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Short Interviews with Center For Cartoon Studies Co-Founders James Sturm and Michelle Ollie
posted September 16, 2006


A second year of classes began this past Monday at The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. I spoke to co-founders James Sturm and Michelle Ollie, the school's administrators, about the year just past and the challenges ahead. Sturm is familiar to many in comics as a highly regarded cartoonist behind such books as The Golem's Mighty Swing and Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules; Ollie is less well-known. Both are equally important to the school's future.

I think that future is a bright one, and like many in comics I have proprietary feelings when it comes to the place, despite never having visited. -- Tom Spurgeon



TOM SPURGEON: Can you give us a "state of the school" report as you head into your second year? Is everyone back? Same faculty?

JAMES STURM: CCS is in solid shape heading into year two. Last year we finished up with 18 students and it appears that all of them are returning. About another 18 have signed on doubling our student body. All of our faculty is returning but adjustments were made to better accommodate their travel schedules, individual passions, and classroom strengths. Interest in admissions is steady and surprisingly strong for a one-year old school. I think the longer we are around the more we will be on people's radar. We have had a lot of interest from other art and design colleges regarding having their students attend CCS for a semester. We added another building this year, the Verizon building, built in the 1920s (to be used for studio space for second-year students). Add that to the Colodny (our flagship building) and the Schulz Library and you have a nice little campus.

SPURGEON: What areas -- say, interest in admissions, physical plant, fundraising -- are really strong right now and in what areas are you looking to improve?

STURM: I feel we are really strong on the things that count the most: curriculum, visiting artists, and faculty. We have a great production lab where scores of zines have already been produced. CCS students are really strong as well. Most teachers, in a class of twenty, are thrilled if there are five people who are engaged and focused. Our first year students all worked hard and grew tremendously. We also saw one of our students, Alexis Frederick-Frost, win a Xeric award (Alexis will be at SPX this year with his fresh-off-the press comic!). This new crop of students also appears to be an impressive bunch.

A lot of the areas we need to improve will come naturally from just going through a second year. We have a better idea of our own limits, resources and what we can fairly expect from faculty and students. Right now the school has only two full-time employees so I suspect we will need some additional administrative support in the not-to-distant future. Fundraising is on-going. I'm happy to say we don't have any debt and I think the folks who have generously donated to help get CCS up and running are pleased with the results. CCS's board members and folks like Peter Laird and Jean Schulz believed in the school before we had a pot to piss in. Hopefully, now that we have actual classrooms and students fundraising will be easier.

SPURGEON: If I remember right, you graduate your first class this year, I think -- what do you have to do differently with a more advanced class that you didn't have to last year with just first-years?

STURM: The second year students work a little more independently the second year. There aren't any week-to-week assignments. This is a transition year where they ideally figure out how to conceive and sustain a project through its completion. Each second-year student works with a thesis advisor that offers feedback and guidance throughout the year. CCS's first group of thesis advisors are a pretty impressive bunch and include: Steve Bissette, Ivan Brunetti, Eddie Campbell, Tom Devlin, Chris Duffy, Kevin Huizenga, Paul Karasik, Frenchy Lunning, Jason Lutes, John Porcellino, Ron Rege Jr., Bob Sikoryak, Walt Simonson, Jeff Smith, Raina Telgemeier, Craig Thompson, and Rick Veitch.

SPURGEON: You showed me a list for what seems to me a very aggressive students-only lecturer's program -- tell me about getting people to come to the school and what the reaction has been?

STURM: From the get-go I wanted the students to engage with as many artists as possible, people who are really committed and passionate about making comics who know their stuff. It was pretty amazing last year to have had Alison Bechdel come in and talk about Fun Home as she was working on it or watching Seth give a watercolor demonstration.

What struck me during year-one was how so many artists, when speaking about their process, would say some something like, "I'm probably doing this the wrong way." I think this is a liberating thing for a young artist to hear. There are so many different ways one can make a comic and it would be impossible for any instructor to cover all that ground. My impression is that visiting artists, without being too presumptuous, have really dug White River Junction, Vermont. It's a beautiful state and to have odd little community of cartoonists in this old railroad town is pretty cool. I haven't had a hard time getting people here. They want to come and check it out (especially after seeing Kevin Huizenga's amazing CCS brochure).

