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Thinking inside the box: Vermont school offers MFA in cartooning

  • The print lab in the basement of the Colodny Building, a former department store in White River Junction, Vt., now used by the Center for Cartoon Studies. DAVID BROOKS—Monitor staff

  • A classroom in the former post office now owned by the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt. DAVID BROOKS—Monitor staff

  • A late April, 2016, class at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt. DAVID BROOKS—Monitor staff

  • A student works on a tablet during a late April, 2016, class at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt.  DAVID BROOKS—Monitor staff

  • cartoon Drawing by Sandra Bartholomew—

  • Drawing by Sandra Bartholomew—

  • Drawing by Sandra Bartholomew



Monitor staff
Saturday, May 14, 2016

In mid-career, Sandy Bartholemew decided it was time to go back to school and expand her skill set to meet new demands in the marketplace.

That means she’s learning a new programming language, right? Or maybe getting an MBA?

Not exactly.

“When I heard they have an applied cartooning master’s degree, that really piqued my interest. It’s so different than just drawing comic books,” said Bartholomew, a Warner resident. Bartholomew is a lifelong illustrator who is in the process of getting a Master of Fine Arts degree at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., just across the river from Hanover.

An entire college devoted solely to cartooning may sound like overkill, but in this era of anime and graphic novels, of superheroes as centerpieces of our culture, and of more comic strips running online than ever existed in newspapers, it makes sense. Visual storytelling has become an art form that is maturing and important, and might even provide you with a way to make a living.

The school, often called CCS, turns 10 years old this year, and while it lacks an endowment, it seems to be thriving. Having bought the former post office building on Main Street of this increasingly funky old railroad town, and with more classrooms up the street in a former department store, it has two or three dozen students annually, who come to get an MFA in cartooning, or one of various certificates.

“We’ve had 65-year-old freshmen, and we’ve had 18-year-olds in the same class,” said Michelle Ollie, co-founder and president of the school. “Professional illustrators and cartoonists have come . . . and people who have little or no experience.”

And for those who’ve ever wanted to explore their inner Charles M. Schulz or Roz Chast or Jack “King” Kirby but can’t devote a year to academia, the center also offers a trio of weeklong summer workshops. They aren’t exactly cheap – $950, with some scholarships available – but it’s hard to think of where else you could get the same experience and training, and certainly not in a lovely Connecticut River Valley town that drips Vermont-ness (artists, yoga classes and pickups carrying local food are everywhere you look), yet has a daily train service to the heart of Manhattan.

Bartholomew took one of the summer courses last year before deciding to go for her master’s degree this academic year. She says she was drawn by the level of expertise at the school, with a bevy of local instructors, visiting faculty who range from Stanford professors to publishing CEOs to Bill Griffith of “Zippy the Pinhead” fame, and lecturers known even to the comics-ignorant, such as “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau.

Bartholomew, 46, was the owner of Wingdoodle craft store in Warner, which recently closed. She has been drawing “since I was a kid,” and has made a living for years as a freelance illustrator, writer and illustrator of books and, in an increasingly common scenario for today’s artists, as a blogger with a web presence (sandysteenbartholomew.com). And while she’s certainly familiar with comic books – “I grew up reading Swamp Thing” – and with graphic novels, she wanted to learn the nuts and bolts of how to work within the multipanel format of visual storytelling.

She attended a create comics workshop in White River Junction last year, partly to see if CCS was for her. It is one of three workshops offered by the school, along with the more advanced cartooning studio and an intense graphic novel workshop. Each is offered for one week at various times in June, July and August – check the center’s website (cartoonstudies.org) for details.

Even to someone of her professional experience taking the introductory-level session, Bartholomew said the term “work” in “workshop” was justified.

“Every day they just packed it in. It was all day long, intense,” Bartholomew said. “There were a couple people who didn’t make it through the week – they just disappeared.”

“We had a complete range of students. There were quite a few younger people, but we had a few that were over 40. I wasn’t the most experienced person in the class,” she said. “We all had different reasons for going to the camp. In some cases you’ve done doodling but never worked with a dip pen or a brush, or you don’t know anything (about) how to lay out panels to do strip comics.
. . . Others, professional cartoonists, wanted to improve, to study.”

During the week, classes cover creating comics with software as well as pen, pencil or brush, with coloring and shading, with writing stories, with tools to create actual books, and even some ancillary information, like the history of cartooning.

“There was one whole class about Japanese scrolls, which are like early animation, going back 1,000 years. It was fascinating,” Bartholomew said.

The college provides access to housing during the camps in the Hotel Coolidge across the street. That once-bustling railroad hotel is undergoing somewhat of a hipster rebirth along with the town and fits in well with the atmosphere of the school and the region. This provides a haven, with adult chaperone, for teenage students.

“The older people tended to be a lot quieter. At lunch, the kids were all sitting together and laughing, talking, and we older people were sitting together and just looking at each other,” Bartholomew said.

Michelle Ollie, who founded the school with James Sturm after they met at more traditional schools of fine arts, said the Center for Cartoon Studies regards the workshops as an important part of its mission, both to draw people into the field of cartooning and to help them learn what it takes to extend its reach.

“Let’s not call it a profession, but maybe a calling,” Ollie said during a recent tour of the center, sitting inside a school library funded in part by Charles Schulz’s widow, which contains more than 40,000 volumes, from slim comics to fat graphic novels, many created by former students.

The center has three full-time and six part-time staff, plus two core instructors and five local instructors. Its annual operating budget of about $1 million reflects the seriousness that this seemingly casual pastime actually involves.

“You’re going to spend a lot of hours at the desk. It requires an intense amount of time. Many of the books in here could take upwards of a year, or longer, to create. You’re dealing with so many components, drawing, writing, merging, synthesizing – then the production side of it, the inking, the scanning, the design, the coloring,” Ollie said. “There’s a reason it takes two academic years to ramp up your skill set, start the critique process.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek)