published Monday, March 4th, 2013

Couple create free online program to teach children to love art (with video)

Stephanie Goins and her husband Michael Goins pose with characters from their online educational children's program "Owl Hill". Characters are, from left, Otto the Rabbit, Maximilian the Grasshopper, Tripp the Fox, Penny the Squirrel, and Professor Nestor the Owl.
Stephanie Goins and her husband Michael Goins pose with characters from their online educational children's program "Owl Hill". Characters are, from left, Otto the Rabbit, Maximilian the Grasshopper, Tripp the Fox, Penny the Squirrel, and Professor Nestor the Owl.
Photo by Dan Henry.
Owl Hill puppets bring art to children
After realizing their children's school didn't have an art teacher, parents Stephanie and Michael Goins started Owl Hill. The Owl Hill organization creates online videos that use puppets to profile professional artists and musicians. The puppets and artists then teach children a similar project they can create to begin learning the professionals' craft.
  • photo
    Michael Goins, left, and his wife Stephanie Goins film an educational children's program about community art while outside of their studio at the Glass Street Collective early Wednesday morning. The Goins use puppets and computer generated backgrounds to teach kids about music and art on their online show titled "Owl Hill".
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

  • photo
    Stephanie Goins uses Penny the Squirrel to film an educational children's program about community art.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

RESIDENTS OF OWL HILL

Maximilian the Grasshopper

Owl Hill's dapper, refined intellectual who loves the fine arts. He likes to visit museums and artists in their studios and enjoys gallery openings and the symphony.

Professor Nestor the Owl

The Kermit the Frog of Owl Hill. A loving character who is very wise. He speaks on an emotional level about how things make him feel.

Otto the Rabbit

An outdoorsy creature with a connection to the Earth and the forest. He likes going into nature and creating art from objects in the environ-ment.

Tripp the Fox

Owl Hill's wildest, most inquisitive youngster. He is clumsy but curious, a blank slate ready to be filled with knowledge.

Penny the Squirrel

The craftiest of Owl Hill's residents. She is energetic and likes to show children how to take part in creative activities all by themselves.

Even "Sesame Street" had to start somewhere.

Once you get past the lack of heating or air conditioning, the birds screeching through a smattering of holes in the ceiling and the near-constant street noise bleeding through the boards over the windows, the set of "Owl Hill" is a pretty inspiring place.

The austere second-floor studio in East Chattanooga is where puppeteers and small-business owners Michael and Stephanie Goins have spent months creating a backlog of programming to kick-start an online educational show. Here, they say, is where they will seek to plug what they describe as a gaping hole in public education and teach kids to love art again.

"Art and music have been pushed aside for some reason because they're not valued, but they're just as valuable as other subjects," says Stephanie Goins. "There are children who aren't exploring that side of themselves because they're not being exposed to it."

With "Owl Hill," the Goinses

hope to change that. To help them achieve their goal, they've populated their fictional forest community with a motley menagerie of animal residents.

Manning puppets such as inquisitive Tripp the Fox and excitable Penny the Squirrel, they have directed and filmed a variety of videos the cover everything from drawing lessons and crafting activities to interviews with local artists and musicians. When these segments go live on OwlHill.org in the next several weeks, parents and teachers will be able to choose from hours of free arts education content for their kids.

In all, the Goinses say they are in post-production with more than 60 segments that should be ready to begin releasing on OwlHill.org in about a month. After that, they plan to update the site with new content every week. All of it will be free to access.

"We're incredibly excited about 'Owl Hill,' " Stephanie says with very Penny-like enthusiasm. "If money were no object, we'd be over here all the time."

Sowing the seeds

The Goinses say Chattanooga is the perfect place to stage a puppet-led cultural revolution since public support for artwork was part of what attracted them to the city eight years ago.

In 2004, fed up with living in Phoenix, the couple borrowed an RV and headed east, stopping in towns from Arizona to Florida and were about to head up the coast to Virginia when someone suggested a detour to Chattanooga. When they saw the sculptures dotting downtown streets and spoke with residents who said they loved living here, the couple were won over.

