Cartooning Gets Practical In White River Junction

Jul 18, 2014

Some cartoonists want to write the next great American graphic novel. Others, it turns out, may want to explain in pictures how the Civil War was won. Or how to assemble a complicated piece of furniture.

That’s why the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction has added a new career track called Applied Cartooning.

Students who take these courses are learning how to make or find cartoons for very practical purposes, like instruction manuals, or course outlines for middle school students.

The co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, James Sturm, works in what used to be an Italian grocery just down the street from the center’s headquarters, which is a former post office. Sturm is an artist, but he’s also a practical guy who wants the school to branch out in a lot of places, and in a lot of a ways. Not every student, he says, sees cartooning as a fine art. For some, he says, it’s a communication tool.

"I see applied cartooning as a way ... for the student who doesn't necessarily have some burning thing they want to say [to] use their skills as a cartoonist to facilitate change in other institutions." - James Sturm, Center for Cartoon Studies co-founder

“I see applied cartooning as a way ... for the student who doesn’t necessarily have some burning thing they want to say [to] use their skills as a cartoonist to facilitate change in other institutions in different environments," Sturm says, "whether that’s a medical environment or an education environment or research and development department in a dot com or other business."

At a recent workshop for educators, about a dozen participants from all over the country sit around a table, pencils and notebooks in hand, not knowing exactly what to expect, but hoping for a way to motivate their students with drawings instead of  mere words. John Carbajol, from Florida, is a second year student at the center. He’s taught a lot of creative writing courses to students of all ages.

“Working with creative writing instructors, it was always this interesting gap," Carbajal says. "How do you attack art and writing at the same time within those grade levels?” 

The co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, James Sturm, works in what used to be an Italian grocery. Not every student, he says, sees cartooning as a fine art. For some, he says, it's a communication tool.
Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR

Not every teacher in this room can draw, so some will learn how to use or commission cartoons by others that might end up in a course outline. Many say they want to think up assignments that would allow artistic students to submit graphic depictions, of, for example, historic events.

In his opening lecture, center co-founder James Sturm shows a few of his own eccentric sketchbooks to encourage teachers to let students’ imaginations run wild as they gain knowledge about the world.

“I think we educate ourselves through our obsessions. Comics, or music, or building car engines, whatever it is, should never be treated like they are impediments to learning,” Sturm tells the class.

"I think we educate ourselves through our obsessions. Comics, or music, or building car engines, whatever it is, should never be treated like they are impediments to learning."

Sturm has been preaching the power of cartoons to communicate beyond this classroom, in board rooms.

For example, he’s now talking with medical providers about using cartoons to show employees how to improve patient care. Vincent Fusca, an innovation program development manager at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and an aviator with the Vermont Army National Guard, wants the hospital to follow an example set by the military, which uses drawings by the American cartoonist Will Eisner in instruction manuals.

Sturm is an artist, but he's also a practical guy who wants the school to branch out in a lot of places, and in a lot of a ways.
Credit James Sturm / Center For Cartoon Studies

“These are some really dry and boring and highly technical topics, but by putting it into this cartoon format, this visual storytelling, the Army has found a way that they can reach people regardless of education level to make it resonate and to make it so people will actually pay attention to it, where they may not pay attention to an email or a bulletin posted on a wall.” Fusca explains.

He thinks hospital employees would also pay more attention to cartoons than to a typical memo, or blueprint for reform. And it’s possible that some of those drawings will be done by graduates from the Center for Cartoon Studies, only a few miles away.