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Michelle Ollie Delivers Comics and a Serious Vision
By Alyssa Vine
Michelle Ollie’s career in the world of comics started with her paper delivery route. It was the 1970s in Milwaukee, and every morning, she woke up to four-foot stacks of newspapers waiting for her on the porch. They first needed to be assembled. But before setting out on her route, she would always stop to read the funny papers. “The comics were my favorite part of the job,” she recalls. “The iconic imagery, the drawings, the storylines.” Peanuts. Animal Crackers. Hi and Lois. Nancy. Andy Capp. Spiderman. Tumbleweeds. Family Circus. Ollie grew up on these graphic portrayals of life and society, at once real and imagined.
Three decades later, 1,000 miles, an MBA and a winding career path later, she’s back in the comic business. This time she’s co-founder of The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, where a new generation of cartoonists are re-imagining the tradition of sketched social commentary and visual storytelling.
Offering a two-year Master of Fine Arts degree as well as certificate and summer workshop programs, The Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS) is an institution filling a void in the art school world. Students come from across the country and around the world, seeking a graduate-level curriculum that is wholly focused on cartooning. CCS provides exactly that, and at the same time, is providing White River Junction with a growing population of artists who are boosting the area’s economy and vibrancy. Ollie, along with award-winning cartoonist and graphic novelist James Sturm, founded the school in 2005 and has played a key role in the revitalization of White River’s downtown.
“I’m really not the cartoonist for this enterprise,” Ollie clarifies, though she has been an artist throughout her life and has a deep passion and appreciation for the visual arts. She studied graphic arts and design at the University of Wisconsin and from there went into the printing and publishing industry. She spent many years working for Banta Corporation, a major printing and imaging company (now R.R. Donnelley), where she was involved with the implementation of new printing technologies.
Eventually she moved into a training and development role, which involved traveling around the country and the world, lecturing and running workshops about the latest printing technology. “I loved teaching and working with others to develop their skills,” she said. “I think that’s ultimately what led me to higher education.”
In the late 90s Ollie took a job at Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), where she was involved with the program development and promotion of a new undergraduate degree in visualization. The degree was an unusual undertaking for a small arts college, and its introduction called upon Ollie’s technical design background, as well as her marketing experience.
“It’s a bit more of a challenge to be first at something you need to explain. To bring a culture forward, you have to inform your industry, your constituency,” said Ollie, describing an experience not unlike opening The Center for Cartoon Studies. “I’m familiar with breaking those kinds of boundaries.”
Over time, Ollie encountered a growing number of students who were very interested in cartooning. But MCAD, like most of its peer schools, carries a varied curriculum of art and design techniques and requires its students to spend their time amassing a rounded skill set. Cartooning was a peripheral piece of the educational experience there, despite being a passionate artistic interest for many students.
“Over the years I probably saw hundreds, maybe thousands of portfolios,” Ollie said. “Sketchbooks were so prominent, but in many cases that’s not even considered portfolio work. So often these students just did not have anywhere to go with it.”
Ollie met Sturm when he interviewed for a faculty position at MCAD. During their meeting, they talked at length about this idea that art schools pull students in many directions, making it hard for cartoonists to focus on their craft and develop the skills needed to make a career of it.
“A lot of schools see cartooning as more of a pre-professional thing,” said Sturm, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Onion, and even the cover of The New Yorker. Having taught at other art schools and knowing the limited curricular attention devoted to cartooning, he said, “I felt like I could create a better program.” A school where students could really zero in on cartooning, he thought, could provide a more focused practical education and ready them for a career in a field where technical skills are paramount.
The idea was still percolating in 2001, when Strum moved to Vermont with his wife and two daughters. He was not, by any means, the first cartoonist to find his way to the Green Mountains. Vermont, it turns out, is home to many of the greats: “Dykes to Watch Out For” creator Alison Bechdel, political cartoonist Ed Koren, and frequent New Yorker contributor Harry Bliss are among the in-state cartoonists, along with Jason Lutes, whose work includes the Berlin series, Jar of Fools, and The Fall, and Rick Veitch and Steve Bissette of “Swamp Things” fame.
During this time, Sturm worked out of a studio in White River Junction, where he noticed a slow but marked transformation taking place in the village. More artists were seeking out studio space, more local businesses were opening. More life was seeping into a historically sleepy town. Sturm started to think more concretely about opening a school where cartooning would be treated like an independent art form. He reconnected with Ollie and the wheels were set in motion.
Ollie had never before visited Vermont, but when she arrived in 2003—already knee-deep in planning the school with Sturm—she knew she’d come home. “I just had a gut feeling that this made sense. I could feel this was a place where opportunity existed,” she said, recalling the excitement and energy she felt, getting to know the area and the community as the business plan for CCS took shape.
School about Town
CCS opened in 2004. In a village of about 2,500, the influx of the school’s population—students, faculty and staff—was quickly felt around town. And within the Old Telegraph Building, where CCS is housed, students were finding the niche that Sturm and Ollie envisioned. Their integrated curriculum is devoted to the creation and dissemination of comics, graphic novels and other incarnations of visual narrative.
Over the past six years, the school’s population has expanded to more than 100 students, plus a sizable faculty and a steady rotation of visiting artists. CCS’s reputation has also been growing. Laura Terry, who studied painting at Pratt Institute as an undergraduate, knew that she wanted to go to graduate school for cartooning and was considering many art schools.
“I kept hearing about CCS, and how people were coming away from the program more independent and prepared to pursue personal projects,” she said. After graduating from the school in 2010, Terry stayed in White River Junction, doing freelance illustration, completing a mini-comic that Comics Journal noted among its top 10 of 2010. She is also working on her first book.
