Art Notes: Center for Cartoon Studies explains our embattled democracy


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 09-04-2019 10:00 PM

It is a measure of how far comics have risen in stature that they are now being used to teach schoolchildren and adults alike how American democracy is supposed to function.

Or is it a measure of how diminished our government is that cartooning has to come to its rescue?

“There’s a sense right now that our government and how it functions are under siege,” James Sturm, co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, said in an interview last week. “And our democracy itself is under siege.”

Under Sturm’s direction, the White River Junction cartooning school has crafted This Is What Democracy Looks Like: A Graphic Guide to Governance, a 32-page comic that offers readers the basics of how American democracy works, or is meant to work, anyway.

Drawn primarily by Dan Nott, a 2018 graduate of the cartoon school, with help from Sturm and Nomi Kane, a 2011 graduate, among others, Democracy renders in red and blue ink on a white background how the three branches of government work, the forces they exert on one another and how our dysfunctional political system engenders apathy, even among citizens who most need a government that works for everyone.

“For our government to function properly, people have to be involved in the process,” Sturm said. But to be involved, citizens have to have an understanding of how it works. Democracy is “a call to people to get engaged in the process,” he said.

What the comic’s creators came to recognize is that amid the mountains of books about American politics and government are few concise descriptions of how it all works. Even newspapers, which are meant for a general audience, tend to explain little about the process of government, Nott said. When he told people he was working on this project, several mentioned the old “Schoolhouse Rock!” video, I’m Just a Bill, that kids used to watch with their Saturday morning cartoons and sugary cereal. Democracy is in the same vein, in that it aims to reach a wide audience with a medium that’s easy to grasp.

“I think that comics are a really great way to make abstract concepts more concrete,” said Nott, a native of Hubbardston, Mass., who now lives in White River Junction and is working on a book about the workings of invisible systems, such as the electrical grid and water distribution.

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Using comics in service to understanding has become part of the Center for Cartoon Studies’ mission. Already the school works with veterans at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, and is involved in “graphic medicine,” where the tools of cartooning inform the teaching and practice of health care.

The longstanding view that comics are a vehicle for stories about people on society’s margins — from mutant outcasts to disaffected teens — has come to seem quaint. Sturm put it pointedly: “Comics are medium; they aren’t a genre.”

As a medium, comics are meant to travel, and the creators of Democracy hope to see it range far and wide. So far, 15,000 copies are going out to comics stores, where they will be given away. And the entire comic is available to download for free through CCS’s website, as is a teaching guide for educators. CCS also is taking the comic on a tour of the Midwest, through Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison, Wisc.

Closer to home, Sturm will join Woodstock Union High School social studies teacher Steve Smith in his classroom later this month.

“I was really impressed with it, and I felt like it would be a great opportunity for our students to engage with democracy” in a new format, Smith said in an interview. Smith regularly uses drawing in his classroom as a communications tool, a way for students to express their understanding of what they’re learning.

The teaching of civics had declined, in part because of nationwide testing in English language and math that shifted focus to those subjects, said Christine Smith, a librarian at Spaulding High School in Barre, Vt., and the co-president of the Vermont Alliance for the Social Studies (VASS). She looked over a draft of Democracy. The comic will be a valuable teaching tool, she said, noting that civics is making a comeback in Vermont schools and more widely. Spaulding requires a civics course for graduation.

The comic, which will be included in the VASS annual conference in November, will help students connect to civics, she said. “It can be boring to learn about the government if you don’t understand how it works,” Smith, a former history teacher, said in a phone interview. She used to teach the Constitution to high school students. “It was really hard for them to conceptualize,” she said.

What’s more, “kids have a hard time buying into the U.S. government right now,” she said. They don’t see how it relates to them.

Around the government is a toxic cloud of political discourse, one in which people tend to talk past each other and use separate vocabularies. The CCS team tried to steer clear of the smog and stay focused on the institutions in which we all have a stake — the three branches of government and the ballot box.

“To debate an issue, you at least should have some shared facts,” Sturm said.

Ultimately, This Is What Democracy Looks Like is dedicated to the idea that if Americans know how their government is supposed to function, they can ask for it to do so.

Dan Nott will sign free copies of This Is What Democracy Looks Like at the First Friday Parking Lot Party, behind Revolution, the White River Junction clothing emporium and social hub. The party runs from 5 to 8. For other First Friday happenings, see below.

Openings and receptions

The Great Hall, a massive exhibition space in a former machine tool plant in Springfield, Vt., opens what sounds like its best show yet with a reception at 5:30 p.m. Friday. “Alchemy: Metal, Mystery & Magic,” features work by Jeanne Carbonetti, Sabrina Fadial, Alexandra Heller, Peter Heller, Pat Musick, Dan O’Donnell, Gerald Stoner and Johnny Swing and is on view into February.

AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon opens four exhibitions with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. on Friday. The shows include “Marked” and “Rough/Polished,” by Montpelier sculptors and friends Mary Admasian and Robert Hitzig, respectively. The two will hold a discussion in the galleries at 6 p.m. on Sept. 26. In addition, “Love at First Sight” features paintings of animals by Rosemary Conroy, of Weare, N.H., and “What Is on Your Balcony?” paintings by Concord artist Pamela R. Tarbell. Through Oct. 3.

