By: Sasha Fields
Behind the black outlined boxes, the speech bubbles, the onomonopia and the carefully drawn characters is a multifaceted story-telling medium. Comics can be journalistic and whimsical. They can be inviting and yet very complex. Some are abstract and others are science fiction. Some take the form of a novel while others are only a few inches long.
The beauty of the genre is that its complexities and its impact do not even begin to fit in the neatly drawn boxes that house the characters and stories.
The combination of words and pictures results in a very disarming medium. Unlike the beginning of a novel, a comic book reader knows exactly what to expect from the first page. That emotional connection, which creates the I-can’t-wait-to-see-what-comes-next feeling, can develop much more rapidly.
They are collectors’ items, newspaper must-reads and they have been around, at least in the traditional sense, for more than a hundred years. But at the Sequential Artists Workshop, a comic school nestled in downtown Gainesville, comics are the uniting force that has brought artists from all over the country together.
When one thinks about comics, images of larger-than-life Marvel superheroes may come to mind. But Tom Hart, director and co-founder of the Sequential Artists Workshop, has always been more interested in Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang than Spiderman.
“I always reverted to things that seemed very realistic, and even Charlie Brown seemed very realistic to me,” he said. “The flights of fancy that Snoopy goes on are the kinds of imaginative sort of like playful imaginings of somebody slightly crazy. And the grandiose fantasy of superheroes I never really was into.”
Hart’s warm, conversational teaching style comes out quite quickly. And instantly comics are elevated to this literary masterpiece complete with complex storylines, motifs, and immense value. Charlie Brown is suddenly so much more than Halloween and Christmas specials on TV but rather the story of the woes of the eternal underdog.
Hart’s passion for reading the funnies began as a childhood hobby. He began tracing and copying the Charlie Brown comics out of the newspaper when he was in second grade.
Much like Charles Schultz, the creator of Peanuts comics, Harts grew up believing that comics mirrored reality and served as a profound and in-depth storytelling medium.
“I don’t even remember a time where comics weren’t a passion for me,” he said.
Hart grew up in Kingston, New York. When he was 16, a comic book store opened up. He no longer had to scour flea markets and wait for the newspaper to read his comics. He finally found a place where he could truly immerse himself in the comic world.
He spent the next two years working at the store and learning the ins and outs of comics and their history. He then decided to pursue a formal education in comics. He attended New York City’s School of Visual Arts, but it wasn’t exactly what Hart had imagined. He found himself surrounded by students and instructors who had no interest in Peanuts or the more literary comics that had been so vital to his love for the field.
“I took it more seriously than any of my fellow students,” he said. “And what the other students wanted and what the faculty seemed to be offering was different than what I wanted.”
Although Hart’s venture into the world of comic book education was a disappointment, it would serve as an important blue print for what he did not want his own school to be like.
After leaving the school in the early 90s, he decided to move to Seattle, Wash., which at the time housed the largest independent publisher of comics. Hart received an informal education, complete with aggressive art critiques and mentoring from older cartoonists, he said.
Hart went on to create the Hutch Owen series of graphic novels and books, which chronicles a modern-day hobo’s adventures through today’s commercialized world. It’s a comic that make you think and question the world we live in. A Japanese publisher became interested in Hutch Owen, and Hart decided to move to work on the comic with a talented writer who called Gainesville home.
Hart immediately fell in love with Gainesville but moved back to New York in order to pursue his career and teach at the very school he dropped out of.
“I didn’t knock on a lot of doors to make it happen,” he said. “[Teaching] sort of came my way, but I was ready for it, and I had been actively thinking about it for years. I tried to give people the experience that I’d wished I’d had.”
But the expense of living in New York City eventually proved to be taxing for Hart and his wife, Leela Corman, co-founder of SAW.
They decided that Gainesville would be the ideal place to start a new life and their very own school for sequential art. It was Gainesville’s vibrant arts community, creative, intelligent and interesting people and the low cost of living that made the city the perfect place to call home, Hart said.
“We thought that we could have the creative life that we were trying to live in New York more easily here in Gainesville,” he said.
In the heart of downtown Gainesville is a school unlike any other. Its small structure is filled with big talent from all across the U.S. Twenty-somethings with headphones in gather around long tables — laughing, joking, creating. It doesn’t feel like a school, but these students are undoubtedly learning.
After a few years of researching how to successfully run a nonprofit organization, SAW officially opened its doors in January 2012. For the first six months, the school hosted community classes and workshops. In September 2012, SAW began its first intensive two-semester program.
When Hart decided to create the SAW, he was inspired by the Actors Studio and other informal institutions that truly embraced the artist, the whole person, instead of just his or her work, he said.
The school strives to give students the groundwork and the discipline they need to eventually be able to break off and create their own style.
“Learning certain techniques will allow you to break those rules later,” Hart said. “Our main goal in this medium is clarity above all else at least at this stage of their learning. If something isn’t clear to a viewer, to a reader, it’s not working. They need to get it to that stage where it’s clear and once they’ve gotten to that point, then they can sort of stretch the boundaries a little bit.”
