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Empowering children is this man's passion

Gary Stoddard of Sandy plays the flute for a lunchtime crowd at the Gallivan Center in Salt Lake City.
Gary Stoddard of Sandy plays the flute for a lunchtime crowd at the Gallivan Center in Salt Lake City.
Tyler Sipe, Deseret Morning News

It's funny how things that happen as a kid can stick with you for your whole life. Gary Stoddard still remembers sixth grade, when his voice was changing and his school was recording an album.

"We practiced all these songs," he said, "and the day came, and they said, 'OK, we're going to record this, but you can't sing, and one other kid, too.' So the two of us sat in the room while the rest went down and recorded.

"I said to myself, I will never, ever do this to somebody. I will make sure everyone knows that they are able. I promised myself I'd never sing again."

Well, wherever that teacher is, eat your heart out.

Stoddard is now a professional artist who earns a living singing, teaching art and composing and playing music. He also spends a lot of time in elementary schools teaching kids music, art — and, most important — that they are worth something.

As an artist, Stoddard is somewhat of a Renaissance man. He writes music and plays five instruments for the local rock group "Slickrock Gypsies." He runs his own music-recording studio. He paints murals for the Marriott hotels and sells artwork in galleries. He attended the University of Utah on a theater scholarship.

"When you diversify your own personal self, there's a greater opportunity for success and greater personal fulfillment, as well," he said. "You might find yourself being very busy, but you're involved in the areas of your passion, which makes it just a joy."

But it hasn't always been that way. When he got married, he said his first wife didn't particularly support the arts. For about 12 years, he worked as a respiratory therapist, and later managed a home-care company — all the time continuing to play local venues with his twin brother under the name "The Stoddard Brothers."

After a divorce and remarriage, Stoddard's current wife, Terri, encouraged him to follow his passion. She told him, "Music and art is where your passion lies — go do it. Why not? You only live once." So he did.

Stoddard works as an arts specialist in elementary schools, bringing drawing, painting and a little bit of sculpting into the curriculum. "We teach through the arts, basically," he explained.

For example, with kindergartners, he teaches about shapes through sculpting, or about emotions through drawing. "We go as simple as the circles and having them draw not only the mouth, but how do the eyes look when you're happy, or how do the eyes look when you're sad. They can be more interpretive as far as when they're dealing with people. What do facial features mean? How can you tell if they're telling you the truth, or if they're really sad or happy? Where are the ears, where are the eyebrows?"

"So the kids have fun, even just doing the faces and seeing the differences in emotion, so they don't just have two dots and a smiley face no matter what they draw."

He admitted it sounds simplistic, but said it's amazing to watch the kids become so aware of their environment. "But probably more importantly — when we start out class, we always say, 'If you're an artist, could you please raise your hands?' And we always have a few kids that (do). And by the end, if you ask 'Who is an artist in this room?' you have 100 percent of the hands go up, because everyone is an artist. You want kids not to pre-classify themselves before they go anywhere, or else they'll never extend themselves in any area."

With fifth graders, he said he did a unit on explorers. "We put on an hourlong presentation about explorers. We built a great big ship and had them come in and learn different songs to popular music, with the lyrics changed. They did costumes, a little bit of pantomime, a little bit of acting, public speaking, that kind of thing, but it reinforced what they've learned. Each song deals with a different part of that historical moment, so they go in and test them and find that retention is much, much higher."

In addition to teaching academic subjects, Stoddard has also created a play for kids called "Whatever You Imagine." "It has everything to do with kids realizing that they have potential and that whatever they imagine is possible," he said. It was received so well that he was asked by the Sandy Arts Council to put the show on at the Sandy Amphitheater for three days. Now the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program is looking at implementing it statewide.

"In order to keep kids away from drugs, you have to start earlier and earlier," Stoddard explained. "They realize that it's basically self-image that creates the need for people to fit in and therefore smoke, drink, do drugs, whatever they can to fit in."

Stoddard said that his goal in life is to help kids realize that they are of value and they are enough.

Even when he's teaching about the water cycle, he said, he can find a way to send the message.

And when that message gets through?

"Having those little kids beam when they realize they can do this stuff, and then to see them get up there and perform — little kids who wouldn't even talk before — they stand up there and they're dancing across the stage, and they're saying lines in a microphone. It sounds simple, but all of a sudden, they've taken this quantum leap into who they are, which — it is a passion for me. It's just amazing."