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Island Expressions: Bill Stelzer

May 27, 2008 — Bill Stelzer describes himself as a quiet, introverted guy — more than a bit of a nerd — but he's making waves with his various video projects.
He just wrapped up work shooting video as well as teaching students for the Waveplace Foundation, a non-profit organization that puts child-friendly computers into schools across the Caribbean as part of the One Laptop Per Child movement. The project took him as close to home as Guy Benjamin School on St. John and as far away as Mercy and Sharing school in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
"It was like living in a novel," he says of his trip to Haiti.
because Haiti is so unsafe, Stelzer says, he had to travel with bodyguards on his first trip, but ventured out by himself on the second trip.
The computers with lime-green cases are meant for use by children who live in harsh environments like the desert or jungle. They have their own unique operating systems and are aimed at opening up the world to students. With their set of ears, they allow the students to hook up to the Internet via a wireless connection.
"It teaches science, art, creative thinking, math — all those things simultaneously," Stelzer says, showing off one of the computers.
While most Guy Benjamin students already know how to use computers, Stelzer says, this was their first exposure to computers for the Haitian students.
Taking his iPhone out of his pocket, Stelzer pulls up the videos he shot at Guy Benjamin and in Haiti.
"I turned the camera around so the kids could see themselves," he says, as a video of excited kids plays on the tiny screen.
With the Waveplace Foundation job finished, he's now working on an animated coral-reef video for the Friends of V.I. National Park.
Stelzer, 43, took a circuitous route to this point in his life. Born in Michigan to a father who traveled the world as a geologist, as a child he went off to live in Midland, Texas, Saudi Arabia and Panama.
"It was neat driving dirt bikes in the desert," he says.
Always artistic — a trait he says he gets from his grandfather — Stelzer studied art, graphic design and industrial design at Michigan State University. When the school lost its accreditation in industrial design, he headed off the University of Texas at Austin to study film. He left two credits short of graduation because he didn't complete the foreign-language requirement.
The skills he learned at school led to a job with the ABC television station affiliate in Austin, where he worked as graphic director during the first Gulf War in 1990-91. It was a fast-paced job that left little time to do anything other than just get the job done.
Burnt out at the age of 26, he decided in 1992 to move to St. John. His family had inherited a St. John house when his aunt, Bertalie Shattuck, died. His brother was living in it with his wife, but there was also room for Stelzer.
"It was like going from 100 miles an hour to nothing," he says. "All my skills were useless."
After drifting around for a few months while doing some serious hiking on St. John, he started commuting to St. Thomas to design T-shirts for Caribbean Sportswear.
Stelzer had a string of jobs after that, working as an art director for a variety of companies.
In 1995, he started working on movies and commercials shot in the Virgin Islands. While he did well at the work, he says, the industry's politics did him in.
About this time, the Internet reached St. John, high-speed computers became available and digital video developed. The three factors enabled Stelzer to set up shop in his house.
"The capability I had at a TV station I now had in my house," he says.
He did commercials for politicians who shall go nameless and videos for the Friends of V.I. National Park. Returning to still work, he did graphics work for the Sun Times, a St. John newspaper.
At the Sun Times he developed his writing skills, an aspect of the job that pleased him greatly since he was no longer the anonymous person behind the video camera or doing the graphics.
"I thought it was really neat to have people see you as a writer," he says.
Work is the focus of his life because he finds it so much fun, Stelzer says, but he still finds time to hike St. John's hills by himself and spend time with friends.
"I'm not a total hermit," he says.
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