A Lens on UMBC History
Richard Chisolm ’82, interdisciplinary studies, has a unique vantage point on UMBC’s history. He lived on the edge of campus as the university grew. In this essay, the award-winning documentary filmmaker and recipient of UMBC’s Alumnus of the Year award in 2001 explains how his career path was influenced by proximity to the university.
“How did you get into filmmaking?”
For over three decades, I’ve been working as an independent cinematographer and documentary filmmaker, travelling the world, interacting with remarkable humans on both sides of the camera, and being a messenger of information, education, and entertainment. It is an unpredictable, financially sporadic, and sometimes dangerous profession. But it is life affirming, personally rewarding, and at times amazingly impactful.
Sometimes my assignments are highly creative and involve collaboration with a large professional crew and talented actors. Others are humble affairs with a small team observing and recording lives and events to be shared with a wide audience. I feel very fortunate to love what I do and be able to make a living doing it. Someone recently suggested I use the term ‘funemployment’ to describe my lifestyle and it fits me perfectly. Over time I’ve learned to fully enjoy a balance of workdays and days in between.
I’ve answered the “How did you get into filmmaking?” question a thousand times, a thousand ways, and with a thousand variations. But I have never been able to answer it without including the story of my time at UMBC.
For many years, people I met outside of Maryland had no knowledge of my alma mater. If rushed, I’d just say “University of Maryland” and not worry about the imprecision. Happily, the conversation has changed over the years. Now when I mention UMBC to the outer world, people often already know about it and usually have a high regard for its “rock star” president. (If the situation allows, I relish in boasting that I have repeatedly “hung out” with Freeman Hrabowski in person!)
For me, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County is much more than the place I went to college. It is literally where I grew up, from ages 9 to 22. My late father, Guy Chisolm, an architect and builder, was hired to help plan and construct the new campus. He stayed on as director of the physical plant until retirement. The state provided our family with an old existing house on the grounds in which to live.
For me as a kid, UMBC was a huge wild landscape in my back yard, surrounded by a perpetual construction site. By the time I was a teenager attending Catonsville High School, it was a surreal, six building treeless ‘set’ for my early experimental films. (As a childhood artist, I had turned to filmmaking when my older brother gave me a Super-8 camera system that I believe was a re-gifted wedding present.)
When the issue of my higher education arose, a fortuitous event took place in my life. I came home from school one afternoon to find my sister Susie (a UMBC freshman at the time) chatting with a long-haired hippie standing next to a shiny and vastly expensive 16mm film camera on a tripod. Right there at the intersection of Wilkens Avenue and Hilltop Road was the intersection of my boyhood and my vocation! I may have blacked out temporarily, but I do remember learning that my sister’s friend was a UMBC film major who was working on his class project. The very idea that I could possibly attend this university with access to state-of-the-art equipment instantly became an obsessional goal. I applied to no other college, graduated high school, and entered UMBC in 1975.
I chose to live with my parents while attending college, mostly for economic reasons, but partly because our house was closer to the Fine Arts Building than the actual dorms. (Yes, I measured it.) It was awkward when one of my professors recognized my last name and asked if I was related to that man he or she had been complaining to about air conditioning, lighting, or carpet issues.
But UMBC was a paradise of creativity and professional career development. The film/video area was new, endowed with the best gear available, and supported an eclectic mix of prestigious faculty. We all thrived in a communal atmosphere of unprecedented freedom and experimentation. My filmmaking cohort would easily spend forty to sixty hours in Fine Arts, sometimes sleeping on couches or afloat the screening room’s king-sized waterbed (eventually removed by more prudish leadership in the 1980s).
As a sophomore, I began to get occasional day work as a production assistant on this or that commercial, documentary, or educational film out in the real world. For my senior thesis project, I made a half-hour documentary about what goes on behind the walls of an art museum (shot at what was then called the Walters Art Gallery) that somehow managed to air nationally on PBS. I was far from exceptional, but rather I was in the company of many other students who were also able to flourish there in all sorts of motion picture media.
The department was considered the best in the mid-Atlantic south of New York and – to this day – I run across dozens of UMBC alumni working on professional film and TV production crews. And this was also the place where I would meet and fall in love with my wife of thirty plus years. Meg graduated in 1981 with a B.A. in Visual Arts/Film, declined acceptance to New York University’s prestigious graduate program in Cinema Studies, and attended the University of Maryland Medical School. (She is now an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.)
See more about Richard Chisolm at www.richardchisolm.com.