Interview: James Sturm Pt. 1

Categories:  Interviews

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Arriving in spring of this year, Market Day marks James Sturm’s first major solo work since founding the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, VT. Though set in a turn-of-the-century Eastern European market, it doesn’t take too much digging to surmise that the book is as much a comment on life as an artist in modern America as anything that might have affected the lives of artisans 100 years ago and half a world away.

Sturm, now a father of two, clearly invested much of his own life into the story of a rug weaver forced to make a choice between his art and his growing family. Happily, however, the author seems to have largely avoided such forced choices. In 2001, Sturm moved his young family to Vermont. Three years later, CCS was opened in an abandoned department store in downtown White River.

All the while, Sturm has been steadily releasing titles, including 2007’s children’s book, Saitchel Page: Striking Out Jim Crow, and last year’s Adventures in Cartooning, a how-to book co-authored by two CCS students.

You’re in Vermont full-time?

Yep, I live in White River Junction. Moved here in 2001.

Did the location of the school come out of your residency there, or were you really looking for a spot to open it when you moved?

In 2001, The Golem’s Mighty Swing had just been published, and I’d left my job at the Savannah School of Art and Design. My in-laws had a second home in Hartland, Vermont. They rented it out over the years. The tenant was leaving, and my father-in-law was retiring, and it was going to be vacant. We moved in until we figured out what we wanted to do. We really liked this area. I couldn’t find an opportunity to teach that I really felt comfortable with, so the opportunity to start a school here came up.

When you say “opportunity,” you mean in the sense that it was presented to you?

Well, opportunity in terms of there was this great little village I fell in love with, White River Junction. In terms of space that was available. I had a good friend who was a state senator, who is actually now running for governor. He was able to plug me in to the Vermont legislature, in order to restore an old dilapidated department store on Main st. he introduced me to other people in the area to help build an organization.

Unlike a graphic novel, you can’t just sit down and do it. You’ve got to bring together a lot of resources. You need people and money and even institutions to help you do such a thing. That all just started coming together up here. in 2002, my youngest daughter was born, so that’s when I moved out of the very rural home I was living in in Hartland. When my second was born, there was just no way in the world I was going to get any artwork done. I got a studio in White River Junction, and started working out of there. I really just began this love affair with the village.

So, in a sense the school was born out of the studio?

It wasn’t born out of the studio so much as it was born out of this perfect storm. White River was a depressed village that was very welcoming—a small art school was a perfect fit. It already this artistic community thing going on, but it was a struggling down town, so I think they were very open to that. Another domino that was in place was, this 2002-2003, when graphic novel fever had hit the country. Everyone had that feeling that comics had finally arrived. It wasn’t so outlandish to think that there could be a college devoted to comics—that you could get an MFA program in comics. It made sense.

So, in terms of the national mood regarding comics, and this local mood towards economic development at White River Junction, those two stars aligned. And there’s still this idea that’s discussed with economists about the “creative economy,” and how factors like investing in the arts is almost as important as investing in the physical infrastructure. There were studies being commissioned then that said, if you invest in zones that are rent-free for artists and try to subsidize small businesses—it’s like, once upon a time, Greenwich Village wasn’t a nice neighborhood. The artists move in, and then the rents go higher.

Gentrification.

Yeah [laughs]. Though back in White River, I don’t think we’re ready for that quite yet. So that idea certainly felt very pertainant, at the time.

There’s clearly a difference between starting a school like SVA in New York, versus starting CCS in a small town in Vermont. Do you feel like the area is more conducive to academics, in terms of removing the distractions and making people almost band together?

I certainly think that’s a big element to it. it is a bit more isolated, so it does breed a sense of community. If you’re an undergraduate, let’s say, at SVA, after class is over, the city just kind of swallows you up. I actually went to graduate school at the School of Visual Arts—you have a friend in Queens and you live in Brooklyn or Manhattan, months go by where you don’t see somebody. That’s normal. Even though you live I the same city, you don’t feel like you’re crossing paths all that much. But in a place like White River Junction, everybody is everybody’s neighbor in a very intense sense.

Are you finding that people are sticking around the town after graduation?

Yeah. Every year there’s two or three or four people that just wind up staying. Some stay for a few years. The school’s only been here since 2005, but we people from that graduating class that still live in town. So, yeah. There are a lot of cartoonists now that are either alumni or just came to White River because it seemed like a cool place. So that’s kind of neat. And of course there’s faculty. Jason Lutes moved out here to teach. Steve Bissette moved closer.

It’s funny, you hear about planned communities—pre-fabricated suburbs developed after World War II. It sounds almost as if you’re creating an artistic enclave version of that.

Well, the community is almost a bi-product of creating the school. Almost in the same way that, when Fantagraphics moved to Seattle, a bunch of cartoonists moved with them, and it because this really great cartooning town. But I don’t think Fantagraphics set out to create a community of cartoonists. They just wanted to publish more books, and it made more sense to move out to Seattle, for whatever reason. So, I mean, I love the fact that there’s a really rich community of alumni and graduates and just local artists that all play and work together and share studio space. I think that’s terrific.

I never said, “how do I plan a community?” I’m just trying to put together the best curriculum together. That said, we try to have this major production lab in our flagship building, and we make sure out alumni have access to it. Alumni are encouraged to attend presentations by the visiting artists. And I’m working with four alumni on various projects. It’s fun having everybody around, so I guess we do try to encourage community in that sense.

[Continued in Part Two.]

–Brian Heater

4 Comments to “Interview: James Sturm Pt. 1”

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