Students in the intensive program study five days a week, but Hart said that they are so passionate that they rarely leave the school. But unlike other arts programs at higher-learning institutions, they will graduate without any sort of fancy degree. Instead, they will leave with an impressive body of work and true understanding of the field.
“I think I’m right in believing that the future of education to some degree is less about degrees,” Hart said.
Instructors in the intensive program pull from a variety of mediums. Students learn about story structure from musical compositions, and they hone their storytelling skills by reading a variety of different literature, including folktales and modern works. They are able to design a world for their characters through the study of opera and theater. Students are also exposed to more than 600 years of Eastern and Western art.
Ultimately, Hart said, students are given a solid foundation that they can build their own creative world upon.
Eric Taylor, 25, is a student in the intensive program. He traveled from Williamsberg Iowa to learn from Hart and the other instructors at SAW.
Taylor started drawing comics when he was just 7 years old. While he was part a group of comic-lovers in Iowa, it was much more of a hobby. He received critiques from his peers, but didn’t have the fire he needed to truly push himself.
Although he has only been at SAW for six months, he has already grown immensely.
“The teaching is just excellent … I can’t tell you how many breakthroughs I’ve kind of made and strides of improving since I’ve been here, “ he said.
The Sequential Artists Workshop’s mission is to nurture and educate tomorrow’s generation of visual storytellers, to support creative investigation, exploration and excellence in cartooning and comic art, and to promote literacy in sequential and comic art in today’s culture.
But even the name of the school echoes how seriously Hart takes the study of comics.
“It’s one reason I gave it this pretentious title is that I wanted people to think slightly differently about what we do here,” he said. “So by calling us artists and by calling it sequential art, I wanted people to think about the storytelling aspect of it.”
Hart’s wife, Leela Corman, co-founder of SAW and illustration instructor, is the author of three successful graphic novels. She developed her passion for comics while she was studying painting, printmaking and illustration at Massachusetts College of Art. Despite having spent her childhood reading and appreciating comics, she never thought it was something she could make a career of.
When a comics show came to the college, she realized that comics did not need to be perfect, and it was a field that she could pursue.
“I’ve always been a reader, so the possibility of telling a really interesting story with visuals always appeals to me,” she said.
Corman, who also teaches at the University of Florida, said that she is constantly learning from her students.
“I feel like teaching is a gift that your students give you,” she said. “It’s a real privilege. It makes you more aware of what you have to offer.”
Justine Andersen, who also teaches illustration at SAW, knew much earlier on that comics were going to be a major part of her life.
“In fourth grade I announced that I was either going to be a comic book artist or a dolphin trainer,” she said. “So I knew right away what I was going to.”
Despite lacking any sort of natural ability, she pursued her passion. She was mentored by P. Craig Russell and Val Mayerik, who convinced her to drop out of college and learn from them instead, she said.
After moving to New York City and receiving one rejection after another, her hard work paid off and she worked as an inker and illustrator for DC Comics, Image Comics, Wizards of the Coast and LucasFilms.
The industry went through a bumpy period, and she decided to travel and make a new life for herself in Ocala. She quickly discovered that Gainesville was a much better fit and literally stumbled upon Hart and SAW.
Hart was initially reluctant to hire Andersen as an instructor because the school was so new. But as soon as he saw her work, he knew that she had something special to contribute to the school.
“I really never had a gift for drawing,” she said. “I earned that through hard work. But I do have a gift for teaching, and I’m very capable at passing along to my students complicated information. I articulate it in a way that makes sense.”
It takes a certain personality to be able to survive in the world of freelance illustration, and she simply doesn’t what it takes, she said. Instead, she is able to pass her skills onto others who may have the stomach for that lifestyle.
Andersen said that standing up in front of her students and spending time with them is always the highlight of her week.
“When I watch them work, I can remember what it was like for me when I was a little younger,” she said. “I would have that fire in the belly and all that enthusiasm and all that self-discipline,” she said. “It’s really inspiring to see another group of people with that same energy level and that same passion and that same drive.”
In addition to the intensive program, SAW also offers classes and events for the community, including teen and youth courses, visiting artist workshops and even an online curriculum. Students from the intensive program are currently working on the upcoming SAW Sketch Night, which will be held on April 21 at the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre and combine actors and artists for a night of improv and drawing.
“It’s one reason that having my own school is sort of exciting to me was that I could entertain some of the ideas that I think are really important — that comics [aren’t] just about writing and drawing.”
As with any other new organization, marketing, community awareness and enrollment continue to be the biggest challenge.
While SAW is still very new, Hart and his staff have big plans for the future. They hope to continue to create an open, thought-provoking place for comic book enthusiasts and novices to come together.
“I just want to see it continue to thrive,” Corman said. “I want this to just be the beginning.”