Fine art, music and education aren’t necessarily easy to find in a typical arcade. But Spinner’s Pinball Arcade in Frederick isn’t your average gaming spot.
The relatively new arcade serves as an education center for the nonprofit Pinball EDU, which was created by former competitive player Joe Said to educate and enrich children on the autism spectrum. Home-grown Frederick artist Bill Watson, who goes by the moniker “Watson,” houses a studio in the back of the arcade and will be hosting a gallery viewing in the building on April 13. Watson hopes the event will not only boost awareness of Frederick’s art scene, but also give newcomers a glimpse of the work Pinball EDU is doing to help children with special needs. The artist will also donate 25 percent of the event’s sales to the charity.
“For me, personally, if I can do what I like to do and do a little bit of good at the same time, it’s gold,” Watson said.
Said, an electrical engineer, was inspired to create the nonprofit after seeing the game help a number of pinball players who were on the autism spectrum.
“Specifically, Robert Gagno, who was an incredible player and celebrated that he was on the spectrum,” Said recalled. “Pinball really helped him learn to socialize, learn confidence and some skill development.”
Said previously worked for a company that made adaptive technology for the vision-impaired and blind.
“I don’t have a background in autism or any mental disabilities, but the adaptive technology, sensitivity and inclusion is always a common theme in helping people with disabilities,” he said.
When the kids are playing pinball, they are engaged in a way that allows them to learn without realizing it, the nonprofit founder said. The game offers a variety of learning experiences about circuitry, electronics, magnetism, geometry, physics, game design and more, according to Said.
Pinball is unique to popular digital gaming experiences because it teaches an awareness of physical objects. Those lessons are important in the age of constant screen time, the former competitive player said.
“There’s an immense difference between looking at a two-dimensional screen while you’re sitting down, and standing with a group of people playing a game that has real physics,” he said. “No two bounces are the same, even though they might be similar. Whereas, in a computer game, if you do something twice, it’s going to have the same effect.”
Watson’s expansive pop-art looking mural on the walls of the arcade and other artistic collaborations has brought the “Art” into Said’s vision of a STEAM education center. The two came together while volunteering at Artomatic@Frederick, a biannual event that creates “a playground for artistic expression,” according to its website.
“Me, as a business guy and an engineer, I really appreciate the aesthetic side of business,” Said stated. “With the partnership here, we’ve been able to marry some of the art world with the business world.”
The aesthetic Watson created in the arcade has fostered a welcoming environment for the children with autism as well as the rest of the community. Watson hopes that warm feeling will cultivate a space where people from different backgrounds can enjoy each other’s company without any division. Said’s vision is for children of all abilities to be able to play together in an inclusive way.
“It’s sensitivity training for the public in a fun setting,” he said. “Barriers are broken when you’re having fun in a positive environment. Especially in this country today, everyone is so polarized by politics. But in an arcade, nobody gives a crap. I think that’s a bonus.”
About the artist
Watson’s work has a gritty, street-style attitude that one wouldn’t expect from an artist who grew up in the suburbs of Middletown.
“Everything around me was beautiful, pastoral landscapes, which are an inspiration to most people,” he said. “When I got a chance to go to Baltimore or Washington as a kid, I found it interesting because it wasn’t what I was used to. And it kind of stuck.”
Much of Watson’s work is inspired by imagery from his childhood, including cartoon doodles. He uses a variety of media, including spray paint, cement, wood, old road signs, used dental light boxes, acrylic paint and diamond dust. He also has a background in screen printing and video.
“I work with all kinds of oddities,” Watson said. “I’m definitely an experimenter.”
Watson said most of his buyers live outside of the Frederick area in Baltimore or D.C.
“But I’m on a mission to change that,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons I’m having an event like this, to try to let people know you can get a variety of arts right here in Frederick.”
For more information about Watson and his art, visit watsonscribbles.com.
Spinner’s is open to the public from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday. There is a suggested donation of $10 per person or $25 per family. For more information, visit pinball-edu.org.
Follow Hannah Dellinger on Twitter: @hdellingermedia.