A Story in Comics

Guest post written by Ben Towle, a three time Eisner-nominated cartoonist

Here is a story:

Many years ago, there was a trapper. He was interested in trapping a beaver so that he could sell its pelt, so he purchased a beaver trap. He set off into the woods with the trap, found a likely spot by a riverbank, and began to set the trap. Unknown to him, though, a clever beaver was nearby and observed what he was doing. The beaver, noting that the trapper was at work in close proximity to a nearby tree, quickly used his teeth to cut down that tree, which then fell directly onto the man, effectively (and ironically) trapping the trapper.

Here is the same story:


The Far Side © Gary Larson

You may have laughed at the second version; I doubt you did at the first. In order for this story to function as intended—to evoke an immediate response—the narrative must be delivered instantaneously and the tone must be unmistakable. In this case, a drawing can accomplish this where words do not.

Through much of our history, the written has enjoyed primacy over the visual—and for compelling reasons. There is a specificity and precision to words that images cannot match. However, with the ubiquity of the internet—which is after all essentially an enormous system of words and pictures—I think we are beginning to realize that pictures (and in the case of comics, my field of study: words combined with pictures) can be powerful communicators of certain types of information.

This certainly isn’t wholly new. When important information needs to be communicated directly, clearly, and immediately, often pictures (or sequences of pictures) are employed.AirplaneComic

In the classroom, the word/picture combination we’re most likely to encounter is, of course, comics. Children’s and “all ages” comics have experienced a tremendous boom in the last decade or so and I’d be surprised if many K-12 teachers aren’t at least passingly familiar with books like Smile, Bone, Awkward, and Babymouse.

Past generations have seen comics as a “lower” form of reading than pure prose and have often sought to excise it from the classroom. In today’s classroom, though, I encourage teachers to embrace comics and recognize that it’s simply a different mode of reading—a mode with its own complex grammar, a type of literature that imparts information in a way that’s simply different than pure prose.

Can comics serve as a “gateway” for reluctant readers to eventually embrace prose reading? Sure. But a gateway is something we move through and then leave behind. In my experience, students who embrace comics initially continue to read comics as they add prose reading to their palette. Why should we view the two as mutually exclusive—one a stepping stone and the other our end goal?

And of course, there’s also a world of amazing classroom activities centered on making comics. Children love to draw. Comics have the ability to harness that love of drawing. Consider activities like making a comics autobiography or short memoir story, researching and drawing a comic book biography of a favorite historical figure, or make a comics adaptation of a chapter of a favorite prose book.

The children currently populating our classrooms have grown up in a ubiquity of word/picture combinations. Let’s embrace this and put it to good use by using comics—both reading comics and creating comics—in our classrooms.


If you would like to work with Ben and other innovative experts in education, visit our website and register for the 2016 Joan Oates Institute today!

Here be Dragons!

A guest post by Rob Levit, founder and Executive Director of Creating Communities

When lacking information on what was known beyond the visible world, ancient maps were inscribed with the words “Here Be Dragons” and frightening images to warn travelers to stay away. To be a creative individual and a master educator however, we must train ourselves to move beyond our own fears, limitations and perceived weaknesses to find the beauty and freedom in what I call “The Undiscovered Country” where our old models of teaching and doing don’t hold up anymore.


A perfect example of this in “real life” is dealing with a difficult student. From our “Here Be Dragons” perspective, we may shut down or, gulp, admit that we don’t like the student. We can even come home after a long day feeling exhausted and depleted and have it affect our personal lives. But what’s the cost – to ourselves and to the student – when our energy is expended on staying away rather than navigating through? Anger or resentment can build up toward ourselves and the student. Why?  Because we care, and because we are human. The problem with this is that it may not be the child – but our own lack of tools, insights, and strategies to reach a child that desperately, and perhaps silently, wants structure – even though their behavior shows otherwise. The master educator recognizes the amazing and at times exasperating avoidance techniques that failing and/or troubled students unknowingly practice. It reminds me of the famous quote: “The child who needs the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.” That’s where personal creativity and arts integration come into play. To navigate successfully into “The Undiscovered Country” we must first have mastery of the conventional, tried and true techniques. This requires personal honesty, assessment, and practice.

