You may have noticed the comic books on display as you rushed through McCabe’s atrium and up the stairs to your latest due date. The exhibit “Committed to Comics” features the work of faculty and students from this small and selective New England art school, the center for Cartoon Studies. For those at the school, “drawing is seeing, a powerful tool for creating and thinking.” Founded in White River Junction, VT in 2004, the center offers a full course of study for aspiring cartoonists and graphic novelists to build their skills. Students also learn the ins and outs of getting their work recognized. The center, founded by cartoonist James Sturm (The Revival, Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules), also offers one and two year certificates in cartooning as well as summer workshops.
For Sturm, the combination of abstract drawings and the “very real” emotions that accompany those drawings is what pulled him into the world of comics and the reason he remains there. Sturm names the series Fun With Peanuts and Fantastic Four as early influences on his interest and work. “I was very aware that these were shapes and squiggles that I was looking at, but on the other hand, that was Charlie Brown! And he had this interior life. And there was this tension between the abstraction and this true emotion. These real characters. That they exist simultaneously. I marveled at that then and continue to marvel at that today. And I feel like that’s where a lot of comics get their energy.”
The Center’s mission is to “provide the highest quality of education to students interested in visual stories.” Classes are taught by experienced and internationally recognized cartoonists, writers and designers. A strong emphasis is placed on self-publishing as instructors prepare students to disseminate their work. Past and present faculty members include Stephen Bissette (Swamp Thing), Jason Lutes (Berlin, Jar of Fools) and Art Spiegelman (Maus).
Though small, the Center is serious when it comes to the students and their work. Less than twenty applicants are selected to join the master’s program, and the atmosphere is only more competitive once you’re in. Faculty and students alike refer to CCS as a competitive environment with a great amount of labor and drudgery involved in the creative process. “They call it boot camp. And it is. Not everyone makes it,” stated one student in “Cartoon College”, a 2012 documentary that follows a group of students as they make their way through the two-year master’s program. “If their work isn’t there, we’re not doing them any favors by telling them they’ve passed.” Instructors note that harsh critiques are characteristic of art school and CCS is no exception. Advice is never sugar coated.
Offering a curriculum of art, graphic design and literature, the master’s program encompasses the range of skills necessary to create a visual narrative. During the first year, students take courses in cartooning, observational drawing, publication, and reading and writing to explore the “formal underpinnings of comics”, build basic drawing skills, and consider what constitutes good writing. In addition, students attend seminars and studio dialogues with visiting artists.
During the second year, students work on a yearlong thesis project with a faculty advisor. Students produce “a publication documenting their thesis by semester’s end” and exhibit their work. Past thesis projects, which can be seen in McCabe, include Uitke and the Lucky Penny by Jan Martijn Hurger, Katherine’s Playground: A Collection of Cartoon works by Katherine Roy and Thesis by Bryan Stone. Other student work and alumni work such as Jason Lutes’ Jar of Fools can also be seen on display.
The exhibit will remain in McCabe until February 21. Sturm will give a talk on Feb. 18 at 4:15 in McCabe. There will also be a cartooning seminar next Tuesday afternoon in Beardsley. You can reserve a spot by emailing Professor Brian Meunier.