Saturday, April 2, 2016

Residency 2015: Cartoonist-In-School

Here's a recap of a gig last year after wrapping up an intense and thoroughly rewarding residency through the local Artists In Schools program: a two-week stint at Ben Eielson Junior and Senior High out at Eielson Air Force base, located about twenty-five miles outside of Fairbanks. I had visited this school back in 2010 for a brief show & tell, and over the intervening years after earning both official certification and more classroom experience working with this age spread at the Visual Art Academy, I was really looking forward to this fantastic opportunity to spend more quality time on-site with a group I could get to know and work with for a bit longer on cartoon and comic art.

As an added bonus there was no small degree of empathy with the folks stationed out there, and relating especially with the kids, given my own personal history: with an upbringing spent at a different school every year up until highschool, I was familiar with being routinely transplanted, which is a common occurrence within military culture. It was a great chance to connect with students, parents, faculty and staff that sometimes might feel sort of marooned out there an hour drive away from the 'Banks: one of the motivations behind eventually taking this show on the road, or more specifically, off the road system... maybe statewide for a future tour of duty out in the Bush. That would be really, really cool.

It was a two-week residency, but given the logistics of also teaching part-time as an adjunct up at the University, the schedule was juggled to fit in two full days per week over a total of a five-week period, plus a couple extra days for special events like a Career Fair. It's debatable whether or not this staggered, drawn-out approach was as effective as a more concerted, focused timeframe would have been, but the end results seemed to be just as rewarding regardless.

The terms of the contract stipulates the artist-in-resident divide their time equally between working directly with students in the classroom (primarily art, but in my case also some others like English classes with graphic novels, History classes with editorial cartoons, Graphic Art classes with logos and commercial work, and marketing with career workshops etc.), and also the host facility accommodates the time + space to work on one's own projects in a public setting.

I opted to camp out in what, after the art room, is in my opinion the second best place in any school: the library. Each week I hauled in a bag of rotating selections culled from my own collection of graphic novels/comic books to emphasize & encourage literacy. On another table I scattered some eye-candy samples of posters and works-in-progress so as to draw in the casual observer - one of the benefits of being in such a high-traffic location. For at least a couple of hours each day I could create new panels on-site and provide demonstrations of the entire process: from sketchbook doodles > penciled panels on Bristol board > inking > wash of originals > published pieces.

Snapshot of works-in-progress at the demo table in the school library with a bonus sneak-peek at some upcoming Nuggets: I was able to knock out a dozen panels over the course of the entire residency (not to mention innumerable ideas dutifully logged into the omnipresent sketchbook). In this setting I also was able to employ more advanced materials that were impractical for classroom usage ie dip-pens, brushes etc.

Additionally it was an opportunity to meet and work with students who were not currently enrolled in any art classes, to attract prospective art students, and a chance to review/critique the work of students one-on-one who brought in their own comics that they both read and drew themselves. The chance to informally interact with people (including both faculty and staff) was a very powerful and engaging experience. Many times I wound up with little crowds of really excited youngsters over the lunch periods, or one or two folks sitting at the table simply doing their own thing, or hang out watching the work happen with added creator-commentary.

After the initial show & tell about my own work everybody started experimenting with the tools of the trade and learning about hatching, crosshatching, stippling + scumbling techniques to add texture. I made up worksheets with my version of the school mascots (how cool to have TWO – one, a lynx, for the Junior High + another, a raven, for the High-school) for templates to get the creative juices going. I also brought in reference images of both photographs and other artist's designs so as to help the students that needed extra inspiration, though most eventually opted off into their own variations on the theme. Which dovetailed quite nicely with the next phase - creating their own characters.

Probably the single best example I've seen on a successful evolution of a self-portrait to a cartoon: this exercise was adapted in part from Ivan Brunetti's "Cartooning: Philosophy & Practice" book (hat-tip Lee Post). With a pencil, on a sheet of copier paper, students mark out six equal-sized panels, and then are timed to draw a self-portrait staring in the first, upper-left corner: first for four minutes, then the next in two minutes, then in one minute, then again in thirty-seconds, fifteen seconds, and lastly, five seconds. As can be immediately and easily ascertained by the posted sample, details begin to successively go by the wayside as time constraints increasingly limit one's options as far as complexity goes. And it could be argued, much in the same manner as any good caricature, one approaches a more "real" portraiture somewhere along the continuum... exactly where will be left up to the choice of the artist as far as other factors such as personal style and materials.

And as with many other comparable on-the-spot work sessions that I use in my own comics course, having timed exercises is a way to effectively "bypass the baloney," circumvent that inner critic that's constantly trying to edit if not derail the process. And it's another way to quickly generate a good-sized mulch-pile of material from which to get some raw ideas + inspiration as applied to upcoming projects and in-class exercises.

So inspiring to see the students come up with all sorts of ideas with just a little encouragement + support, doubly so to return after a few days away and see even more examples of their work done in follow-up sessions with their regular instructor (even some taking their projects home over the weekend!). Instilling a work ethic, confronting inhibitions and overcoming the fears inherent with creating and displaying one's own drawings: these things all take considerable fortitude for some. I think in retrospect around about 7th grade we're still up for anything until self-consciousness starts to temper creative experimentation and make us worry about looking stupid. Heaven forbid that should ever happen to a cartoonist - in fact that's one of the ways to keep that freedom of expression and fearless spontaneity so many of us spend so much time trying to regain long after it's lost.