Beyond that, we need new approaches like improvisation, creating poems and songs on the fly, being confident and enthusiastic about our hidden talents, and embracing that our most difficult students need new ways of learning that are hands-on and experiential. I thrive on being a guide to “The Undiscovered Country” and equipping teachers with confidence, tools, encouragement, and new skills to reach students. It’s amazing – once teachers grab onto these approaches, breakthrough after breakthrough happens in the classroom and our difficult students, although still struggling, begin to emerge because we have recognized opportunity, freshness, and possibility in them.  What once looked like a frightening dragon turned out to be the harmless shadow of ourselves. 

-Rob Levit

Rob Levit is an acclaimed educator, creative artist and community leader. He has created award-winning, innovative “Life-Skills Through The Arts” programs for hundreds of at-risk youth and adults. Levit is the founder and the current Executive Director of Creating Communities.

Register now to join us for Levit’s workshop and many others at the 2016 Joan Oates Institute, June 27-July 1, 2016.


I was in New York for a few days and while there paid a visit to Lunch Hour: NYC, an exhibition running through February 17th at the main branch of the New York Public Library. This is the elegant Beaux Arts building on Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets that has the lions, Patience and Fortitude, flanking the entrance. You can go on-line to check out their excellent teaching resources.

Lunch Hour is about how New Yorkers have thought of and eaten lunch for over 100 years. In modern America, weekday lunch is rarely a family affair and in New York it is often a time when people rush, talk, and bolt down their meals while staying in high-pitched work mode. But it is also a time of escape, of shared confidences over a counter, and of eating outside in your private patch of sun. The NYPL has an enormous collection of menus, from fine restaurants to the lowliest diners, that reveal changing tastes (and prices) over the years. These and the many photos and objects on display give you a sense of the social and cultural meaning of food in urban American history.

The exhibition includes an enclosed space that reproduces the look of an old-fashioned Automat, a staple of New York dining from the early 1900s to the 1960s. Above you can see an original Horn & Hardart Automat wall of little compartments that once held enticing servings of food, all available if you put the right number of nickels in the slot. As a child I found it hard to decide where to invest my fortune. This slot or that one? Chocolate cake or lemon meringue pie?

These days we have Art-o-mat, a company that converts old cigarette machines into art-dispensing machines. The art costs more than a few nickels but at $5 it’s still a pretty good deal. Like the Automat itself, Art-o-mat offers an inexpensive, democratic way for people to get what they need, what sustains us physically and aesthetically.

New York artists have always been attracted to the Automat, the setting of so many late-night conversations and brainstorms. Berenice Abbott photographed one in 1936 and Edward Hopper’s 1927 painting ranks as one of the great works of American art. Many have viewed the solitary woman in Hopper’s Automat as a symbol of urban alienation and loneliness, but I prefer to think of her as mulling over some big decision. Marry or not? Stay or go? Coffee can make these decisions easier.

Think of the impecunious writers and artists who found inspiration in the Automat while sipping their third cup of five-cent coffee, of the novels and paintings we owe to cheap caffeine. These folks didn’t need fancy coffeemakers, and maybe we don’t either.


The Art of the Memoir

I recently visited Chesterfield’s Clover Hill High School, which has a PIA Award this year for a project called “Paths.” Students in the tenth through twelfth grade are working with a writer and a visual artist to interview local World War II veterans and their families to create literary and visual depictions of their stories.

