Saturday, January 28, 2012

Cartoonist in Residency

Okay, actually an Artist in Residency - this time at the Tremont Consolidated School, one of four elementary/middle schools on Mount Desert Island (after which everyone attends the one big highschool) for their annual "Arts Week." This is when local folks from the surrounding community temporarily take over the school and expose students to different mediums and techniques outside the regular roster of art classes. There was also a woman doing paper mâché projects, plus also a guy who taught them drumming, and then myself.


I spent three days working with students from four classes, 5th/6th/7th and 8th grade (total of around 50+ total students). We met alternately in the library and in the art room, in 45 minutes sessions, with a break for lunch. I actually did score some tater-tots like the good old days, but kids these days sure have some healthy and hearty options at the cafeteria (even the chocolate milk was no-fat). I was super-impressed with the facilities and resources at this school, which is unique in that it actually occupies Acadia National Parkland. Also in Maine all the grade-school students are issued their own Apple laptops, so they were probably more technologically savvy than most adults are these days. No more annoying bells between classes either! 
This also saw the resurrection of dormant skills used in going to class, mainly being able to function on little-to-no sleep, which really isn't any different than being a student, or a teacher... or for that matter, being an artist. So burbling coffeepot to the rescue + kickstart morning soundtrack (Dropkick Murphys “Shipping Up To Boston” & Satriani “Flying In A Blue Dream” does the trick).

In advance of the residency I spent some time culling cartoons, reshuffling the digital deck of images to concoct a customized show & tell for the students. This entailed some judicious and prudent editing of age-appropriate material, as most of my presentations tend to be for (im)mature audiences. Case in point being after copying one of the sample minicomics I had to do some quick self-censorship after noticing the one panel of me having a beer and a smoke - oops WHITEOUT! WHITEOUT!
Getting all the cartoons into a lineup for the initial show & tell is not unlike herding cats and juggling gerbils, and I eventually pared it down to 69 images. Started with a little bit of background and context as an Alaskan – FreezeFrame & Nuggets, plug the formal art aspect with promoting skills of reference sketching (reality), illustration, and also some samples of freelance work (never hurts to point out the practical career aspects), and recent stuff from the LowTide feature.
Usually I have a peripheral awareness of how to conduct these presentations, as there’s an element of, if not outright standup, then basic showmanship to entertain. At the very least holding the attention of an entire class can be a challenge - it helps to be big, loud and weird, and also not right after lunch or the very last class of the day helps too. But basically you are pitching a concept, selling the idea of drawing comics and cartoons. Everything hinges on the first impression, though some of the pressure is alleviated by simply letting the work itself do the work for you, as it were. Basically an extended director’s cut where you narrate the images by interjecting key points and emphasizing aspects that would be of particular interest to whatever group. Like poop jokes.

Funny how nomatter how many of these I do, there’s still a thin veneer of fear of flopping, plus for some reason I can feel a wee bit more intimidated in front of younger kids, as they haven’t mastered the diplomacy of polite laughter which helps smooth over the duds. One of the subtle distinctions between being a visual artist versus a performing artist – the game changes getting up in public as opposed to the relative security of working alone in a cave. While I don’t have a scripted performance, much like with a drawing, it’s a good idea to always have loose grip on the reigns, ie keeping it open enough to go with the flow, add in some impromptu ad-libbing, expand/contract. And just like sitting down to a blank sheet of Bristol, I’ve done it enough that it’s not intimidating, but there’s still enough nervousness, or more a residual excitement to always keep it fresh and new. Not to mention a little rehearsal of sorts, with a few reviews beforehand helps smooth over any rough spots or transitions, and in this case on day one I also repeated it four times in a row, which gave a good opportunity to refine it on the fly (speed up, slow down, and/or skip over segments). There's an extra-special bonus in knowing that just by default you might make a difference in being not necessarily a role model per say, but just simply serve as an example of someone who loves reading as much drawing, and instilling in them a seed of literacy (as per experiences volunteering with the Literacy Council of Alaska’s “Guys Read” program and the "Big Cartoon Kablooey").

So after picking out everything to show, and after a triple redundancy backup (jump-drive, CD, DVD), it was time to pack up the road show – demo materials, bag o’ books (graphic novels of varying styles and formats), portfolio (or cat pukefolio, as I found out unloading it in the parking lot and discovering the classy racing stripe), and off to the races. On-site with the kind help of the tech support staffer, setup the laptop projector and load the images, procure a dry-erase board and an easel, and copy the handouts. Then it’s the most important part – turning it over. Like one of my heroes always says: “Draw a crazy picture… Put something silly in the world... That ain't been there before” (Shel Silerstein). 

All in all the three days went really quick: Day One being the general intro with a show & tell of selected samples, and materials & techniques demonstration + a practice session; Day Two was an overview of the many different kinds of comics and creators, and then we worked on character development, basic expressions, props and places and coming up with funny ideas along with the funny pictures (gag writing); and Day Three wrapped up with experimenting into strip formats, telling stories and making a minicomic.

Best part and highlight of the residency, besides seeing some good drawings (some of which I’ll be posting) and getting some great laughs, was surreptitious feedback from faculty that one kid in particular, who up till then was struggling with any interest in school at all, went on a rave to his other teachers after the first presentation: “I’m moving to Alaska – that guy’s really cool!” So I fully realized for the first time what a potent angle that was - turning into an de facto representative of the state like an weird ambassador. Now if I could only pull down the speaking fees of some of the more notorious exports currently profiting off the Alaskan brand-name image. Speaking of, lots of them were already fans of the local hero’s work by Maine cartoonist Jeff Pert, which was super cool to see. Word spread and several teachers sat in on some of the classes observing a few random sessions – the sublime satisfaction of seeing a small herd of fifth-graders all quietly immersed in their own worlds is a sight to behold. Another nice touch was dovetailing my work with their current assignment: reading “Sign of the Beaver,” a serendipitous bonus (go figure). 
A very special thanks to the faculty & staff: as usual, every time I do one of these gigs I come away just completely in awe of these teachers, who are absolutely amazing with how much under-appreciated time and energy they invest in their jobs. That and after weeks of obsessive immersion in politics & drawing editorial cartoons it confirms how incredibly SMART kids are… especially compared to “grown-ups.”
--> Maybe we should elect 5th graders to run the government for a change…

How to make an indelible first impression: imitate a grizzly with a tummyache 
after he's eaten a hiker who had restless leg syndrome…


  1. Good for you. I bet they are receptive. I've had packs that felt like that.

  2. Somehow I think the vision of you hanging out with a pack of wolves or coyotes seems appropriate... if they're anything like trying to teach my cats, the lack of an opposable thumb is an issue that can be worked around.