Saturday, September 4, 2010

Road Trip/Sketchbook Journal: Center for Cartoon Studies

Since our drive to Maine took a slightly more picturesque and wandering route than the usual expressway, we wound up passing by White River Junction, Vermont, home of the Center for Cartoon Studies. A few years back I had gotten a travel grant to attend an informative and (needless to say) highly entertaining workshop in gag cartooning by New Yorker panelist Harry Bliss and Nickelodeon cartoonist Karen Sneider, and so had some previous experience with this admirable effort situated in a historic railroad village.

Like any other cultural outpost it's always well-worth stopping by just to check out what's been going on, and there was a nice little exhibit up of some recent works in the Center's gallery. The show was part of a fantastic promotional publication "Caboose": a 34-page newsprint tabloid crammed full of samples culled from current and former student work that showcases the diversity of talent in White River Junction. The editors, Chuck Forsman and Max de Radigu├ęs have put together something to really be proud of that gives a unique perspective on the community: check out the blog and download a PDF of the project here. I would also add how refreshing it was to enjoy full-spread layouts of comics rightfully restored to the dimensions of their former glory - it made for an impressive flag to hoist on "Read Comics in Public Day."

As a side note, having just come down off the sixth year of the UAF "Cartoon & Comic Art" course this show made for an academic reaffirmation and bit of a mental bifurcation: it's a strange perspective to critique comic work from a dual perspective as someone who both draws and teaches drawing. It switches from the checklist of "how did they do that/what's working/how could it work better" etc. to a slight shift in objective assessment of what lessons are being taught/learned, and what and how can I get similar results from my own students. Above and beyond any introspective questioning on how can I incorporate or avoid what I see into my own work on either side of the drafting table, I find myself enjoying a piece the most when it succeeds in taking me out of myself, temporarily suspending the analysis of craft and just enjoying it for what it is. Just like our group up in Alaska and as with student and professional work everywhere, there was a full range of talents on display demonstrating a full spectrum of skill and subject matter. Also, the meta-perspective is worth mentioning: there's an additional impression of satisfaction in producing these pieces, again as I experience in my own work, and then there's the rewarding satisfaction of seeing all the effort and output when viewed collectively. Similar to the difference between seeing a painting reproduced in a textbook versus witnessing the original in person, it never fails to aesthetically get my geek off. And what's exciting is the synergistic effect that's tapped into and channeled at places like the Center, when a group of like-minded individuals focus their creativity in such a way and build a strong sense of community.

Also on the checklist was a peek at the Schulz Library, an impressive repository of all things comic:

"Thanks to generous donations from publishers, artists, and collectors the world over, our collection is abundant and unique. From our selection of contemporary graphic novels, to our out-of-print and rare collections of gag cartoons and classic newspaper strips, the Schulz Library is a dream come true for the cartoonist bibliophile."

Pictured here is our tour guide Canto, a current student (see samples of his work here), and also a TA for one of the upcoming summer workshops. Six instructors and several assistants conduct 5-day intensive workshops, with registered attendants topping thirty-eight students this year. The Center has around one hundred folks enrolled, and was also recently accredited by Vermont to offer an MFA in addition to the one- or two-year certificate. Faculty members include Robyn Chapman, Stephen Bissette and many visiting instructors/guest artists and writers like James Kochalka, Charles Burns, Kim Deitch, Sam Henderson and many others.  

A quick walk-through to peek at a some of the work areas where computer stations are housed along with drafting tables, silk-screening and binding equipment, a nice setup for students to go about producing their comics.

"Freed from being the primary medium of adolescent entertainment, comics have reinvented themselves. Sequential Artists are exploring new genres, using the medium subtly and powerfully." - Sturm: A Case For Comics

Center founder James Sturm (right) was at work reviewing some archival cartoons: a couple favorite works by him I have in my own collection include the graphic novel "The Golem's Mighty Swing" and also the trade paperback "Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules." Sturm also founded the best on-line resource for folks interested in introducing and teaching sequential art in any curriculum, the National Association of Comics Art Educator's website. And must say, given its location, the basement bathroom was probably one of the more aesthetically interesting places I've ever used: don't any magazines for reading material.

All together this brief revisit to the Center for Cartoon Studies was an excellent reminder and reinvigoration of the power and passion that drives many practitioners, aspiring, amateur and professional alike, to create their works.
"A comics-art curriculum is interdisciplinary. As comics-art students learn to become literate and visually literate, they need to develop a vast array of skills. They need classes in drawing, writing, computer art, literature, storyboard, and character design. They need research skills, so they can make their stories convincing and make their characters behave and look real enough to come alive on the page or screen." - Sturm: Comics in the Classroom

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