The project team consists of Clover Hill creative writing teacher Barbara Bingham, history teacher James Triesler, and fine arts teacher Donna Stables. The visiting artists are painter Kendra Dawn Wadsworth and writer Erica Orloff. Kendra is a former student of Donna’s, which makes her a great role model for any young person who has a passionate interest but is not sure if it is okay to pursue that passion as an adult. Barbara has created a blog about the project and Erica has recently written a post for it. Barbara has also contributed a post to PIA’s blog, where she writes about the importance of learning from other teachers.

I sat in on a senior class that was working with Erica on the meaning, structure and making of memoir. This is a genre I feel very close to (perhaps because I like to talk about myself) and Erica laid out her information and insights in a compelling way. She asked the students to make a list of ten important events or transitional moments in their lives. Not just getting your driver’s license, for example, but what that meant to you. I joined in with the list-making and was surprised by what I came up with.

Erica then asked the students to do 15-20 minutes of free writing on one of the topics they had listed. With this approach, you try very hard not to edit yourself but to keep writing and let it take you where it will. I did this as well and once again was surprised that my pen seemed to be in charge. I appreciated that Erica and Barbara did not ask the students to share what they had written; their work was still private, something to think about and develop. Writing a little of their own memoir will help the Clover Hill students understand how personal experiences can have universal significance. And that is a lesson in itself.


Storytelling in RVA

A guest post by Jane Crouse of the National Storytelling Network

We live in story like a fish lives in water. We swim through the words and images siphoning story through our minds the way fish siphons water through its gills. We cannot think without language, we cannot process experience without story. Christina Baldwin, StoryCatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story

The National Storytelling Network (NSN), based in Jonesborough, TN, brings together and supports individuals and organizations that use the power of story in all its forms. We advocate for the preservation and growth of the art of storytelling. With the theme of Story: Seed of Creativity, the 2013 National Storytelling Conference will be held in Richmond this year on August 1-4. The conference will examine and celebrate “the power of story in all its forms,” honoring our collective and diverse creativity through story. Plant a story seed, grow a dance, a film, a symphony, a video game…the possibilities are endless! Story is the foundation of all the arts, the seed of creativity. Storytelling is the root of film and theatre, dance and music, visual arts, and, of course, literature and the spoken-word tradition.

The annual conference provides opportunities for story practitioners to share and learn a myriad of ways in which the use of story can strengthen and transform communities and lives in the diverse fields of education, health care, historic and cultural preservation and business, to name a few. The Youth, Educators and Storytellers Alliance (YES!) pre-conference will be of particular interest to educators. The Alliance advocates for and offers support and resources in storytelling to mentors, educators and storytellers who work with young voices from early childhood through adolescence. Educators can integrate storytelling into reading, language arts, math, science and social studies while teaching the Virginia Standards of Learning.

Do you have a workshop or panel idea that explores the conference theme of Story: Seed of Creativity? If so, please consider submitting a proposal. The guidelines are available on the conference website, given above. The deadline for workshop proposal submission is November 15, 2012. Perhaps your interest leans more toward performance. Then you might consider applying for the NSN Conference Fringe, where you can present your most compelling, riskiest, experimental or work-in-progress storytelling.

Be part of the National Storytelling Conference this summer. Come discover that the shortest distance between two people is a story. Muriel Rukeyser said that ‘the universe is made of stories, not atoms.” A universe awaits you at the National Storytelling Conference. Come grow with us. We Grow Storyellers!

New to RVA!

  A guest post by Briana Blanchard

It’s dusk on West Broad Street and the sidewalks are packed. People are buzzing through crowded spaces laughing, chatting, musing. The enthusiasm in the air is unmistakable as Richmond’s cultural community gathers for its monthly ritual: First Fridays.

I was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, a place known more for its natural aesthetics than anything else. I then spent the last four years studying art history and public relations in sweet little Blacksburg, Virginia. Although I deeply love both my hometowns, I was ready for a change. I needed a place that was vibrant, exciting and full of energy. So I moved to Richmond. I was beginning to doubt my decision until I stepped out on Friday, September 7th. Despite spending years in every art gallery, art museum, and art lecture I could find, I had never experienced anything quite as engrossing as an entire street full of art and people who genuinely enjoyed experiencing it.

