24 October, 2005

Inside The Center for Cartoon Studies

Josie Whitmore is a student at The Center for Cartoon Studies, and I thought there'd be no better insight into the school -- and specifically James Kochalka's class there -- than to talk to her about her experiences at the new school in White River Junction, Vermont.

Where are you originally from?

Freeland, Maryland. It’s a bit of farmland about an hour away from Baltimore. My parents have a llama farm there now.

Did you have to travel to attend CCS?

Yeah, I was living in Baltimore and working as a barista when I left. I had a zine going called "Baristador!" Even though it has an exclamation mark nothing very exciting ever happened to me as a barista. Except for this one time when that guy from Madonna’s "like a dream" video came in and ordered a Chai. I didn’t think he was too special except he did have very Jesus-like eyes.

How long have you been interested in cartooning?

I drew some growing up but my brother was better -- he’s a painter now -- so I was intimidated. When I did draw, it was rarely just that. I’ve always enjoyed telling stories with pictures and captions. I think my first comic with real panels was "Cap’n Carrot and his Crunch-A-Carrot Crew." It was a fuzzy super hero thing. Up until college a lot of my school projects had a comics component to them. I used to do one called "Spanish Stickman" for extra credit. Reading and writing comics in another language is a great way to learn.

Did you read comics as a child?

Yeah. The Cockysville public library had a big anthology of Krazy Kat and it blew my mind. I also got a bunch of Peanuts there ( I liked the earlier "Li'l Folks" best). As a teenager I got really into Tin Tin. My brother was very tolerant of me playing video games in his room so sometimes I would get into his collection of New Yorker gags and Life is Hell, Doonesbury, and Bloom County.

Tell us about your background, what your life was like growing up?

I lived on a little hobby farm growing up. There were always lots of lively animals eating and fighting and living and dying around us. I think you can see that influence in my brother's work too. For high school I commuted to a magnet school where I studied writing. It was closer to the city so I got to go through my Holden Caulfield stage in a much more appropriate setting. In college -- Bryn Mawr -- I majored in East Asian studies with a concentration in Chinese and lived in an eco-feminist vegan co-op. I did a lot of child rights advocacy work. The summer of my sophomore year I went to Middlebury’s Chinese Language school and fell in love with Vermont. Then I spent my Junior year at Donghai University in Taiwan. Comics are everywhere in Taiwan. I spent a lot of rainy days reading children’s stuff from Hong Kong and Chinese translations of Japanese, Korean, European, and American comics. After college I started the career I had planned to devote my life to but I had a big existential crisis. Thanks to my boyfriend at the time I decided to kind of start over again. I started working at Borders, reading comics, and living life. It is important to have balance in your life. You have to go to pumpkin festivals with friends occasionally. You have to stop everything and play with your cat sometimes. If you want to make careless, happy music with your friends get a five-dollar microphone and do it. Your career or climbing some nebulous latter towards it should never consume who you are. It is my Josie-Appleseed goal to remind everyone of this so why not do it here too.

How did you find out about CCS?

I read about CCS on Scott McCloud's blog. Actually, I felt a tremendous sense of loss when I first saw the CCS website. It was like someone had designed a school specifically for me at a time I needed it most but I didn’t feel like I had what it took drawing-wise At the time I had been doing a pretty regular online comic...journal and had sunken into the process of creating comics. I was also writing a ton of mundane haiku. I’ve never been afraid to give it a go so I made a website with the comics and the poems and applied. In my heart of hearts I felt that I was one of the "types" the school was looking for -- someone with a lot of spirit and an expressive storyteller despite my lacking an art background. James Sturm called me a few weeks after I sent in my application. Initially I was kind of star-struck but James is really laid-back and talkative so the interview was actually a lot of fun. It was great to be able to talk to someone about comics like that and now I get to do it ad nauseam!

Is there a set course program for everyone, or can you pick your classes?

There is a set course program. On Monday we have "Drawing Workshop" -- this is what James Kochalka taught -- followed by an open life drawing session. "Super" Tuesday is "Reading and Writing Workshop" with poet Peter Money, "Introduction to Graphic Narratives" with James Sturm, and "Survey of the Drawn Story" with Steve Bissette. Wednesday is "Publication Workshop" with Tom Devlin. Thursday is the continuation of Peter and James Sturm's classes. There are also lab and library hours.

What's the talent like among your fellow classmates?

We are a very talented group. Good writers, good thinkers, good drawers. All in various ways. It’s exciting.

Is there more rivalry or comradery between the students?

I think James was right when he sang in the CCS fight song that we "study with our buddies." We all have such different interests, values, and objectives concerning our own comics that I don’t think there can be honest rivalries. Given the course load, there’s not much room for anything other then mutual support. There are some personality clashes here and there but we genuinely enjoy each other and have occasional parties, play basketball between classes, and get together on Friday nights for beer and Karaoke. Classy!

How has CCS and its students and faculty been welcomed in White River Junction?

A lot of community members came to the grand opening and seemed pretty pleased with at least the novelty of the school. Peter Money asked us the other day if we ever walk around WRJ and feel giddy. I do! It’s a really funny, quirky place. Its got this weird arty undercurrent bubbling up like lava from out of these old railroad buildings. A lot of our folks live and work at the old hotel across the street. Its still run via a series of cards and skeleton keys. Elizabeth Chasalow was working there the other day and a horse and buggy went by. She didn’t bat an eye. Living in an old town is splendid that way. You become aware that you’re just one part so many layers of time.

Kochalkaholic readers would love to know what it's like to be in a class taught by James Kochalka, tell us about that experience.What would you say is the most important lesson you learned in James's class?

James’s class was a really good way to start out the week. He spent a lot of time with us one on one as we drew and pointed out problems we were making both conceptually and technically. I think one of his main objectives was to get us out of our drawing ruts by experimenting with different ways to draw a single object or character. James is also an excellent portrait artist so learning his thought process regarding rendering -- say -- the Governor was also valuable to me.

Has anything surprised you about your CCS experience?

CCS is an all-day and often all night occupation. You make progress fast this way. Don’t catch a cold though.

What would you like to do with your CSS education once you graduate?

I will make good comics.

I will also draw your dog, cat, or rat for 10+ bucks. Seriously.

Want Josie to draw your pet? E-mail her. Thanks to Josie for participating in this interview.


Blogger DBM said...

Good interview idea. I'm jealous (of students, not idea).

2:08 PM  
Blogger ADD said...

Thanks, I share your jealousy.

2:11 PM  
Blogger T said...

It was "Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew." :-)

8:36 AM  
Blogger Josie said...

Thank you. I had not heard of another ____ Carrot _____ Crew. I think I based mine on something I had seen on reading rainbow

6:47 PM  
Blogger Crazylegs said...

It's great that comic book art is taken as seriously as it is in the U.S...in the UK we don't have any schools like this..I'm also envious. How has your time in China influenced your ideas and art if at all. I spent three years there in the north teaching English. Need some inspiration to get me drawing comics again.

9:03 PM  
Blogger Josie said...

I spent more time in Taiwan then I did in China and I'd like to write about that sometime. It was such an image-rich place to live. Lots of color and every product seems to have an illustrative element to it. I took some east asian calligraphy courses at Bryn Mawr and Middlebury- still like to use sumi brushes sometimes.

7:23 PM  

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