Sequential Artist Workshop opens in Gainesville

If “sequential art” sounds pretentious: good. That was Will Eisner’s goal. The graphic novelist best remembered for creating the comic series The Spirit, Eisner popularized the term in 1985 to shed comics of their stigma as ‘kid-stuff.’

“Ultimately, it sounds to us more like what it is,” says Tom Hart, a founder of the Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW) in Gainesville.

Sequential art includes: comic books, comix, graphic novels, manga, cartooning, funny papers or any other combination of words and drawings that create a narrative. And nowadays, thanks to its strengthened reputation, these works can be found in libraries and universities across the country.

But while it’s becoming more common for sequential art to be found in schools, few programs specifically teach comic artists. Only a handful of universities offer B.A. or M.F.A. programs in sequential art, and most come with hefty price tags. So last year, Hart moved to Gainesville to create an affordable program for those who aim to spread their passion for comics.

A drop-out of New York’s School of Visual Art (SVA) himself, Hart knows the limitations of a traditional art education. Believing he could develop better ideas about cartooning and art than the school’s curriculum had to offer, Hart left SVA and spent most of the ‘90s in Seattle. Here, his talents developed alongside contemporaries — such as Jim Wood and Peter Bagge — through a collaborative workshop method that, years later, has served as a model for SAW’s approach to education.

“Diversity is key,” Hart says.

Although he oversees SAW’s general curriculum, instructors are allowed to decide the specifics of their courses. The goal is for students to encounter as many different perspectives as possible and learn to respond to them all. Hart describes himself as a “puller” — a mentor who pulls and directs students to discover their own voices. In contrast, his wife, Leela Corman, is more of a “pusher” of correct technique and style. Together, along with the rest of SAW’s rotating faculty, they try to provide students with a balanced education in the production, philosophy, technique and history of comics.

But why Gainesville?

“It’s a welcoming DIY place that rewards initiative and engagement,” Hart says.

He had been teaching cartooning to undergraduates at SVA for 10 years prior to moving to Gainesville, but the exhausting pace of NYC life slowed his enthusiasm.

In 2008, Hart returned to Gainesville to attend the University of Florida English department’s annual Conference on Comics (both Hart and Corman had spoken at the previous year’s conference). It was here, in Gainesville, that Hart first imagined SAW as a tangible possibility. From then on, he says, he “imagined SAW and Gainesville — always in the same sentence.”

Soon after, Hart set out on the first steps of opening the new school along the more tranquil streets of downtown Gainesville. He chose a spot nestled with the Church of Holy Colors, Citizen’s Co-op and the Civic Media Center, and set up SAW’s unassuming campus.

After a successful campaign on Indiegogo.com, a website that helps projects raise money, Hart raised enough funds to open SAW for what he describes as “beta-testing.”

The school is now in its second round of beginner and advanced adult workshops and is preparing for a second teen workshop at The Doris. Its galleries display local talent, guest artists and the work of the school’s first students. Beginning in the Fall, SAW will offer its first single-year program designed for serious students of comic art.

The school is not accredited and does not intend to gain accreditation in the foreseeable future. The process is costly and time consuming, and Hart believes students benefit more from close mentoring and group support than simply receiving a trade certificate.

SAW’s sense of community offers an advantage to students that larger B.A. and M.F.A. programs often do not.

Throughout a recent showcase of the work of students in a week-long, intensive workshop with comic artist John Porcellino, for example, the distinction between experienced and amateur artists was clear in the art, but absent in demeanor. Without the pressure of competition, all 14 participants instead focused on helping each other develop and learn.

So far, workshop participants have been as diverse as the art form itself.

“The medium is open to all types of sensibilities and people,” Hart says. “Comics are an easy, fun and malleable medium, so our main goal is to help them recognize their own voice.”

With the success of their inaugural workshops and showcases, it’s clear SAW is on the path to achieving that goal — becoming a hub for locals to gather and share their art.