Just north of the Cade Museum on Main Street and just behind the Citizen’s Co-op, in a small classroom filled with comic books, comic strips, easels, paints and pencils, one of Gainesville’s best-kept secrets is busy at work teaching the next generation of artists the craft and business of cartooning.
The nonprofit Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW) set up shop in January 2012, and by the time this has gone to print it will have started its second year-long cartooning and comic-making program with a small but growing class of budding artists. Cartooning, or sequential art, is a broad field, ranging from Garfield and Superman to animation or illustrations for corporate publications.
SAW founder Tom Hart is tall, thin, excited about art and known for his “Hutch Owen” series of comic strips and graphic novels. SAW, he said, is about teaching students to create their own work situation (instead of relying on being hired) and sharing the love of the craft (rather than just trying to get a job).
Hart worked for 10 years in New York as an instructor at the School of Visual Arts before he and his wife, cartoonist Leela Corman, started to feel burned out. The two had lived in Gainesville in the late ’90s, and he saw it as a great place for both young artists and a school where he could teach in what he called a “weird, punk-rock way.” It was also outside of the established comics industry, which for about 80 years has been tied to newspapers and about three major publishers that print very specific types of material (think kids stories or action and adventure books).
He said that while some schools, like the Joe Kubert School (named for the acclaimed DC Comics artist), are cropping up around the country, they tend to be less about the art and more about the job. Hart envisioned a school that teaches students to follow their unique artistic visions.
“Comics, for a long time, has been something you learn on your own or as an apprentice,” Hart explained. “I basically wanted to create the school I never went to.”
Hart, Corman and three other instructors try to present a broad curriculum of different styles, approaches and subjects. Courses include figure drawing, narrative exploration and the history of comics.
Students can apply for the year-long courses, or take simple workshops. A year-long enrollment costs $3,550 for a full year or $1,800 each semester. Single classes are $350 for the semester.
The first year-long class had six students and the second has moved up to seven. One of them travelled from Australia to attend.
“The good thing about this year is that people came to us,” Hart said. “In our first year, we had to bang on a couple of doors.”
SAW’s value lies in its small size, which enables nearly one-on-one instruction, and its ability to teach creative thinking, Hart explained. In addition, SAW has a yearly cost that is almost one-tenth of a four-year Savannah College of Art and Design degree, he said.
Students have learned to make money where the money is in an economy that is struggling to recover, Hart said. One student created a comic for Satchel’s Pizza. Another is in talks with Nickelodeon about potential work. Another has printed his original work and sold it at conventions like the Small Press Expo.
“I’m optimistic in the long-run, but in the short run, the economy does have to get better,” he said about the industry. “But creative training helps people stay afloat. The ability to think creatively and stay on your feet is really valuable.”