SPURGEON: Is there any era from which you could use help from comics fans and fans of the school in general? Does the Schulz library still need books -- what kinds? How is the library doing in general?

STURM: Fans of comics or CCS are always welcome to help out. These first few years are pretty intense in regards to working with a very tight budget and any donations of books, money, or original art (for our archive) is greatly appreciated. I want to see CCS flourish and provide opportunities for not only for its students but fellow cartoonists in terms of residencies and fellowships. I want CCS to continue to be an institution that nurtures cartoonists and provides an environment where the medium can flourish. If someone is so moved to give a few dollars we've tried to make it as easy as possible:

SPURGEON: Where do you want to be by the beginning of year three?

STURM: This will be an eventful year. Here are a few things we hope to have accomplished by the spring:
1) Have more student scholarships. It's imperative that CCS is an institution that accepts the best young cartoonists out there, not just the ones that can afford it.

2) Be able to award an MFA and Associate Degrees to students. We are currently working with the state of Vermont educational department but this a long process and we intend to keep at it until we are a degree granting school.

3) Have our entire library catalogue on-line

4) Have some CCS books published. This next year will see the beginning of CCS's Studio publishing efforts. We have three books coming out with Hyperion and they all are coming together nicely. John Porcellino's Thoreau book is going to be stunning. Several CCS students are working on a Teenage Mutant Ninja comic as well. The script is a lot of fun. Hopefully this will see print this next year as well.

5) Be in better physical shape when the school year ends then I was this past spring! Last year was amazing but exhausting. I want to enjoy this year more. Allen Ginsburg once said that the best way to save the world is to tend to your own sanity. I'm not sure if running a cartoon school and making comics is saving the world, but I suppose its my world so that's my motto this year!



SPURGEON: Michelle, I imagine most of the people reading this are as unfamiliar with the specifics of your involvement at the school as I am. Can you describe how you went from your previous position to working with James on The Center for Cartoon Studies? What made you decide to pursue this?

MICHELLE OLLIE: I met James several years prior to opening CCS at lecture and job interview he had at Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD). His passion and knowledge on teaching comics was unmatched. Some time had passed and a mutual friend, recently retired MCAD president and now CCS board member, John Slorp, suggested we begin to talk about his cartoon college idea. It all started with a phone call on April Fools Day! Seemed appropriate.

I witnessed over the years in academia and in admissions an increasing interest in studying comics along with a significant growth in graphic novel publishing. I met young artists who were searching for a place to focus on comics in an environment that supported both academics and professional practice. Few choices existed where the curriculum, faculty, and visiting artists patterned their interest. I clearly saw the need for a comics centered curriculum program and was excited about the prospect co-founding The Center for Cartoon Studies with James.

SPURGEON: Can you give us as state of the school summary from the perspective of your office as you head into the second year? What areas are you ahead of schedule on? What areas still need work?

OLLIE: My perspective, which is an earshot from the classroom, and as both faculty and administration, is that we accomplished our goals; from the initial set up of the institution to instructing a full academic year and two summers of workshops and classes.

I'm impressed overall with the quality of instruction and student classroom discussions. Instructor Steve Bissette's lectures are packed with an incredible visual history of cartooning. Tom Devlin teaches the students an overview book publishing and Michel Vrana teaches design. For many students CCS coursework was their first exposure to design and desktop software.

I witnessed incredible advancement in the students' conceptual and technical skills by the end of spring semester.

Students are attending with a variety of experience and education history.

To give you snapshot of the student population: most have undergraduate degrees; the average age is 24; and they come from across the country to attend CCS.

SPURGEON: Are there any challenges you're looking forward to facing that are specific to the second year? How does what you're doing change as you to graduate your first class?

OLLIE: We continue to work toward certificate and degree granting status with the State of Vermont Department of Education. We're now entering the second year of planning and organizing for it. Our initial step was to produce a self-study document, which has evolved to a medium-sized novel. The self-study process is both challenging and rewarding. It required a thorough look at your operations from admissions to record keeping. I learned a lot from the process and feel it overall improves our program and systems.

