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Art teacher leaves legacy of artists after 21 years at Carver

In a way, Joe Giordano could be considered a visionary.

In 1993, when George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology opened, Giordano was hired to start the department of visual arts. His method of teaching art to high school students was unique. Now, it's standard.

"About 10, 15 years ago, when our students were winning national contests, people came over to me and asked, 'What do you do?'" Giordano said of arts educators he met at conferences around the country.

"Other schools picked up on what we do. There was a change in culture," he said of his method of requiring students to master the basics and then encouraging them to create original works rather than copying pictures from photographs.

On a hot June day, Carver Center, at 938 York Road, in Towson, a Baltimore County Public Schools magnet school, is a shimmering vision of glass, metal and brick. Inside, paintings, drawings and sculptures fill the main entry and a nearby gallery.

In total, 212 current and former Carver students contributed pieces, and all to honor Giordano, who is retiring after 21 years with the visual arts department — 19 as chairman and the last two as a teacher helping with the transition of the current chairman, Joseph Cypressi, at the school's new building.

The exhibit, Alumni Tribute Exhibition for Giordano, ends on Thursday, June 12 with a reception from 6 to 7:30 p.m. open to the public. A film of "Mr. G.," as he is widely known, at work is being screened at 7:30 p.m.

Theresa McDaniel Shovlin, an art instructor at Carver Center, organized the exhibit. Shovlin has been at the school for 20 years, the first person Giordano hired for the newly created visual arts department.

"Over 900 students have graduated from the department," said Shovlin, sitting in the vast art room and fielding questions from students about their assignments. "We've had Fulbright winners study abroad, award-winners in art competitions and students whose work is shown in galleries in New York and elsewhere."

Shovlin maintains a database of former students. She invited them and current students to participate in the exhibit. Their work ranges from portraits in oil to landscapes in watercolor, from a soft-fabric puppet of Mr. G to a futuristic steel sculpture.

A children's book has been illustrated by a former student. Another former student with an interest in the environment has filled a nearly 6-foot long Chinese-style scroll with a black ink drawing on that theme. A current student's sculpture of plastic and paper mache is meant to be walked around, the front and back in different colors.

Giordano came to Carver Center with a 13-year background in teaching art at the college level. He credits Stuart Berger and Mary Cary, then-Baltimore County Public Schools' superintendent and supervisor of English respectively, with the unusual character of the Carver Center.

"The mission and philosophy was about kids discovering themselves," said Giordano, 71, a Roland Park resident who is married to Madeleine Keller, a teacher at Bryn Mawr School.

He began by implementing strict requirements for the visual arts department, among them mastering drawing — "a seminal basis," he said — a required number of hours in the studio and homework. All were unheard of at the time.

"We had high expectations, but we wanted to have students who really wanted to be here," said Giordano, who likes to start classes by asking students questions, whether about art in general or current events. "It makes them think.

"I give students strong basic skills, and open them up to ideas," he said. "I tell them, 'You can take that anywhere in the world.'"

The result is a highly competitive program. Of about 160 applicants per year, 70 are accepted. Each year, graduating students receive $3 to $4 million in college scholarships.

During his four years at Carver Center, Christopher Bathgate took painting from Giordano. "He gave me guidance as I transitioned from painting to sculpture," said Bathgate, a Baltimore City resident, Class of 1998, and winner of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and Baker Artist grants.

"He's the father figure of the school," added Bathgate, a full-time practicing sculptor whose work in metal has been featured in solo shows in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

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