"We arrived on Friday and bought a house on Sunday," Michael recalls, laughing.

About two years ago, however, the Goinses encountered something unexpected in their adopted city. When their eldest son Isaac entered kindergarten, Michael says he was struck by the school's lack of a dedicated arts class. So he decided to take up the cause on his own.

"It gave me the feeling that I needed to do something to support more arts exposure," he says.

When they started two years ago to brainstorm ways to engage children, puppets seemed like the natural solution. Stephanie, who got her start in puppetry while in the Peace Corps, says children don't relate to puppets as inanimate objects but as a nonthreatening figure they can trust.

"It was exciting what you could teach children and how responsive they would be to puppets," she says. "You could just say, 'Don't throw out your trash' to children as Stephanie, but if a puppet said that, they were thinking twice."

Critter crafting

After settling on the concept for "Owl Hill," the Goineses began purchasing camera and lighting equipment using funds from their online home artwork design company MyWonderfulWalls.com. Michael says he decided not to apply for nonprofit status because he fears doing so would mean losing creative control over the show in the future.

Building "Owl Hill's" cast of characters was a lengthy process, requiring about a month per puppet. Each of these will focus on a different aspect of arts education, including crafting activities, drawing classes, gallery openings, studio visits and musician interviews.

Before they step in front of the camera, the Goinses naturally fall into their respective roles. Even discussing off-set instructions with each other, Michael slips into Tripp the Fox's goofy voice, and Stephanie begins speaking with Penny the Squirrel's high-pitched enthusiasm.

"Normally, I'm a very reserved person ... but when it's not just me -- if it's another character -- I'm able to get a little crazy and express a little bit more of a wild side," Michael says.

At first, making the show was slow going. Before every recording session, the Goinses had to fold up work tables, shift their equipment to the side and then set up lights and cameras. The process was time-consuming and, if they started at 7 p.m., Michael says, they might be ready to film by 9 p.m. and finish up around midnight.

"Unless we didn't sleep, we just wouldn't get anything done," he says.

About six months ago, however, Glass Street Collective, a community revitalization effort in East Chattanooga, offered the couple rent-free use of its headquarters' empty second floor. The space needed some work, notably a floor-to-ceiling green screen for use as a digital backdrop. It wasn't soundproof or climate-controlled, but it was free, he says.

The Goins have tapped into the local music and arts community for personalities to highlight. The goal of "Owl Hill," they say, is to expose children to new styles of art and music as well as to teach them about the tools those artists use. So far, they have filmed segments with six musicians, including a blues harmonica player, an old-time hammer dulcimer player and two members of local bluegrass band Slim Pickin's.

Slim Pickin's banjo player Randy Steele visited the studio two weeks ago to record a segment about his instrument and how it is used. Considering he was talking to an owl, he says, the interview was surprisingly engaging.

"He had a nest made out of the same wood that my banjo is made out of, so we bonded over that," Steele laughs. "If you can suspend disbelief, you can talk to a hand in a puppet all day long."

In addition to the interviews, "Owl Hill" already has dozens of videos instructing kids on how to make crafts by themselves with safe, easily accessible materials. Michael and Stephanie also have helped direct dozens of videos for Max's Drawing Table, an "Owl Hill" segment starring Maximilian the Grasshopper, who walks kids through lessons ranging from how to draw a truck to more advanced concepts such as perspective and horizon lines.

The Goinses' ambitions for "Owl Hill" are grand. Within five years, Michael says he hopes to hire a production crew and move into a dedicated studio. Reaching that point will only happen if "Owl Hill" can develop a devoted following, but he says he's confident that teachers and parents will see the value in free, quality programming that addresses a void in the education system.

"The only reason I wouldn't do it down the road is if it's not being used, but I have a hard time imagining that happening," he says, laughing. "In my head, it's going to be very popular."

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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