Terry is part of a growing subset of White River Junction’s population: CCS graduates who are sticking around, continuing on with their cartooning projects, working at local businesses to pay the bills, and making the town their home.
“There’s a real sense of community here,” said Terry, also noting the draw of White River’s cultural scene, which has grown considerably in recent years. “We’re becoming the Williamsburg of Vermont.”
On any given weekend in White River, there is a Northern Stage performance at the Briggs Opera House and a band playing at Tulepo Music Hall. People are out and about on the streets, shopping at either of the town’s two food co-ops, grabbing at coffee at Tuckerbox, and sitting down to dinner at Elixir or the Tip Top Café. Artists are taking up residence in various studio spaces, and neighbors are heading to public lectures by a visiting artist at CCS.
“There is a sense of vibrancy and interaction in the downtown on a daily basis, bringing in a younger population,” said Lori Hirschfield, Director of Planning and Development for the Town of Hartford, which includes White River Junction. “These new residents have spurred the renovation of property, and they’re working at local businesses.”
All of this is stimulating what Lori Hirschfield calls the “creative economy.” The arts, she said, are not just something nice to have around for entertainment, but are also an integral part of the economy that is generating a critical source of funding. White River’s renaissance has been ongoing over the past decade, but the arrival of CCS has been significant.
“CCS has brought national and international recognition to the area, and it’s brought world-renowned artists to our community. We’ve got this little eclectic image and CCS is right at the heart of that,” said Hirschfield.
Developing Professionals, Developing Vermont
“Colleges are great economic drivers,” said Ollie. “Bringing a school into any setting means bringing in residents who eat, shop and live in the immediate areas. It means bringing in businesses that can open to serve that population. It’s a great formula.”
Aware of the growing CCS alumni population in the area, Ollie observed an opportunity to expand this formula beyond the student population. By collaborating with Hischfield and others in the community, CCS managed to secure a $255,000 Vermont Community Development Grant to open the Inky Solomon Center, which will be an “incubator” for up to 12 CCS grads selected by committee and supplied with studio space and financial support to nurture their work.
“A key part of CCS’s curriculum is getting practical professional experience,” said Ollie. To that end, the school already has partnerships with a variety of businesses and organizations that allow students to work on studio projects—these include an award-winning graphic biography series from Disney, a line of greeting cards for Hallmark, and standing column space for student work in Seven Days. Students are coming out of the program with all kinds of ideas for similar collaborative work, in addition to their own visual narrative projects for print and digital platforms. The Inky Solomon Center will help alumni develop these ideas into proposals and partnerships—essentially, supporting their efforts to parlay their education into professional work.
White River Junction stands to benefit, as well. “It’s really a partnership between the public and private sectors,” said Hirschfield. “This is going to create jobs and retain people who are becoming major contributors to our community.” Additionally, the Center will be housed on the ground floor of the Old Telegraph Building, a space provided in-kind by CCS’s community partner, Fair Point Communications.
“They’ll be renovating a historic structure, which really hasn’t had much attention in many years. That’s a good thing, too.”
In all of this, Ollie’s community-minded approach to running CCS has been key. Recognized by the local American Legion as the Town of Hartford’s 2010 Citizen of the Year, she is the chair of the Hartford Development Corporation Board, a volunteer organization working on revitalizing the downtown area. Described as “a great connector,” she is well known throughout the area and brings many different constituencies to the table on projects that have transformed White River. “She doesn’t forget about what makes communities buzz, which is relationships among people,” said Sturm.
Within CCS, Michelle’s leadership is a driving force of the institution’s energy and growth. And the fact that she is a woman is notable.
Wonder Woman Strikes Again
“Historically, cartooning is a male-dominated industry,” said Sturm, also pointing out that “cartoonist” has been a narrowly defined field, excluding the likes of children’s book authors and other purveyors of visual narrative.
In comic books, superheroes dominated plotlines for decades, creating a by-men, for-men atmosphere on the page and in the business as well. Women usually appear as sex objects on the page, with flat characters and few redeeming qualities. Their creators are typically male cartoonists, drawing for their target audience under editors who are also usually men.
But in the early 2000s, Japanese “manga” comics started gaining popularity in the United States. Widely read by men and women of all ages in Japan, manga genres extend far beyond the superhero variety and delve into historical drama, romance, erotica, science fiction and more.
“These books appeal more to female readers, and their presence has invited a lot more girls into reading comics,” said Katie Moody, a current CCS student who spent seven years working as an editor at Dark Horse Comics. As a result of increasing female readership, there is a new and growing market for stories that appeal to this audience.
“The different voices and perspectives that people are bringing to their stories, just makes for a richer medium,” said Sturm, noting that as more girls are taking an interest in cartooning as a career path, they will undoubtedly bring with them a different set of creative influences that stand to further diversify the art form.
CCS’s student body is nearly 50 percent female, marking an up-tick in aspiring women cartoonists and creating an environment that is decidedly welcoming to female voices. The school’s leadership—also 50 percent female—shows a real departure from the “boys club” feeling of comic book stores.
“The balance between James and Michelle is definitely a key aspect of the culture at CCS,” said graduate Laura Terry. “Michelle really brings the female perspective to the table and she’s always present, always a part of everything.” Administrating and teaching in the only college-level training program of its kind in the United States, Michelle Ollie says she’ll have plenty to keep her busy for years to come.
Alyssa Vine is a freelance writer living in New York City.
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