Neal Nichols, Jr., now age 47, was born and raised in the small fishing community of Wellfleet, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, a local artist's paradise and home to the world famous "Wellfleet Oyster". As a child, drawing was his favorite hobby, and although he had no lessons, he self-taught in all aspects of visual creativity. Perhaps he had a "photographic mind" for his mother, Cynthia Souther claims that he would listen to an audio story or watch a TV show and have the ability to act out and recite what was seen or heard almost exactly as it had transpired.
It was during Wellfleet Elementary School, kindergarten through 4th grade, that teacher Ethel D. McCauliffe mentored and encouraged Neal's artistic abilities, and middle school, where Marie Jones took the role of inspiration. At this point, Neal had developed a wanderlust and fondness for maps and charts, although the subject of geography had no significance. Raised by his mother with no dad around, and with seven brothers and sisters, one can imagine that there was no opportunity for travel in his childhood years. However, naming places that he and his friends would ride bikes to, and meet at, created a map and world of it's own.
Nauset Regional High School was the timeframe that Neal grew to pursue adventures in art, and teacher James Owens encouraged and enhanced not only the skill, but self confidence to continue on at an art university. Massachusetts College of Art in Boston would later prepare Neal for a career in commercial illustration and fine arts.
At age 17, a month prior to his 18th birthday, Neal set out for a new challenge, to engage in his first plane ride. Neal's very first experience in a plane was a twin engine nine passenger piper from Boston to Hyannis, Massachusetts. This twenty minute flight changed his world as an artist, soon to be adventurer, and a passion for maps was born. Meanwhile, Neal's friend Donald Paddock took him on several road trips to Western New York State. It was there that Neal would begin sketching the maps of New England and New York. People were amazed that he recalled most of the towns across the drives in order and from memory, while placing them on the relationally accurate map. In the years following, a trip to see his brother Richard in Florida inspired Neal to draw and learn the states he flew over and drove through, and eventually a move to Seattle solidified his ability to draw the entire lower 48 states from memory.
As a young man, Alaska commercial fishing on the treacherous Bering Sea, and Georgia Banks fishing off Nantucket Island were unforgettable experiences at sea that allowed intense travel. Here, at age twenty five, Neal learned the regions of all of North America, and was able to sketch most the maps of the world from memory. Neal's adventures continued overseas with experiences first in Venezuela, followed by Japan, Australia and Sweden, with most recent travels to Slovenia and Croatia. It's no wonder the world maps are embedded in Neal's memory, as he is now credited with over 1200 personal flights.
In 1992, as Neal sketched a map of Europe for his friend, Jeff Flower, an Alaskan fisherman shipmate of his from Dutch Harbor, his teacher friend, Steve Washburn looked on and asked, "How do you do this? You need to share this with my students, can you come to the school on Monday?" Neal's initial hesitancy turned to encouragement and a few days after his 26th birthday met his first class, 36 fifth graders from Jornada Elementary in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Petrified, Neal introduced himself, faced the board and immediately felt the comfort of drawing. With the kids in awe, commenting with wonderment at how Neal was able to draw the map without visual reference, Neal presented a pocket full of European coins as prizes. As improvisation is always the most natural form of acting, Neal quickly engaged the audience, and before long, clapping, cheering, and intense participation was taking place in the room. "The Geography Gameshow" was born.
In 1993 the show was not the only thing that was born into Neal's life, as on January 19th, his son, Seiya was born in Tokyo, Japan. His mother and Neal met in College and married in her native country. Although she and Neal parted ways due to cultural differences, they remain fantastic friends and Neal often visits Seiya in Japan. Seiya has a passion for theater arts instead of the visual 2-D skills that his mother and Neal share.
Back home on Cape Cod, Neal mentored a child, Justin Brady, for the school and his family. Justin admired Neal's drawing skills, and learned the basics of perspective and shadowing from his teachings. Justin shared an idea with his teachers, that maybe Neal could visit his classroom and host a map drawing event. The school contacted Neal and researched what it was he did. With no words to explain it, Neal simply said, "Let me show you..." and in under ten seconds, rendered a map of South America. In their amazement, Neal returned, "There, what is happening to you will happen with your class..."
It was a beautiful Friday afternoon when a silhouette of the world, produced by Neal entirely from memory, dazzled Justin's classmates, fourth and fifth graders, about eighty in the room. The first half included his drawing, and the second half was basically a guessing and memory game using the board he designed, offering international prizes to those students correctly locating specific regions, countries, lakes and other geographical locations on the map. When completed, the teacher said the most encouraging words to Neal: "You can make a living at this, it is art and education, interractive and amazing! I am calling the newspaper..." The next morning, the interview and story made the cover, and immediately Neal realized there was more to this idea. In the development of this program's presentation, not only is a map drawn and a game played later, but rather the learning and teaching commences the moment the marker touches the board. As of today, The Geography Gameshow has been shared in several U.S. States, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Ireland, Australia, Malaysia, Japan, South Africa, England, and even Zambia.
"These days, I believe students of all levels of learning need to comprehend some basic facts in their education. One example I share is, 'a difference between the teacher and the boss...a teacher is happy to repeat a few times if necessary, but a boss only wishes to say it once!' Important is the fact, 'How well you do now as a student will determine how well you may do the rest of your life...' The Geography Gameshow is an event that hosts the rendering of a map from memory where students interract and participate by identifying specific locations throughout the program. The opportunity exists to take home a small token prize for successfully accomplishing a task created for the show. The key to achieving is in the listening and comprehension skills encouraged in the presentation. Several lessons and morals are incorporated into the program, and it is my goal that all who attend will walk away with a better understanding of the world we live in." - Neal Nichols, Jr.