White River Junction Center teaches aspiring cartoon artists

by Marley Marius | 4/21/14 6:32pm

Researchers have found that doodling can boost concentration in the lecture hall or a meeting, but the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction argues that cartooning is an academic discipline in its own right.

Since 2005, the White River Junction-based center has been at the forefront of establishing an academic niche for studying comics and graphic novels. Aiming to offer “the highest quality of education to students interested in creating visual stories,” the school educates over a hundred students not only in art, graphic design and literature, but also in marketing and self-publishing.

“At the time, graphic novels and cartoonists were certainly becoming more widespread and known for their work — there was a lot of interest and celebration around [them],” Center for Cartoon Studies president Michelle Ollie said. “So I think the timing certainly was good for the school. The awareness and interest and appreciation was just starting to build.” Since then, cartooning has continued to develop into a respected artistic field.

At the Center, students choose to pursue either a two-year master of fine arts program, a two-year certificate program or a one-year certificate program. The Center also hosts workshops for artists of all skill levels over the summer. The Center attracts visiting instructors every semester as well as its full-year thesis advisors and faculty. Last year’s guest instructors included the author of “The Way Things Work” and MacArthur Fellowship-recipient David Macaulay and distinguished painter and illustrator Marshall Arisman.

Noting the makeup of the faculty and drive of the students, Ollie called the school unique in the nation.

“People like to be around that,” she said. “It’s a very rewarding experience to be in a classroom full of cartoonists that are equally serious about their professions. [For] all the people we’ve brought to our school here, there is a sense of comfort that you’re among peers.”

Current student John Carvajal said that the school’s rural location helps cartoonists who are passionate about their work “feed off of each other.”

The main course in the master’s program is cartooning studio, during which cartoonists can experiment with “different forms of storytelling,” he said. In one particular project, he said, students formed a story drawn from three random pages out of a random book.

Works by students and alumni have been featured in the Top 10 Graphic Novels lists of both the Booklist American Library Association and The A.V. Club. The center’s proximity to the College has presented an opportunity to enrich its programming and curricula, Ollie said.

“Dartmouth is a world-class institution, and it’s in our backyard here, so it certainly makes a lot of sense to find some common ground in both our students and our programs,” Ollie said.

Over the past few years, crossover between the College and the Center for Cartoon Studies has taken various forms. This past winter, 12 of the center’s students, alumni and associates presented or sold their works at Dartmouth’s second annual Illustration, Comics and Animation Conference.

On his blog, The Funny Book Project, Brian Cremins ’95, a presenter at last year’s conference, wrote about Dartmouth’s links to the graphic arts, saying Dartmouth has a “small but significant” place in comics scholarship’s recent history.

Cremins pointed to Dartmouth’s importance in illuminating the artistic and academic merits of comics studies, citing the popularity of Dartmouth’s film and media studies department, which incorporates elements of the history and practice of animation, as well as the myriad contributions of figures like English professor Michael Chaney and Marianne Hirsch, now a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

While teaching at the College in the 1990s, Cremins wrote, Hirsch’s teachings and research on postmemory in Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus” influenced comic academics such as Hillary Chute, author of the critically-acclaimed “Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics.”

Each spring, the center works with the Leslie Center for the Humanities to present its Will Eisner Lecture, given by selected scholars and visionaries of the cartooning world. This year’s lecture was given by cartoonist Alison Bechdel.

In 2011, students from the College and the Center collaborated to paint an 80-foot mural on the temporary wall erected as the Class of 1953 Commons underwent renovations. Moreover, Dartmouth graduates were some of the Center’s earliest MFA recipients, and both faculty and students of the College have enrolled in its workshops.

Moving forward, Ollie said she hopes that the two schools will continue to “build awareness and expand cross [their] programming.”

Andrew Feather MALS’15 expressed similar sentiments.

“The availability of resources such as the Center for Cartoon Studies allows for an educational experience with animation that is unique and [sets] Dartmouth apart from many institutions of higher learning,” Feather said.

In his notes on the “rationale” behind the Illustration Conference, Chaney shed further light on the disparate audiences that can be reached in the promotion and exploration of still and animated images.

“A true congress of scholars interested in the drawn, illustrated image promises to change our understanding of the image and the long train of rhetorical cognates that it brings with it, such as depiction, visuality, illustration [and] the pictorial,” Chaney wrote.