaps Ahead families.

She also tries to step in and help the teachers whenever she can, having been in their shoes herself once. She’ll help make meals for the kids, or take over a class for a while so the teacher can take a lunch break. “I don’t want to be an absentee [manager],” she says.

Walls tries to bring a personal touch to every aspect of her business, and emphasizes the “home away from home” character of Leaps Ahead. The key word here seems to be home: she herself grew up in Arbutus, coming through Catholic schools here, and says that her “fantastic” first grade teacher at Ascension made her want to work with children.

“We’re very close with all the families[, and] they all have my personal cell phone number,” she says.

Parents are free to stay with their children during the day here, and many do. Some of Walls’ charges have included the children of UMBC staff members. Some of these kids have been with Walls since (literally) the very beginning, children who were babies when she was still at her first teaching job. She’s now working with the younger siblings of some of her first graduates. She’s getting to watch them grow up.

In the three-and-four-year-old classroom on this spring morning, a small group of children sits coloring in the middle of the room. Walls pokes her head in to introduce all of them, but one little girl seems to have a pressing matter for her to attend to.

“Miss Sam! Miss Sam! Miss Sam!” she pipes up, and Miss Sam asks what the matter is.

“I love you,” the girl says.

— Julia Celtnieks ’13

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High Stocks: Caleb Heidel ’15 on his overnight Internet fame

The photo in question, shot by Blair Connolly.

From superheroes to Hannah Montana, the “double life” story has been a touchstone in American popular culture, and Caleb Heidel ’15, graphic design, is one more addition to that pantheon. In real life, the recent UMBC graduate is a designer for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, working on business communications and, as he puts it, “making the science look sexy.”

But on the internet, thanks to one fateful shoot in Old Ellicott City, Heidel is the subject of a stock photo that’s appeared alongside a diverse array of online content. According to a recent Retriever Weekly profile of Heidel, a reverse Google image search turns up countless uses of his plaid-shirted likeness, everywhere from stock photo sites to Christian dating blogs.

“I had no intentions of this happening,” Heidel says, but when a friend from UMBC’s Campus Crusade for Christ (CRU) needed models for her grad school portfolio, he agreed to help.

“One of the photos she snapped while I wasn’t looking, she posted to Flickr, for free, full resolution,” says Heidel. A few months later, the storm began.

He can remember the exact moment he learned of his internet fame: he was studying when one of his friends posted a link to a blog post bearing the image on his Facebook wall, asking if it was Heidel. Later that night, a different friend asked the same question…about a completely different post that used the photo.

“It was ridiculous. [I didn’t sleep much] that night because it was just so hilarious,” he says. “I kept Googling myself [and] seeing all these hits of my photo.

“It’s just like this thing that was growing that I had no idea was there until months later, until suddenly it just exploded.”

He’s found some of the associations made to his face flattering, like this one ranking the top 11 countries with the hottest guys. That article casts Heidel as Mr. Canada, much to his amusement: “I beat out Justin Bieber, because they clearly could have put him on there, but they put me instead. So that’s a win.”

Others, he says, are just plain “strange.” He’s less than thrilled, for instance, about having his face attached to an article on meth addiction, something he says doesn’t represent him at all.

Responses from Heidel’s friends and family are split, generationally speaking. His younger friends, the ones who grew up on the internet and know meme culture inside and out, have provided whole folders’ worth of Photoshopped images of his face, which graces, among others, a be-sweatered Drake in the “Hotline Bling” video, a shark’s mouth, and a very sad-looking banana. (Heidel himself has even joined in on the tomfoolery.)

Older people in his life have a more dour outlook on the situation, expressing concern for his safety and future career prospects, or annoyance over the free use of his likeness. The photo was posted under a Creative Commons license, so Heidel “[hasn’t] seen a single penny” from its use.

Worries aside, Heidel says he’s more amused than aggrieved by it all. “It fulfills this secret desire in me to be famous and be in the spotlight,” he says, “so it’s been fun for that reason.”

Julia Celtnieks ’13

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Watch Live: Supporting Students in Baltimore and Beyond

This Thursday, April 14, from 6-8 p.m. join NBC News and WBAL-TV for a live forum, “Supporting Our Students: It Takes Everyone.” UMBC alumnus Joseph T. Jones, Jr. ‘06, social work, founder, president, and CEO of Center for Urban Families will be participating in a panel called “Parents are Powerful,” discussing parental engagement and the ways in which Baltimore City and County are aiming to increase parent involvement. You can participate in live Facebook chats with the panelists.

The forum is a project of Parent Toolkit, an online, interactive resource for parents to help them “navigate their child’s journey from pre-kindergarten through high school.” Full of tips and guides, as well as growth charts and expert advice, it’s a place for parents to stay involved in their children’s education.

This special event takes place at the Baltimore Museum of Art and will be moderated by Rehema Ellis, NBC News Chief Education Correspondent, along with Dr. Tim Tooten, WBAL-TV Education Reporter.

Make sure to tune in live via on Thursday and spread the word using #SOSevery1.