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio in White River Junction, opens “Through the Curve,” a show of recent abstract prints by Hartland artist Rachel Gross, with a reception from 5 to 7 on Friday evening. Through Oct. 28.

Scavenger Gallery in White River Junction extends “Skywriting,” recent mixed media works by Luciana Frigerio. A reception and wine tasting are planned for 5:30 to 7:30 Friday evening.

“Faces and Places,” recent digital paintings by Samuel Neustadt of Pomfret and Woodstock residents, and of places in the two towns, opens Friday with a reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at ArtisTree Gallery in South Pomfret. Through Sept. 28.

Chandler Gallery, in Randolph’s Chandler Center for the Arts opens “An Archive of Feeling,” a group show curated by J. Turk, with a reception from 6 to 8 Friday evening. Through Nov. 3.

The Center for the Arts hosts an art walk in New London from 5:30 to 7 on Friday evening. Paintings by Penny Koburger, Ludmila Gayvoronsky and Marianne Stillwagon hang at Bar Harbor Bank and Trust, New London Inn and Blue Loon Bakery, respectively. Through October.

“Places We Call Home,” an exhibition of paintings by Marilyn Farnsworth Wendling, goes on view on Friday at The Square Rabbit in New London. A reception and pie social are planned for 4 to 7 p.m. on Sept. 13. Through Oct. 5.

“Hudson on the Garden,” an exhibition of sculptor Greg Wyatt’s portraits of three Hudson River School artists, opens Saturday at 1 p.m. with a reception at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock. The event also will feature a demonstration by Wyatt and the Modern Art Foundry of patina, the final stages of the bronze sculpture process.


White River Gallery, South Royalton. “Scattered Geometry,” ceramics by Jenny Swanson and Holly Walker. Through Friday.

The Roth Center for Jewish Life at Dartmouth College, Hanover. “Antigua Revisited,” photographs by Mort Wise. Through Friday.

Aidron Duckwork Art Museum, Meriden. “Lush Surface,” new paintings and works on paper by Boston-area artist Anne Johnstone; “Sharp Focus,” new sculptures by New York City artist Dan Waller; and “Tactics/Being Close” a site-specific, interactive sculptural collaboration by Lucy Pullen and Tom Butter are on view through Sunday.


Aidron Duckworth Art Museum, Meriden. “Exhibition XXXIV — The Multitudes Contained,” the museum’s final exhibition of Aidron Duckworth paintings and drawings, is on view through Oct. 27.

Betty Grant Gallery, Converse Free Library, Lyme. “How’s it gonna end?” drawing and paintings by Lyme artist Carl Mehrbach. Through Sept. 28.

BigTown Gallery, Rochester, Vt. “East to West: A Ceramic Dialogue,” ceramics by Mark Pharis, Liz Quackenbush, and Cappy Thompson. Through Sept. 28.

Center for Art + Design, Colby-Sawyer College, New London. “Coming Home: The Ceramics of Vivika and Otto Heino.” Through Oct. 15.

Cider Hill Gardens and Gallery, Windsor. Outdoor sculpture by William Ballantyne and paintings in egg tempera and gold leaf by gallery co-owner Gary Milek.

Collective — the Art of Craft, Woodstock. Ceramics by Andrea Trzaskos, as well as works by jeweler T. Breeze Verdant, glass sculptor Alissa Faber and fiber artist Jennifer Johnson. Through September.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon. The shows feature Elliot Burg, Jane Masters and Mark Washburn, photographs; Bruce Conklin, oil paintings; Sherry Saint-Germaine, botanical drawings; Sara Goodman, textiles; Hartford High School Art Students and the Cardigan Mountain Arts Association.

Hall Art Foundation, in Reading, Vt. Shows include “Made in Vermont,” works by Vermont artists; exhibitions by Richard Artschwager and the super-realist artist Malcolm Morley. On the grounds: “English Sculptors in New England.” Admission is $10, except on the first Friday of the month, when it’s free.

Kilton Public Library, West Lebanon. Lebanon native Sam Wiebkin is the current artist-in-residence at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. An exhibition of her work is on view through September.

Ledyard Gallery, Howe Library, Hanover. Recent work by members of the Cardigan Mountain Art Association. Through Oct. 2.

Library Arts Center, Newport. The “Selections Exhibit,” work by Debbie Campbell, Rod Keller, Susan Lirakis, Gillian Martlew, Meg McLean, Susan Parmenter, Adele Sanborn and Ann Saunderson. Through Sept. 19.

Matt Brown Fine Art, Lyme. Paintings by Marcie Maynard and handmade furniture by Peter Maynard, a husband and wife duo from South Acworth, N.H. Through Oct. 12.

North Common Arts, Chelsea. Abstract encaustic collages by mixed-media artist Athena Petra Tasiopoulos, of Barre, Vt.

Sculpture Fest, Woodstock. Contemporary sculpture in outdoor settings at the Prosper Road home of Charlet and Peter Davenport, at the nearby King Farm, and at the Woodstock History Center, which hosts “Vermont Carvers & Sculptors Exhibition,” work by 15 Vermont sculptors. Both the King Farm and History Center shows are open through the end of October. The work at the Davenports’ is on view year-round.

Steven Thomas Inc. Fine Arts & Antiques, White River Junction. Work by Upper Valley “vintage” artists, such as Alice Standish Buell, John Semple, Horace Brown, Neil Drevitson and Robert Caulfield.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.