Greenwich Art School Grad, Charlie Callahan, 23, Shares Advice: Learn to Pivot

At 23, Charlie Callahan has, as he says, “learned to pivot.” The Greenwich native who graduated Greenwich High School in 2018, had only finished his freshman year at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan when the pandemic upended in-person learning.

But that sinking feeling was not new to him. It was during his freshman year at GHS that he first learned a tough lesson about the best-laid plans.

Charlie Callahan. July 18, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager

Having enjoyed playing in the GYFL for several years, Charlie tore is ACL in his first year at GHS.

His next steps were as much a testament to a positive attitude as they were to the thick GHS Course Catalog.

“I pivoted and decided to make art my main focus,” Charlie recalled. “GHS is fantastic. I really do love that they have such a great span of choices. I’m so glad I went there. In addition to academics – whether you want to pursue music, sports or arts – there is such a great selection.”

Charlie said that while GHS is a big high school, with about 2,700 students, it was still easy to forge relationships with teachers.

“I took as many art classes as I could find,” he said. “It opened a new avenue for me, and it was something I realized I was good at.”

“Computer Arts was huge for me,” he added. “I had never touched a digital pen before, or worked in Photoshop.”

Other courses included Basic Illustration, Pottery, Perspective, Life Drawing, and AP Art. Charlie enjoyed the drawing classes the most.

“It was somewhere I could have fun, make new works of art and practice,” he said.

Charlie said that while he was taking AP Art, art teacher Sheyda Ardalan, who he describes as “my main backer,” helped him find potential colleges.

Representatives from art schools visited GHS to talk about their programs. Then, in person, Charlie visited SVA, Pratt and SUNY Purchase.

“I knew I wanted to work in art, and along the way I decided I wanted to work in animation,” he said, going on to list Ed, Edd n Eddy; Ben 10; Avatar: The Last Airbender and Rocket Power as favorite childhood animated cartoons.

“SVA really clicked, because I wanted something I could do as a job, but it’s also something I love to do,” he explained. “SVA was the most business-minded and had the most connections. They say, ‘We will steer you best we can on the path for a job.’ That was a major help for me.”

While at GHS Charlie had focused mostly on illustration. Then at SVA he jumped headfirst into animation.

“I got a full scholarship – a Silas H. Rhodes Scholarship,” he said, referring to the competitive scholarship named after the school’s founder. “They really liked my work.”

Freshman year, he took the required courses in the Animation department, including Intro to Animation, Life Drawing and History of Animation.

The campus is spread across multiple buildings on 23rd street, and that took some getting used to.

Freshman year he lived in the 23rd Street dorms between 2nd and 3rd Ave. 

“Those dorms were the originals. They’re very tight and small, but each one had a kitchen.”

Sophomore year he lived in newer dorms on 24th Street, which had abundant amenities.

“My biggest recommendations to young people starting out is to expect things to change. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Expect the unexpected and be able to pivot.”

– Charlie Callahan, 23

“Things were going great,” he said. “But then I remember being in class and hearing rumors about a pandemic.”

“SVA was very strict on regulating opening and closing,” he said. “The moment it got too bad, they said school is closed. Go online.”

As New York City became an epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the US, students first worked remotely in their dorm rooms, with the option of going home to work remotely. Later the dorms closed down.

Charlie said he was lucky to have a full computer set up, including a Cintiq, which he transported home to Greenwich.

He spent second semester sophomore year and all of junior year taking classes remotely.

“Junior year was really fun. I was more relaxed at home and more comfortable behind the screen. I reconnected with a lot of people and got to be more in command of my life.”

“That transition was interesting. We kept to our schedule – all from home. It was not too big of a problem, but keeping up the motivation, and doing that amount of work is tricky.”

Returning in person for senior year was a relief, and brought with it more leeway in course selection.

“Seniors get first dibs and I took fun courses like Stop Motion and Film Noir,” he said.

Senior year was also spent working on his thesis film, but Charlie said his thesis advisor, Lisa LaBracio, was an inspiration and great help.

Thesis preparation begins the summer before senior year, including work on the story, script and general beats of the animation.

“When school starts you get going on the actual production of backgrounds and animation itself,” Charlie explained, adding that thesis films are required to be at least one minute long. His was three minutes long. “You go through many iterations and meet lots of deadlines.”

Part of the experience was watching the progress of other students and how they go about their work schedule.

“It combined everything I’d learned in the four years I’d been there,” he said. “The amount of work I’d done previously helped – it was all relevant.”

In the end the thesis films are evaluated on a pass/fail basis, but Charlie took nothing for granted.

He said the decision hinged on an end-of-semester 10 minute meeting with Hsiang Chin Moe, the head of the department, and your professor for the showing.

“She said she loved it and gave me compliments, but I was still waiting to hear if I passed, which I did. It was fantastic.”

From there, all the students whose thesis film passed were able to screen their film for a large audience. The six-hour event was in SVA’s theater, and each student could bring three guests.

Better yet, graduation for the entire school was held at Radio City Music Hall. Keynote speaker was Roxanne Gay.

“I have such fond memories of my time at SVA. I met so many amazing people and teachers. It was a wonderful experience.”

With his BFA under his belt, Charlie said he is in the process of job hunting. He benefits from access to the SVA alumni system and job board that includes multiple links to career sites. Beyond that the school holds online sessions to help with the job search.

“My biggest recommendations to young people starting out is to expect things to change. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Expect the unexpected and be able to pivot.”

“The world is tough these days,” he added. “But if you find something that really motivates you and inspires you, go for it. Be willing to deviate. It’s okay to change your goals.”

More on the SVA BFA undergraduate program is available online.