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History-Making Silver Spring Animator Credits Einstein’s Visual Arts Center

Silver Spring native Rebecca Sugar got her start at a Montgomery County high school arts program.

Rebecca Sugar draws. She tells stories. She composes songs on her ukulele. And, despite rebelling against the idea as a teenager, she has a point.

She's also poised to make animation history. 

When her new animated show, Steven Universe, debuts later this year, the 25-year-old Silver Spring native will become the first woman to create a show for Cartoon Network.

Her original and versatile style and work as a storyboard artist on the Emmy-nominated Cartoon Network show Adventure Time earned her a nomination for “Best Storyboarding in a Television Production” at the 39th Annual Annie Awards, honoring the best in animation.

Forbes recently named her to its “30 Under 30” Hollywood list.

Sugar moved to California three years ago after graduating from the School of Visual Arts in New York, but she got her start in Silver Spring, where she graduated from Montgomery Blair High School in 2005.

For her last two years of high school, Sugar would leave Blair and travel to Kensington’s Albert Einstein High School around noon each day to join other art students at the Visual Arts Center.

“You had to really want to paint to give up a normal high school experience,” she said.

She said she fell in love with animation and began drawing comics at an early age, but her teachers at the VAC pushed her to do more observational work. The rigorous program opened her eyes to parallels between more classical traditions in painting and her own graphical style of drawing.

“I can’t say enough about the VAC,” Sugar said. Her teachers, Jane Walsh and Mike Piechocinski, were the “heart and soul” of the program, she said. “The two of them were so invested in the students there."

Piechocinski, who started teaching at the VAC in 1998 and retired in 2012, remembers Sugar as someone who knew where she wanted to go as an artist from Day 1.

“Her work was always truly original and non-derivative, and a delight to see,” Piechocinski said. He called Sugar a "very humble young lady" with "unwavering" determination and a "very supportive and nurturing family."

While at the VAC, Sugar received Montgomery County’s prestigious Ida F. Haimovicz Visual Arts Award and was nominated as a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts.

"It's been wonderful for me as a teacher to go along for the ride," Piechocinski said.

Steven, Sugar’s younger brother and the namesake for Steven Universe, also attended the VAC. Rebecca and Steven would often work together in high school, collaborating and critiquing each other’s art. Now, Steven has moved to California to work on Steven Universe. Sugar says that her new show is inspired by “a mix of hanging out with friends and family, and the nerdy fantasy stuff that you share together.”

“The VAC was a great place for both of them,” said Rob Sugar, Rebecca’s father and the president of AURAS Design in downtown Silver Spring. “It encouraged them to be ambitious and take their work seriously.”

During her time at the VAC, Sugar remembers struggling against the expectation that an artist should have something to say. “I didn’t want to make political cartoons. I wanted to make silly cartoons,” she said.

Only after she graduated from the program did she realize the truth behind what her teachers had said: In each line, in each figure, she was expressing her own interpretation of the world. “You can’t not have a point, because just the act of drawing something is saying something,” she said.

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