This blog is for those wanting to keep up to date on all the work that the Vermont Council on World Affairs is doing around the world.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Graphic Art can Change the World, One Story at a Time

Written by Chelsea Beaulieu

As many of you may know, VCWA hosts visitors from around the world through its International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). Last week, VCWA was pleased to welcome a group of Russian visitors involved in the comic and graphic novel industry. I happily accepted an invitation to tag along with this group on a trip to the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS) in White River Junction. In just one day spent at CCS, my eyes were opened immensely to how applied cartooning can connect people and make a positive impact on the world, and I was lucky enough to meet some of the #802Diplomats leading this charge.

“What if… art isn’t merely a means of self-expression?”

We arrived in White River Junction around mid-morning and were welcomed by Michelle Ollie, President and co-founder of CCS. White River Junction is a small village of around 2,500 residents, near the border of New Hampshire. Many people from the Burlington area are only familiar with this town by name, possibly passing by on I-89, en route to Boston or another southbound weekend getaway. It is true that this town, and the area in general, faced economic hardships with the decline of the railroad industry beginning in the 1960s.

However, the arrival of CCS in 2005, as Ollie explained, reinvigorated the economy and community of White River Junction. Students need housing, food, medical services, and various other amenities. These needs created opportunities and incentives for businesses to start and to expand in the area. In addition to the economic boost the school has aided White River Junction with, there is a notable cultural revival in the area as well. A presence of the arts in a community is arguably integral to its ability to thrive. CCS contributes to this by hosting several events and esteemed visitors on its campus throughout the year.

After our mini-tour of the tiny town, we headed inside to one of CCS’ two buildings on Main Street. Here, Michelle Ollie took time to discuss the curriculum that the students go through, as well as the programs offered. CCS is the country’s only independent accredited college offering a two-year Master of Fine Arts in cartooning. They also offer various certificate programs, allowing talented graphic storytellers to gain technical experience in their field, while providing the opportunity for collaborative experience within a supportive community.

Michelle Ollie shows the group examples of former students’ thesis projects

One of the highlights of Ollie’s talk for the Russian visitors was the discussion of international students on campus. There have been several students who have studied abroad at CCS in the past, and there is hope to expand the interest of international participants in the programs. Different perspectives from different cultures can only help the school, as one of their aims is to create a lasting impact through cartooning, and innovative ideas from varying perspectives are always welcome.

“Cartooning is a language that you practice and become fluent in”

While James Sturm, co-founder and program director at CCS was talking with the group, it would have been difficult to miss the passion in his voice as he spoke of his life’s work. At some point in his explanation of the philosophy of cartooning I had an, ‘ah-ha!’ moment. I had been trying to think of an angle or theme for the blog post I’d write in review of this day at CCS, when Sturm said, “cartooning is a language that you practice and become fluent in”. He had been talking about how often cartoonists become wrapped up, and eventually stuck, in trying to perfect their drawing skills. He explained that while being able to illustrate is an important component, “cartooning is graphic design combined with poetry”, and the greatest accomplishment is being able to convey a story in a panel or series of panels.

The Russian visitors sit in on the Comics Club summer camp for children

Many people refer to mathematics as “the universal language”. Of course this is true. It allows communication across culture, class, age, and an array of other factors. However, art, and in this case, graphic art and cartooning, is a universal language as well. Text is often put to comics, but is not a necessary component, and certainly not the most important one. As I sat with the group of Russians involved in the comic and graphic art world, listening to Sturm speak of his work with veterans in using cartooning as a therapy method to overcome PTSD, while children in the building next to us participated in the Cartoon Club summer camp, I realized something profound: cartooning and graphic art is universally relatable-- it can build bridges and foster lines of communication that span age, gender, personal history, and nationality. It is central to the idea of “applied cartooning” that CCS promotes. Cartooning is a globally applicable and accessible medium, and when used right, can create a lasting positive impact on the world.

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There were a variety of little books free to take near the entrance, and on our way out I picked up one with a bright yellow cover titled, The World is Made of Cheese: The Applied Cartooning Manifesto. I happened to flip right to a page that read (and depicted), “What if… art isn’t merely a means of self-expression… but also a way to interact with, explore, and change our world? What if our work is about not only a sense of identity… but also a sense of community? What if comics aren’t simply a quaint feature of “geek culture”... but the way the world processes information?”. CCS has exemplified this philosophy in all of its work, making a positive difference locally and globally. It has revitalized the sleepy town it moved into, helped talented and passionate artists realize their ambitions, aided in the recovery of veterans living with PTSD, offered a supportive place for children to express themselves artistically, and created a space that fosters international dialogue and innovation. I went to spend a day at CCS to learn about cartooning with international visitors, but in the end, came away having learned so much more.

--Written by VCWA volunteer, Chelsea Beaulieu

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