I began my exploration of the Richmond art world at 1708 Gallery. Everyone was chuckling over the refreshing wit of Naoko Wowsugi’s None of Your Business. The before and after photos sparked conversations among both friends and strangers, something I have always deeply admired and respected in contemporary art. From there I crossed the street to ADA Gallery, a venue with a distinctly younger vibe. The deviant, faceless figures of Yann Leto’s work left me wanting to know more about the local artist and his Circus Dancers. I then stepped into the substantial Gallery 5 and was greeted with the alternative sounds of Brother Wolf and their large group of followers swaying in unison. The former fire station has been expertly converted into a home for all forms of creativity with a fully functioning performance stage downstairs and a sophisticated loft-like gallery upstairs. I spotted everyone from young artists to mature visionaries discussing the comic art. The largest crowd formed around Mark Luetke’s Experimental Sequence 2, hundreds of prints mounted on square tiles to form a complex storyboard that seemed to play out in every direction. It perfectly balanced a sense of monumentality while remaining light, an accomplishment I never imagined was possible in comic art.

There isn’t a single gallery that can contain the energy of First Fridays. The enthusiasm spills out into the streets in the form of musicians, protesters, and performers. I even saw a man twirling balls of fire. There is something about fire that simultaneously enthralls and terrifies, so of course I stopped to stare. Standing there on Marshall Street in downtown Richmond thousands of miles from home, shoulder to shoulder with a diverse crowd of my peers and all I could think was ‘I’m definitely going to like it here.’

If you would like to write a guest post for the PIA blog, please contact us at pia@richmond.edu.

PIA Awards: Woodville Elementary School

It’s good for the soul to spend time with creative teachers and their students. Today I visited Richmond’s Woodville Elementary, where art teacher Teresa Coleman is leading a PIA-funded project called Woodville: A Community of Promise.  Integrating visual arts, music, language arts and social studies, the teachers and visiting artists are helping fourth and fifth graders create an original musical production that will feature notable figures in Virginia’s past and present.  Rosalind C. Taylor is the principal of Woodville, a school full of positive energy and evident commitment to students’ academic and personal development.

As Mrs. Coleman wrote so beautifully in her proposal, “Our primary goal is to use the arts to show students how they are a part of the continuum of history, how history includes the famous and the lesser known, and how history — ‘his story’ — is actually their stories.” To that end, students are learning not only about well-known Virginians but also about family members and people significant to their school and the Church Hill community.  Woodville Elementary’s origins are deep, going back to the early 19th century, when classes were first held in Mount Tabor Baptist Church.

In Mrs. Coleman’s art room, I sat opposite a young girl who was clearly gifted.  She was using what I saw as sophisticated strategies to follow instructions while creating a unique piece of art.  I thought about the fact that when I went to school (talk about the early 19th century) there were no art classes.  I was very, very fortunate to have a family and family friends who valued creativity and all forms of art.

Afterward, I dropped in on Latasha Lee’s music class, where students were practicing a lively routine for “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”  Much more is to come as the students swing through the semester, and it will all mean a thing.


Draw Art from Your Beautiful Heart   Student work at Woodville Elementary: “Draw art from your beautiful heart.”






Civil War Drawings from the Becker Collection

“To truly respect the past, you can’t romanticize it.”

This was a comment made by Dr. Edward Ayers during his talk on Friday evening, January 15, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.  Dr. Ayers, a prize-winning historian and the president of the University of Richmond, was speaking in particular about the Civil War but in general about all of history and the tendency to present prettified, ennobled, and sometimes wildly inaccurate depictions of the past.

