I recently had the opportunity to attend an Open House at the Center For Cartoon Studies, "America's only two-year cartooning program". This is my story.
It was a gray, cold day in White River Junction, Vermont, USA. My car managed to make it somehow, and with the help of my able co-conspirator Stacey, CCS was found, nestled snug in the tiny heart of town.
White River Junction, I must admit, has an odd sort of feel. It's not a quaint little town like some and it isn't an ugly, industrialized slum either. My first impression was that it felt like a place you stop at on the way to someplace else, with barely four blocks of downtown to walk around. But I didn't have time to really explore the area, and based on my pleasant experiences there I'm sure it would win me over fairly quickly. After all, as the students told us later, the less stuff there is to do there, the more likely you are to focus on your comics. Also, there's plenty of local history to delve into if you make the time.
CCS is located in an old department store. You can see it on the awning in that shot and even more plainly in this next shot from inside the foyer:
When they moved in, CCS liked the look of that sign on the wall and left it. I think it adds a cool, retro feel. As you can see on the wall in that pic, there is an Ed Koren exhibit happening at the school right now. Ed's got a very recognizable style with lots of scratchy crosshatchery and life. He's done oodles of book illustrations and comics for the New Yorker magazine, among others. Here's a better look at the wall with his art:
CCS has a small class of students and the school's size reflects that fact. The first floor is just the foyer, the hallway with artwork, a bathroom, the main classroom, and two offices for school CO Michelle Ollie and director/professor James Sturm. I love these homemade name plates for their offices:
There were about 8 of us that arrived for the Open House. Michelle and James sat us down in the main classroom and proceeded to tell us all about the school, its aims, its faculty, and the curriculum. They told us about all of the talented comic artists who have or will drop by the school to talk to the students, including heavy hitters like Chris Ware, Rick Veitch, Seth, and more!
Here's another shot of the classroom looking towards the back:
That's Robyn Chapman in the stripes there, critiquing a prospective student's portfolio. Robyn's at the school as a sort of student / coordinator / teaching assistant. She's co-editor of the excellent comics anthology True Porn, and she likes nerdy, bespectacled lads, so we got along well from the start.
The real excitement happens in the basement of CCS. This is where students can hang out, have a snack, and make comics with access to the latest zillion-dollar scanners and some sweet computer setups.
There's all sorts of free wi-fi and laptop access, as well as a very nice setup for screenprinting:
Students have full access to it all for personal projects as well as schoolwork, and I saw some mighty impressive examples of the power of homemade screen-printed covers and pages. From there it was on to The Hotel Coolidge, downtown WRJ's lovely old hotel. The town of WRJ is very pleased to have CCS in its midst and the Coolidge has close ties with the school. On the right when you walk in the front door is Inky's Cafe, named after the fictitious founder of CCS, Inky Solomon.
The Coolidge offers very affordable housing on its third floor and many of the students live there. Heck, some even work the front desk to make some extra cash! With its sturdy wooden features and warm lighting, the Coolidge felt comfortable from the moment we stepped inside.
After that stop, our guides from the school took us down the street and under the railroad bridge to the Schulz Library, so named because Charles Schulz's widow Jean helped finance it. As she put it in a press release, "Sparky [Charles Schulz's nickname] said frequently that there were no child genius cartoonists. He pointed out that it required a certain age and maturity to be able to reflect on the humor in life. He also felt it was important to learn to draw things properly before one can cartoon them. I hope that The Schulz Library within The Center for Cartoon Studies will help to provide the commitment to the craft and the history which will inspire the next generation of cartoonists."
The library is only one room so far but it's growing by leaps and bounds. They already have a very impressive collection of new graphic novels, rare volumes of old newspaper strips, a nearly complete collection of the famed Comics Journal, and more! Check out this picture of their mini collection. Each drawer in this unit is filled with cool minicomics from artists around the globe:
The library is housed in an old firehouse just like the Ghostbusters' headquarters in the movie. Also housed there is the amazing Main Street Museum, a small-but-meaty cavalcade of preserved animals, medical and cultural oddities, pop culture artifacts and artwork.
The museum has a good-looking website with a Museumology Blog. As the enigmatic curator William Laurel Harris says, it's the only museum in the country with an actual blog where you can leave comments.
My favorite display was a glass case with two nearly identical bottles of blue liquid. One was automobile windshield wiper fluid. The other was a berry-flavored beverage from the supermarket. Next time you're in the area, make sure and stop by to check out Elvis Presley's toenail clippings. I kid you not! It's quite a place.
Our last stop on the tour of downtown WRJ was the Tip Top Building. This structure, located near downtown, is a large brick building filled with artists and some area businesses including yoga, massage, a restaurant, etc. The number of artists and the range of their interests is amazing. Everything from puppetry to painting to photography to ceramics is in there somewhere and you can visit with them to ask questions or attend their newest shows.
What trip would be complete without a snack? As a diehard fan of odd beverages and unusual candy, I was immediately pleased with White River Junction when I walked into a convenience store and found two things I hadn't tried yet: Green Mountain coffee soda (vanilla flavor) and the limited edition Passion Fruit flavored Almond Joy. My compliments to Vermont's savvy snack distributors!
I hope you've enjoyed this mini-tour of the Center For Cartoon Studies and White River Junction. There is much more to see and do there, but this should give you an idea of the place. Obviously, I would give an arm and a leg to go there but unfortunately they want something called "money" and I am unfamiliar with that concept. In fact, I still have a ton of student loans left over from college so I guess CCS is naught but a dream for me. So go in my stead, friend! Head off to that little hamlet in the north and publish something remarkable in my honor. Go baby go!