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Drawn Together in Vermont: Cartoonist Shares His Craft



Friday, February 28, 2014
White River Junction — Concerned that he should wrap things up well over an hour into his public lecture at the Center for Cartoon Studies, renowned cartoonist Ed Koren began fast-forwarding through his slide presentation Thursday afternoon, skipping past several examples of his work that he had planned to show.

The many voices from among the packed room in the old Post Office Building rang out in protest: “No! No!”

Koren, soft-spoken and smiling with a white mug in his hand, obliged. At the very least, the Brookfield, Vt., resident would read the caption of each cartoon, most of them published in the New Yorker magazine, a sampling of a six-decade career that led to his appointment earlier Thursday as the second-ever Cartoonist Laureate of Vermont.

“I’ve never done this, so that’s one thing,” Koren had said earlier, when he started the slide show. “I’ve never been a laureate either.”

The single-panel cartoons he shared included the first to be accepted by the New Yorker, following years of rejection, in 1962. A disheveled, disheartened-looking writer sits at a typewriter with a cigarette hanging off his lip, wearing a shirt emblazoned “Shakespeare.”

It also showed a piece that Koren called an all-time favorite: Two mice stand cross-armed on stage, facing dozens of other mice seated in a huge auditorium, above the caption, “Your father and I want to explain why we’ve been living apart.”

Cartoonist Stephen Bissette, who teaches at the school, said Koren’s appointment was “just amazing.”

“It’s like having Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda together as a guru as a laureate,” said Bissette, who grew up in Vermont admiring Koren’s work.

A New York City native, Koren began drawing while he was a student at Columbia University in the 1950s. He’s since published more than 1,000 cartoons in the New Yorker, as well as several illustrated books and contributions to other publications.

His cartoons feature his signature furry humans and creatures, often also marked by long beak-like noses, who provide satire of everyday life.

Koren also spent years teaching at Brown University, but gave up the post to focus on cartooning.

His professional forays have extended to far-away places like France, where he studied etching and engraving, and Czechoslovakia, the site of one of several international exhibits, while he has also cultivated intensely Vermont connections, such as serving on the Brookfield Volunteer Fire Department for more than 24 years.

A long-time friend, Genie Robbins of Braintree, Vt., credited him with donating his work to various Vermont groups and causes, noting his generosity in some cases has “kept stores alive.”

He was honored by Gov. Peter Shumlin in Montpelier Thursday, when a joint resolution was also read on the Statehouse floor.

Vermont is the only state to regularly appoint a cartoonist laureate, a role that was established three years ago with the appointment of James Kolchalka.

The position was spurred by the cartoon school and co-founder James Sturm, who said Vermont culture makes the state particularly suited to be a cartooning hot-bed. He likened the quirky but put-together craft of cartooning to other Vermont “brands” such as Phish, Ben & Jerry’s and Bernie Sanders.

Indeed, a news release from the school about Koren’s appointment noted that, despite Vermont’s small size, it has had a “disproportionately large impact on contemporary cartooning,” pointing to celebrated practitioners such as Alison Bechdel, Harry Bliss, Jason Lutes, Rick Veitch, Bissette and Sturm, among others.

Koren echoed Sturm’s assertions, calling it “part of the weirdness of Vermont” and perfectly “apt” for the state’s culture. The day had been “terrific,” he said.

“It’s keeping Vermont weird,” he said, “by having such an award for such a contrarian, critical, skeptical, individualistic activity that is also an art form. ... To be in Vermont is to really take your citizenship seriously ... so by extension, if you think of being a social satirist is a form of citizenship, which in a way, it is ... then by extension, having a cartoonist laureate is just natural.

“That said,” he added, chuckling, “cartoonists are really kind of anti-establishment sorts, and to accept an award from an arm of government is a contradiction in terms.”

There are no set responsibilities for the laureate position. Koren said he largely hopes to keep doing what he’s doing — generating work, reaching out in forums to share cartooning, and working with the Center for Cartoon Studies.

During his lecture Thursday, Koren touched on a wide range of subjects, from the specific — such as his love of drawing noses and disdain for drawing ears — to broader themes of generating ideas, cartoons serving as “cultural artifacts” for future generations, and his drawing process. He generally sends five or six rough sketches a week to the New Yorker and then flushes out the ideas that the magazine’s editors show interest in, he said.

He also spoke to the craftmanship that goes into creating his cartoons, but agreed with Sturm that even with all that build-up, it’s the subtlety of the emotions shown in the characters’ faces that gives them their humanity.

Drawing his trademark furry animals, he said, gives him a certain “open-ended” freedom, a “blanket humanity expressed by animality” without heed to things like gender, race and social class.

“There are certain ideas that just wouldn’t be funny to me if they were human,” he added later. “It would be hum-drum.”

The discussion was attended by Center for Cartoon Studies students and faculty and other cartoonists, Koren’s friends and family, members of the public, and even a group of high school students visiting from New Jersey. Many of the cartoonists held notebooks in their laps, sketching and doodling as they listened.

Second-year cartoon school student Simon Reinhardt, 26, said the volume and quality of Koren’s work was inspirational. A native of western Massachusetts, he said he was glad to see Vermont taking the lead in appointing a cartoonist laureate, who can promote work which then would “bring joy” into people’s lives.

“It’s great seeing comics getting recognized,” he said. “Something like (the laureate post) can bring them to a wider audience.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.