George Kochell's self-described goofy, self-taught cartooning style is not the product of any art school.
Lessons and encouragement came from unlikely sources--comic books, amusement park sketch artists and the truckers who passed through his parents' roadside diner.
Now known as "Mr. Geo," the Laurel man spends much of his time passing on what he's learned to students, young and old, at Greenbelt Elementary School, Montpelier Cultural Arts Center, Howard County Community College and the Greenbelt Community Center.
Kochell, a tall man with a long, brown braid down his back and cartoon pins attached to his trademark black vest, teaches his students that you can turn a love of comic books and cartoons into a full-fledged, money-making vocation.
"The kids are crazy about it," said Barbara Simon, head of the Greenbelt Association for the Visual Arts, who raised money from businesses so Kochell could teach cartooning and animation classes at Greenbelt Elementary and at the community center. "The projects involve so much learning. They learn about all the technical stuff and the artistic side."
Growing up in the 1960s and '70s, Kochell had no such instruction. As a toddler, he learned the basics of art and humor at Big George's Truck Stop, off Route 22 in central Pennsylvania. His mother and father--"Big George"--owned the place. His mother took "Little George" with her to work each day as she waited on the truckers passing through.
Those regulars taught Kochell the fine points of humor, and they brought him pencils and other art supplies. The diner was adorned with framed raunchy cartoons, many of them rumored to be drawn by Big George, who loved to hoist his son on his lap while he doodled.
The lessons ended when Kochell was 5 and Big George passed away. A few years later, the coming of Interstate 81 forced the family to sell the truck stop.
But Kochell's education continued in other ways. Big George left his son the comic books he had been collecting for 15 years. And knowing Kochell's interest in art, teachers gave him special assignments, such as illustrating his textbooks or commissioning him to design pamphlets. He eventually earned a coveted unlimited pass to the school art room.
By the time he reached high school, classmates had enlisted his talents to create posters to advertise school events. "I didn't know why it was me," Kochell recalled of the special treatment. "There were guys who did better than me, had more talent than me."
Today, the only explanation Kochell can muster is that, because his father had died, teachers took pity on him and tried to keep him away from drugs and out of trouble.
"In farm country, that was the prevailing culture," Kochell recalled. "All the kids would smoke pot. There really wasn't anything else to do."
Kochell said his 1975 high school class was so burned out that they mismanaged the budget for the senior class trip. Instead of Puerto Vallarta or Fort Lauderdale, they could only afford a trip to nearby Hershey Park, the chocolate company's amusement park.
For Kochell, it proved a good career move.
As the group strolled the park, one of Kochell's friends saw a caricature artist at work. The friend obnoxiously yelled that Kochell could draw just as well. Then out poked the head of Zee Zirkle, owner of Zirkle's Art Service and the caricature artist's boss.
"Hey kid," he said to Kochell. "Give it a try."
Kochell quickly sketched a profile. Zirkle studied it and pointed out its flaws before declaring, "Kid, you're hired."
"And you," Zirkle said, facing the other artist, "you're fired."
Thus began a highly successful collaboration with Zirkle's Art Services that lasted until the business folded in the late 1970s.
"There was a whole subculture of caricature artists who floated around. Everybody took me under their wing," Kochell said.
He was a quick study. In no time, he was making $400 to $500 each week by creating hundreds of $3 caricatures. His record for drawing a caricature was 25 seconds.
"I was rich!" Kochell said. "I was 17, had my car paid off. Girlfriends. Lobster and steak dinners."
Since that lucrative start, Kochell has continued to do freelance caricature work, most notably with Starlog magazine, a science fiction film journal. Over the years, he has supported himself by doing work for other publications and arts businesses and by doing caricatures at parties and other public events.
Kochell also exhibited at the Montpelier Cultural Arts Center, where he spent time as an artist-in-residence in the early 1990s during a short-lived stint in the fine arts. He prefers the constancy of being a commercial artist, Kochell said, as well as the financial payoff. As a fine artist, "you don't really have the opportunity to make a living, to work from day to day," he says.
"You sell your painting, and the image leaves. If you have an image and you own an image, you can ply that idea across several mediums. And you have a shot of making a living at it."
For more information about classes with George "Mr. Geo" Kochell, call 301-507-6581.
CAPTION: Freelance illustrator George Kochell, below, of Laurel, has been doodling and drawing for decades. He shares his illustration techniques with others at classes across the area. At right, a "Mr. Geo" cartoon.