Interview with Timothy Bellavia

Timothy Bellavia: Award-Winning
Children’s Author, Illustrator and Educator

Timothy Bellavia is an Innovative Education Research Grant, W.O.V.E.N. and FCCA Space Grant recipient, who celebrates the message of tolerance and acceptance by leading a We Are All The Same Inside® – Sage doll-making workshop around the globe. Timothy lives, works and teaches arts in education New York City for nearly thirty years. Currently, Timothy is an Assistant Professor with the Graduate School of Education at Touro College and University System in New York City. (Courtesy of Timothy Bellavia)

TSM: It’s really great to have you back in TSM, and thanks for taking time out of your schedule to do another interview.

TB: Thank you for having me back.

TSM: What inspired you to get into art and writing? At what age did you start drawing/painting? And what was the first story you ever wrote?

TB: I wasn’t inspired per se by any particular individual in my childhood to be an artist; but I got an awful lot of praise from my Aunt Anne for my artistic sensibility. So, I just stuck with it. I guess? I started drawing at about age three. My first stories were pretty much “samplings” of classic tales that I simply re-illustrated.

TSM: What’s your process for creating a book? And where do you get the inspiration for your characters?

TB: It’s pretty much a didactic approach. Story board and then fill the blanks while editing and revising the story line. A great deal of my recent work has been greatly enhanced through my creative soul mate Kristin Walsh.

My inspiration for characters always comes from life and the people within it.

TSM: I know you studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Tell us a little about your art background. What are your preferred mediums? Favorite subjects to paint?

TB: I did pursue a career as a fine artist. I did exhibit in several New York galleries as well as sold works in cultural institutions and museums across the United States. I guess like many arriving in New York, I aspired to be a self-contained artist. An artist that can live off of their work and not have a day job. Getting accepted into Skowhegan was an honor, but not a guarantee of longevity in the art business. It certainly wasn’t in the cards for me, and therefore I simply worked, prayed and slaved until my creative dreams were realized. I simply make time for my art and if I’m lucky it sells. But I produce it regardless. I am grateful that I have a secure seat as an Assistant Professor at a University in New York City; it allows me to pursue my creative desires and hopefully I have and will continue to inspire my students as well. I truly like to teach and think it’s an art unto itself. I am classically trained to paint and sculpt, but due to the space limitations in Manhattan and the push of all things “digital,” I have mainly focused on graphics, writing and illustrating books for children. I know it’s not “fine art,” but to me its my art work at its finest.

TSM: You’re the founder and president of T.I.M.M.E. (Tolerance in Multi Media Education), which was founded in 2000. It promotes peace, tolerance and acceptance for common humanity. Within the company you created We Are All The Same Inside – books, hands-on media and line of products to help learners embrace our common humanity while exploring the various aspects of diversity (this is the mission from website). Tell us a little more about T.I.M.M.E. and the inspiration for creating it and We Are All The Same Inside.

TB: Whether it’s through books, digital media (videos and music) or the WAATSI Sage doll-making workshop, my company, is an umbrella to produce exciting human diversity curriculum for children. I truly enjoy writing and coming up with hands on-minds on curriculum that allows students to have fun while learning important key concepts. The Sage doll-making workshop is one of these concepts. It basically shares the message that despite our outside appearances: we are all the same inside. It helps students celebrate their common humanity.

TSM: Tell us about your latest project.

TB: The doll concept rolled into this federal grant that I got. So for the next five years, I’m going to be rich in research and creating really nice videos, and a curriculum that will be hopefully used throughout the nation that will help teach kids about math – teach math through music, and pretty much dolls. The doll workshop has kind of transformed from people to musical notes. What’s really fun about this project is that I’m helping people, children and myself learn math concepts that were really foreign and abstract to me in the past. It didn’t resonate with me because I wasn’t taught to my strengths. Playing with things and dolls, and hands-on was just not part of the math curriculum when I was coming of age.

When we worked with this group of kids a couple years ago, this is what we discovered through our research. Some of the kids that I worked with were mute. You don’t think that things are going on inside a person, but these children I worked with that were on the spectrum of very severely handicapped, but they were talking and singing by the sixth week of bringing in the dolls. So, a non-verbal student, or selectively non-verbal student was able to kind of come out and into his own. With research, both a pre-test and post-test are done, and by the time this was done, we really gained a lot of insight. We learned that just because someone isn’t responding, or isn’t looking your way doesn’t mean that they’re not really taking it in. It was really encouraging to me at the time when my life wasn’t so encouraging.

When you teach to someone’s strength, it’s always better than focusing on their weakness. Focus on the strengths, and that’s what I tell all my students that work with students with special needs. Focus on what they like, ask them questions and interview the kids. As a person, I wish the teachers that I had would have taken the time to figure out what was my strength, and then go with what that is, and help me ascend to my potential.

TSM: Since we last talked, you have released a We Are All the Same Inside 15th Anniversary edition (2015) of the book and a We Are all the Same Inside curriculum (2018). You’ve also released Spanish and French versions of the book. Tell us more about the curriculum and how the books are doing in the other languages.

TB: I’m very happy with the release of We Are All the Same Inside curriculum. This has been a long-term goal, I wanted to do this when I first started the company. This curriculum will hopefully have a life of it’s own. It will lend itself into the schools, and has led me to the math and music curriculum.