A side-note here on the conspicuous absence of any samples of student works for this particular post: I failed to obtain the requisite permission of all parties involved (parents, students, principle and teacher) to publish them on social media. What with hyperawareness of potential liabilities and complicated considerations of contemporary public schools it was a most unfortunate oversight on my part not to line up everything in advance. Hence the preponderance of my own mug and stuff throughout this essay - apologies for the omission, and in the future I'll make a point of securing the necessary blessings.

While I'm on the topic of goals for the future, file this rant under "when I'm superintendent": I’d love to see the day a school throws a homecoming parties for their art students. And some pep rallies too, where everybody, including staff, teachers and parents too, all come and root for their favorite painter or potter. Excuse art students from attending class when they have a particularly challenging piece in the works. And while we’re at it, how about tons of posters and banners and cheerleaders to show support for them as well? Institutional headhunters could try and recruit the best artists from other schools. Art classes could regularly get bused to openings at galleries. Showcases of trophies and pages in the newspaper devoted to them. And don’t forget about some big buildings where artists could practice, and invite teams of artists from other schools to set up and create with them. Drawing tournaments. Rock-star caliber visiting artist who do inspirational assemblies.

Sounds crazy right? But it’s no more than what pretty much every single school already does for their basketball, football, hockey etc. teams. It’s a curious distinction – or disconnect - and an indication of misplaced priorities in education systems that elevate certain activities over others. It takes just as much, if not more, inner conviction and courage to make art as it does to throw or catch a ball, and it’s as equally rewarding as far as developing character and fostering independence to learn how to work alone as opposed to being a part of a team.

Probably one of my personal moments of sublime satisfaction was simply standing in a room of about thirty students and having it be totally silent from the spell of intense focus. Then to have it broken by the sound of laughter: that's what it's all about. I mean, the physical output speaks for itself and has its own. Another highlight was overhearing students complain about having to stop what they were working on and go to another school function, like mandatory attendance at a pep rally.

For me personally one of the big signs you're doing things right is to be somewhat dissatisfied to some degree in retrospect - that's why we keep on going/learning/growing because the "next time I'll do it/this/that better" syndrome. That learning curve of experience applies to working with students just as much as honing our skills with the artwork.

One day in particular stands out still: five outstanding classes in one day: individual reviews of all the student works to date that just blew me away with the results… pushing them to tell their own little stories, and just letting them do what they want, has led to some really awesome surprises and a lot of laughter… worn out but feeling such inner satisfaction. Not to mention totally overwhelmed at the output: well over 350 cartoons (not counting everybody's minicomics) were cranked out over the course of the residency. So far in the art classes we’ve gone from exercises in character development and materials + techniques, to wordplay with single-panel gag cartoons, then expanded into comic strips, wrapping up with minicomics + maybe a collaborative page with four different students (simple scripts > pencils > inks > colors). And then it’ll be time for the release-party of our official comic book!

Cover for the class' comic book

Said it before and I’ll say it again: each & every time I visit any public school I’m always reminded and constantly humbled at how demanding and challenging it is to be a teacher, how hard a job it is, and how much they earn respect for one of the toughest jobs there is. Especially coming on the heels of current legislative efforts to cripple the arts in education (both in the school district and at the university level), I can’t stress enough how crucial it is to email your representatives and show support for programs like this… and for all of our local music + art teachers… and especially for all the students in our community who will lose important opportunities to tap into and express their creativity.

In retrospect I gotta say despite my personal expectations I wound up really having the most fun of all working with the 7th & 8th graders: the craftsmanship of their drawings might not have been as technically skillful as the highschoolers, but so much uninhibited output – hard to say who was more inspired, me or them. Can’t tell you how blown away I was at all of the outstanding efforts from everyone… so humbling to see the time + energy spent on telling their own individual stories. At first I thought staggering the visits out over such a long time (five weeks total) would be counterproductive, but as it turned out the intermittent sessions worked in our favor as it was seen as returning to projects that they were really, really into continuing… lots of the students even took their work home with them over the weekends.

Some of the other teachers in the school really took good advantage of my residency: I had the opportunity to give guest lectures to both AP History + Honors English classes on editorial cartooning: covered everything from Goya & Daumier to William Hogarth & Thomas Nast (pictured above) then showed off a bit of J.N. “Ding” Darling, Bill Maudlin (esp. appropriate given we were on a military base), Alootook Ipellie, plus some Charlie Hebdo, Doonesbury and Pogo to top everything off.

Everybody got lots of cartooning resources and samples left behind so as to customize, adopt and incorporate them as they see fit with any other potential classroom exercises in the future. There was some awesome hallway display cases spotlighting all their efforts when students returned after spring break. Overall there was a tremendous amount of respect, enthusiasm and encouragement from everybody involved at every stage: first and foremost extra-special thanks for the art teacher, Ms. Diane Hunt, the administrative staff at Eielson, and most importantly to all the talented artists who made made such great works... what an awesome program and wonderful experience to be a part of.

Also my sincere thanks to both the Fairbanks Arts Association in conjunction with the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District: these programs and organizations really deserve legislative support, especially given the circumstances with dwindling resources and misguided priorities giving comparative short shrift to all of the arts in public education. The skills we gain from learning about the arts in many ways transcend the limitations of the job-market - although as evidenced by this residency, and hopefully illustrated with this post, there are numerous marketable facets applicable to other, interrelated careers as well - they teach us just as much about ourselves, and speak to our many shared hopes, dreams, common interests, problems and passions alike.

Challenge: no jammies + fuzzy slippers... what would a professional cartoonist wear for Career Day anyways?

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