Dr. Ayers’s talk was called “Seeing the Civil War through Fresh Eyes” and was the opening event for an exhibition at the VMFA and at UR’s Joel and Lila Harnett Museum of Art called “Civil War Drawings from the Becker Collection”.  The Becker Collection, the largest private collection of Civil War drawings, consists of over 650 images of battles, marches, and camp life created by “special artists” who were embedded with the troops for long periods of time, under grim and often terrifying circumstances.  Most of the drawings are by Joseph Becker but the collection also includes work by his fellow artists.

The drawings were sent to Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in New York and quickly transferred by teams of engravers into illustrations that ran every week in this very popular publication.  As Dr. Ayers pointed out, photographs could not yet capture split-seconds of action due to the long exposure time needed.  The special artists and engravers provided readers with the most realistic and immediate images of the war they would ever see.

These images were intended to convey information, Dr. Ayers said, not to create emotion.  It is comforting to see familiar tropes — crisply-uniformed young men kissing their sweethearts goodbye; perfectly unfurled flags on the battlefields; graceful, bloodless death under sheltering trees — but they do a disservice to truth and to human suffering.  And, if I may editorialize for a moment, they may keep us from acknowledging the true horror that is war.

The exhibition is timed to the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the end of slavery, an anniversary in which Dr. Ayers and UR are playing an important role through the collaborative project called “The Future of Richmond’s Past”.   As VMFA director Alex Nyerges noted in his introductory remarks, Ed Ayers is that rare thing in this country: a public intellectual committed to open, community-based conversation about consequential issues.

The exhibition runs from January 15 through April 3rd at both sites, the VMFA and the Harnett Museum at UR.  I urge you to see these drawings and consider how significant art and artists can be in times of turmoil and division.


CultureWorks President Models for Class

We found the model for the Fish Hat that Liz saw the other day at Greenwood Elementary School.  Turns out it was the president of Richmond CultureWorks, John Bryan, who generously sat for the class.

Greenwood ES Fish HatJohn Bryan Fish Hat

Not only is John a model, painter and avid (I mean avid) fisherman, he is also a great leader in our region’s art and cultural scene, so check out his CultureWorks Blog for all the latest news. And while you’re there, check out CultureWorks’ Fish Market and buy an original or print of one of John’s amazing fish paintings.  All proceeds go to support arts and culture organizations in the greater Richmond area.  


Art + History + Technology + You Participating = Arts Integration

What do you think about the Texas board of education removing Thomas Jefferson from curriculum standards? How is our history generated, revised, taught?  How should we commemorate the Civil War and Emancipation 150th year anniversaries?

Once again all of the hats I wear (Many Hats=Messy Hair) are coming together nicely.  I have always thought of my volunteer work on the board of directors for 1708Gallery as Partners in the Arts (PIA) for grown-ups.  Now my professional work with PIA and other projects at the University of Richmond have freakishly aligned with the exhibition that opens at 1708 this Friday.

Friday AAIC image

Matthew Friday is an educator and transdisciplinary artist who is responding to the first question in this post.  Check out his project “The Liberty of Empire” and participate by filling out the questionnaire which will crunch the answers through some sort of art and technology transmogrifier machine and generate drawings that will be added to the installation throughout the exhibition.

As PIA is a program of the UR School of Continuing Studies we have been able to develop some great New Media workshops for bringing a technical and visual literacy to arts integration.  The visual, history and new media components also parallel the work of The University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab.  They have created a History Engine for students “to learn history by doing the work€”researching, writing, and publishing€”of a historian” and “to reach a wide audience by developing projects that integrate thoughtful interpretation in the humanities and social sciences with innovations in new media”.  Well designed graphs, charts, maps, etc. allow you to “read” the research in visual formats.

As an art-maker, gallery volunteer, parent and arts integration professional I have always believed in participation and discourse as the most important outcome of creative expression.  From Jan.7-Feb 12, 2011 you (and your students/kids) can participate in a discourse on a regionally and nationally relevant topic and have your ideas be part of a contemporary art exhibition.

How awesome is that!