One late night six years ago, George Juliano was nearing the end of his chemotherapy treatment for cancer. He was no longer seeing the doctor who told him he only had three months to live, he said. Instead, he was doing what he did best: pottery.
Juliano, a ceramics teacher at Robinson Secondary School, made a large piece that night, incorporating tumors into the design to reflect his struggles with cancer.
"It was like a release for me, like my tumors were gone," said Juliano. His doctor called the piece "the healing pot," because now, Juliano said, he is cancer-free.
"There is a natural healing power in doing the things you want to do," said Juliano, 63. This is one of his fundamental beliefs when it comes to art, he said, and it is one he likes to tell his students. Art has pulled him through the hardest parts of life, he said.
Now his artistic efforts are being rewarded. One of Juliano's pieces won first place in the ceramics category in a competition honoring Virginia artists. The competition is in its first year, said Reneé Kennedy, founder of Williamsburg-based Kennedy Promotions and the Kennedy Artist Management Group.
The piece, "Black and White Reed Raku Pot," will be featured on a one-page spread in a book commemorating the competition. It is an example of Raku, originally a Japanese firing process that involves taking a piece red-hot out of the kiln and reducing the temperature quickly, causing the glaze to crack.
"[Juliano] is the Raku king around here," said Joe Dailey, a fellow Robinson art teacher. "He's very consistent with that technique. People are always asking him to do demonstrations."
Dailey has been taking classes from his colleague for a long time. Besides his Robinson classes, Juliano offers a class specifically for art teachers through Virginia Commonwealth University.
"When he teaches the class, not only is he teaching you techniques, but he is also teaching you how to be a better teacher," said Dailey.
"Even just doing research for the book, I was so impressed with the artwork out there," said Kennedy. "It is very exciting."
FOR JULIANO, interest in art began in college. He grew up in Portchester, N.Y. near a set of railroad tracks. His parents weren't wealthy, he said, but he never knew it growing up. Juliano began as an oil painter, but after visiting a school friend who was a potter, he found that he loved ceramics. He graduated from Middle Tennessee State University and, after three and a half years in the U.S. Navy, began a 35-year career of teaching art, first at Langley High School in McLean, then at Robinson, where he started the ceramics program and went on to make it into one of the largest programs of its kind in the county.
Juliano's ceramics classroom, which he calls "ceramic heaven," is separate from the rest of the art wing. When Robinson renovated the building, Juliano requested and received the old auto-shop room for his ceramics class. The room is large and cluttered with student artwork, potters' wheels, tables and kilns. Walls are covered with pictures of students and inspirational messages.
"Whenever the kids are drifting, or kind of bored, or whatever, though it's kind of hard to get bored here, they look at those signs and get inspiration," said Juliano.
Juliano encourages peer teaching, he said, and wants to make the class enjoyable for students. A typical class has students working at their own pace while a radio plays in the background.
"Whenever I can get one kid to teach another, I do," said Juliano. "They work hard, but because they're working in a different environment, they don't realize they're working hard."
"He's the coolest," said Robinson 10th-grader Becca Linder. "As long as you make [your artwork] different, he'll give you a good grade. If you're just trying to do something stupid, he won't."
Juliano's work environment helps him, too. During his cancer treatments, he said, he only missed one day of school. The students' support improved his morale, he said.
"I'd rather be here [at Robinson] than at home feeling sorry for myself," said Juliano.
In 2002, Juliano's devotion to teaching paid off. He won the Teacher of the Year award for Fairfax County Public Schools. That award was "wonderful," he said, but it feels good to be recognized for his work. He is a prolific artist, making close to 600 pieces a year, which he displays in an annual show every November at the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum. This year, the show will be Nov. 4 from 7 - 9:30 p.m., he said.
"When I make pieces, I don't necessarily have a preconceived idea of what I am going to make," said Juliano. "I just let it happen."