The second year thesis curriculum will be introduced this year to the senior students and I suspect we may experience a few challenges with administrating and facilitating advisors. At this time I feel we're ready for the challenge with a solid year of experience under belt. We spent a lot of time planning and organizing for the year and have a great line up of advisors.

The second year of the program relies heavily on the student project and their commitment to fulfill their objective.

We designed an online thesis portal, which is a place for advisors and students to communicate. The portal uses the Internet and we'll still rely on personal interaction over the phone, e-mail, and in person. Given the fact many of the thesis advisors are located throughout the country we're hoping the thesis portal will be the base camp for communication on student projects.

After we graduate the first class the operation of running the school will naturally become more efficient and familiar with the business and academic calendar cycle. Much of what we do are still new experiences.

SPURGEON: How do you spend the majority of your workday? How much of what you specifically do is long-range planning, day to day management, and putting out fires?

OLLIE: I'm sure we experience the normal day-to-day fires to put out as any new organization would. I spend most days planning, scheduling, working with faculty, curriculum development, and organizing. Not in any specific order and whatever is a priority that day. I feel we are incredibly responsive and able to seize opportunities in efficient ways with amazing output.

Brainstorming and ideas are a constant. We frequently discuss long-range plans and are currently in the process of working with our Board Strategic Planning Committee on updating it. It's wonderful and rewarding to pursue so many of your ideas and experience success.

SPURGEON: How hard has the school worked to be a positive member of the local community? How is that relationship paying off for the school as you move into your second year?

OLLIE: CCS plays an important role with White River Junction's revitalization. The economic impact of CCS is a positive trend for almost all the local businesses and organizations. Students and faculty are renting and buying locally, working part-time and volunteering at nonprofits. The influx of this activity is spurring growth and interest in other areas of the village.

We formed relationships with the business community, organizations and the Town early on. These were and are critical to CCS and the students. Local donors and Board members make so much possible for the growth and sustainability. It didn't take much to convince people of the benefits of having a college in the heart of an economically depressed village. Early on we were awarded a grant from the State to renovate our main building and many of the businesses extend discounts and promotions to the students. White River Junction-based publisher Chelsea Green recently promoted a student to full-time status as publicity assistant and another as intern. Several of the regional banks partnered with the Town to extend a community loan line of credit for CCS. Most recently Verizon donated space to CCS for student studios! Amazing generosity and support all around.

SPURGEON: Do you have a growth plan that depends on adding more administrative personnel? How long would you like to continue working with the school?

OLLIE: We planned for limited enrollment growth during our initial years because we felt it was important our program maintains a reasonable class size and to afford us the ability to organize and structure. This year we have two classes in session at the same time, incoming (Year 1) and returning students (Year 2). Our faculty contracts have also expanded to include thesis advisors.

We have increased both administration and faculty personnel in the last year. Robyn Chapman, CCS's first Fellowship candidate, was hired last Fall for programming support. She teaches screen-printing, zine workshops, and organizes the student production lab. Administrative support staff hours expand this fall to assist with the increase student population, general inquiries, and bookkeeping assistance. CCS students also help out by working at the Schulz Library cataloging books or in the production lab.

We still have a lot of work to do so I think I'll be busy here for a while!

SPURGEON: This isn't exactly CCS-related, but your bio mentioned the journal Mechedemia, which is something I hadn't heard of. Can you tell me about the magazine and your involvement?

OLLIE: Mechademia is an interdisciplinary journal for Anime, Manga, and the Fan Arts. I started the journal with colleague, MCAD professor, and popular culture scholar Frenchy Lunning. We both were fascinated with the explosion of anime and manga and had interest in exploring it from an academic approach. The journal is published annually by the University of Minnesota Press, starting this Fall.

Mechademia's subject area extends from manga and anime to game design, fashion, graphics, packaging, and toy industries, as well as a broad range of fan practices related to popular culture in Japan. We are interested in how the academic and fan communities can provide new possibilities for critical thinking and popular writing.

Frenchy heads up Mechademia as the Editor-in-Chief along with an impressive editorial board of professors and advisors. Mechademia solicits work not only from academics and critics but also from filmmakers, publishers, artists, and writers, so as to represent the full range of commentary available in this field.