The Spanish book is always selling and downloading. There is an audible version, I can’t believe that people would buy it. It’s so well-read and captivating, and maybe people listen to it by looking at the book. The Spanish edition of We Are All the Same Inside sells more than the English version. It really sells well, especially the audible version.

TSM: You came out with a commemorative single and DVD, The Inside Story. You sought the assistance of legendary singer, songwriter and former Motown Records producer Sherlie Matthews , who co-wrote and co-produced a special children’s multi-track CD musical component for We Are All The Same Inside project. Matthews has worked with artists such as: Barbra Streisand, Elton John, the Bee Gees, Michael Jackson, the Supremes, Diana Ross, Cher and many more. I read that she gathered a lot of inspiration/actual lyrics from reading your children’s book by the same title and input. She said this about you, “He is so full of ideas and so easy to work with that the song was completed in ‘record time.’ Like Timothy, I feel that the song will be an inspiration to everyone who hears it…” That’s wonderful praise from a top lady! How does this make you feel? And what was your work experience like with her?

TB: Whenever I purchase a CD, I immediately read the liner notes. Most of my favorite recording artists credits usually have the words: written, produced or background vocals by Sherlie Matthews. So its surreal to read Sherlie’s kind words about me. Sherlie Matthews has a fantastic soul, a remarkable career, and I am blessed to have her as a friend. I appreciate all the time and talent she put forth to this CD project.

TSM: You also have an autobiographical, tell-all picture book out called Pieces of Ice. It has been getting rave reviews and sounds like a great book. I like the title of it too. Why did you call it Pieces of Ice?

TB: “Pieces of Ice” is #15 R&B, # 31 POP, #17 DANCE (circa. 1983) record by Diana Ross. One of Miss Ross’ rare misses on the Billboard charts during her hit parade. I always like the song and wanted to make sense of the esoteric lyrics. Just for the record, Sherlie Matthews recorded all the backing vocals on the LP that “Pieces of Ice” was culled from.

Pieces of Ice – the picture book is not as fun to dance too. It’s not for children, and was a result of a long and winding collaboration with my dear friend Kristin Walsh. It pretty much documents my troubled experience of growing up and not having much of a sense of belonging. The twist is that it’s written and illustrated like a children’s picture book. I was pleased by its public reception, distribution and initial book sales.

TSM: Tell us about the workshop you did in Sierra Leone and your experience there.

TB: Traveling to Sierra Leone was the first time I have ever felt appreciated and respected for being a professor or art educator. The people of Sierra Leone were loving and accepting – and respectful. I was a bit in culture shock and more or less in awe of traveling with THE Gloria Jones, who is a legend and a featured performer in the Oscar winning documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom. I think about that experience traveling and doing those workshops every day. I continue to send school supplies and support materials.

TSM: If teachers are interested in incorporating the We Are All The Same Inside ® Sage Doll-making workshop into their classrooms, tell us about the process.

TB: Any educator can incorporate the lessons as well as order the series of books or workshop media directly through my website: https://www.weareallthesameinside.com  

TSM: What do you love most about working with children?

TB: Their honesty. It is so much fun being a teaching artist and being in my field doing education research. Children say things without a filter. It’s both jarring and refreshing.

TSM: Who are some artists you admire and look up to?

TB: Visual Artists? Hands down the late children’s picture book artist Dare Wright. Musically? Motown. Diana Ross and the Supremes. Lyrics/Writers? Sherlie Matthews, Pamela Sawyer, Ron Miller, Shadow Morton, Jane Wiedlin of the Go Go’s, Nicholas Ashford, Gloria Jones, Nile Rodgers and Janie Bradford.

TSM: If you had the power to do something in the world today, what would it be and why?

TB: That’s hard to answer. Power can be corrupting, and can blur and cloud your vision. But if my powers were magical, I would want to kiss all the pain and trouble away in the world. Or maybe use magical words that with one flick of my tongue I would spread more understanding and end all the hazing and bullying in schools.

TSM: What is one of your favorite quotes (or lines) that inspires you?

TB: I have many. They range from one line zingers from classic campy films to statements by former first ladies. Probably the one that stays with me most is by the late great Bette Davis – “… Follow your art and the money will come, eventually.”

TSM: Anything else you’d like to share?

TB: I was the art director/ editor for a book, The Tales at Luv Michael: The Big Idea that was illustrated by a young student. I’ve been involved with this non-profit called Luv Michael, which is a New York-based company. At the launching of it, we were able to do the stories of Luv Michael, which is pretty much the illustrated story of what Luv Michael went through to become a handler. The goal of the non-profit is to train people with autism to be productive in society and become a food handler. In this kitchen, they specifically make granola, and package and sell it. With this non-profit, it’s giving these people the ability to have structure in their lives, be productive, and work in a field that they can go anywhere out in the world and handle food. Working on the picture book was a big thrill for me because I always secretly wanted to be an art director in production, and I was able to do that. I’m hoping to do more of that with this non-profit.

I’m grateful for this next five years in my career as an educator, researcher and of course, a man that plays with dolls and kids, which is even more exciting.

TSM: Thanks so much again for doing an interview and wish you all the best with your projects.

TB: I’m looking forward to seeing your magazine re-launch. Thank you so much for including me, and wish you all the best.

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