CCS, the Cartoon Academy
On Tuesday, August 5 (and, man, does that feel like a long time ago now), my family -- Michele, Coleman, Nick, and I -- drove about 115 miles up I-91 N from my in-laws' place in South Hadley, Massachusetts, to White River Junction, Vermont, for our first-ever visit to the Center for Cartoon Studies.
And what a day we had, thanks to the company we kept.
This turned out to be not just a visit but also a lengthy tour and a reunion with dear friends -- a whole flock of people, in fact, some officially connected to the school, others visiting like us. I came away from WRJ that day hugely impressed by the CCS -- its setup, its ethos, its atmosphere -- and grateful to be connected to so many good people.
First we -- the flock -- rendezvoused at WRJ's Tip Top Cafe for lunch. Then we walked through the heart of the village of White River Junction and enjoyed a complete tour of the CCS and environs, including classroom and studio spaces, the Schulz Library, and the private studio of CCS co-founder and Director, James Sturm.
Namecheck: My dear friend, fellow comics scholar, and grad school crony Gene Kannenberg was there, with his new book in tow, along with his friend, cartoonist Mark Bilokur (now a student at CCS). Friend, veteran writer-artist-editor-publisher and CCS teacher Steve Bissette was there too.
Of course, Ana Merino not only was there but also helped bring us all together: Ana is another fellow scholar and dear friend, a poet, and a longtime ICAF colleague (not to mention a member of the CCS Board of Directors and practically a local, since she teaches at nearby Darmouth). David Beronä, author/compiler of the new anthology Wordless Books, research librarian, and a fellow panelist at this year's ALA, was there, down from Plymouth State in New Hampshire. Isaac Cates, he of Satisfactory Comics and 18,000-plus postcards, now teaching at the U of Vermont in Burlington, came too. (Check out Isaac's own report on this visit, here.)
(back) Isaac Cates, Gene Kannenberg, Mark Bilokur, Ana Merino, Steve Bissette
(front) David Beronä, CH, Robyn Chapman
What with Nick, Coleman, Michele and me, that was one long and crowded lunch table!
White River Junction (officially, an unincorporated village within the township of Hartford, VT) is an old railroad center near the crossing of I-91 and I-89, not far from the New Hampshire line, indeed not far from Hanover, NH (and so Dartmouth). It's part of the "Upper Valley": 40-plus communities on either side of the Connecticut River, about halfway up the VT/NH border if you're looking on a map. To say that this area is verdant and beautiful would be an understatement.
Like so many New England towns, WRJ has the air of an old industrial town -- or in this case, traveling hub -- gone to seed, but now in the process of recreating itself in a sort of quaintly boho way. In fact WRJ bills itself as an art colony, and, yes, it appears to be taking steps to attract working artists. The Tip Top Cafe, for example, is located in the old Tip Top Bread bakery, which is now known as the Tip Top Media and Arts Building and houses dozens of studio and office spaces. (Next door is a stained-glass studio/shop where Mich and I also spent some time.) A lot of what I saw around town suggested this sort of spirited repurposing of existing space: for instance, Northern Stage, a theater company, looks to have commandeered an auto dealership and now presents plays every season at the town's Briggs Opera House. Tuckerbox, a new coffee shop, and Revolution, an urban-thrift style boutique, seem to be bringing touches of funkiness to their respective Main Street locations (though unfortunately I wasn't able to spend time in either).
The Center for Cartoon Studies gives off this same vibe of re-inhabiting and revitalizing old spaces. The Center's physical campus consists of spaces in a cluster of retrofitted old buildings spread over a few blocks of the town. The school's Schulz Library, for example, inhabits part of the old firehouse on Bridge Street (next door to the town's eccentric-seeming, therefore enticing, Main Street Museum):
James Sturm maintains his own workspace in what I took to be the former site of an Italian market. Studio space for CCS students and Fellows (keycard-accessible 24/7!) can be found in a donated space not far away. But the nerve center of CCS is in the old Colodny's Department Store, and there are still fixtures in the lobby and the main classroom to prove it:
These signs of the town's history give the school's campus an improvised and welcoming character that is too artful to be ramshackle but too easy-going to feel merely official. This sort of ingenious (again I can't resist the word) funkiness is just what you would want from a cartooning academy.
In truth the CCS campus is simply the town itself, White River Junction. I imagine that students at the school get to know the town well.
Robyn Chapman, a dab hand at leading people around the CCS campus, gave up at least a couple of hours of her afternoon to give our curious flock a thorough tour of the place. Robyn, the first CCS Fellow and a sometime student of Sturm's at SCAD, is now a faculty member, teaching mainly in the areas of self-publishing and screen printing. (We learned a lot about screen printing that afternoon!) I have to thank Robyn in particular for her generosity and enthusiasm; she was a wonderful host, and, thanks to her, we were able to get an honest, informal sense of what CCS is like when class is actually in session. She showed us the Schulz Library, the studio spaces, and the main rooms at Colodny's, including the central classroom and the downstairs production space. She also led us over to James' so that we could interrupt his work for a while. In fact we were able to see some of his work in progress, including proofs of the forthcoming Adventures in Cartooning.
James also showed us flat files of original art he has collected for the school.
I came away from all of this with a renewed appreciation for Robyn's work, for James', and above all for the CCS. With a mixture of planning and improvisation, the school has established a space in which productivity and collegiality are plainly valued, a space marked by an air of accessibility and community. I would love to revisit the school when it's officially in session and see what its energy is like then!
There isn't much more I can say about our CCS visit; I don't have organized notes, and mostly what I gleaned from the day was sheer pleasure. I will say that, from my POV, the day was too short; I could happily have stayed for many more hours, and spent more time bending the elbow and chewing the fat with old friends. As it was, along the way we lost several members of our party, as those already familiar with WRJ began to attrition out in order to get back to work or to make long rides home. I was sorry that our visit had to end while there was still daylight. But, more than anything, I was glad to able to see a place I've wanted to see for a long time, and in such company.
I look forward to going back.
Most of the photos here (all of the good ones) were taken by my fellow trekker, and wife of twenty years, the awesome Michele Hatfield.