Publishers Weekly interviews JAMES STURM

Teaching and Drawing: James Sturm Returns with Market Day

Publishers Weekly    |    Sasha Watson    |    February 9, 2010

Like so many creative professionals, James Sturm wears more than one hat. Both a dedicated comics educator and a critically acclaimed cartoonist, Sturm is publishing a new work of fiction, Market Day, which will be released this spring by Drawn and Quarterly. The book is set in an Eastern European Jewish community in the early 1900s and turns on the difficulty of balancing creation with commerce.

Sturm co-founded The Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS), a unique M.F.A. and certificate program in White River Junction, Vermont, which he now runs and where he teaches. If it’s hard to balance these activities, that doesn’t make him any less successful at them. His comic The Fantastic Four, Unstable Molecules, which used a heightented sense of realism to reimagines the Fantastic Four with new backgrounds, won the 2004 Eisner Award for Best Limited Series; Adventures in Cartooning: How to Turn Your Doodles Into Comics, a teaching tool for children, which he co-wrote with former students Alexis Frederick-Frost and Andrew Arnold, is in its fourth printing from First Second. CCS attracts some of the best talents in cartooning, as both students and teachers.

The main character in Sturm’s new book, Market Day, Mendleman, is a rug-maker. Mendleman’s plaintive “how I long to be in my studio surrendering to the steady rhythms of the work” will feel familiar to any artist who has struggled, as Mendleman does, to sell his works in the marketplace. The quiet starkness of Sturm’s drawings depicting the landscape in which Mendleman’s story takes place contrasts with the emotional rollercoaster he rides during the 24 hours of the tale. Sturm talked with PW Comics Week by phone from White River Junction about the book, the challenges of the creative life, and CCS.

PWCW: How did you come to set Market Day in this particular place and time of Eastern Europe in the early 1900s?

JS: I was in grad school in New York in the early 90’s, and I remember picking up books of Roman Vishniac photos and another book called A World at Twilight: A Portrait of the Jewish Communities of Eastern Europe Before the Holocaust by Lyonel Reiss, and knowing I wanted to set something in that environment. There's something about photography in general that’s very evocative, and I was fascinated by the material I found. As I flip through the photos, someone's smile will remind me of my wife or her cousin. You realize that you are related in some way to these people. Knowing what happened to them makes it even more poignant, and you want to bring that lost world back to life in some way.

PWCW: And yet the story’s themes feel very contemporary, too. Mendleman’s issues are also those of a contemporary artist.

JS: The only way for me to bring it back to life was not to make it a folktale but to overlay my own issues on it and make it pertinent that way. And, yes, these are my challenges, how to follow my own muse and do this work that sustains me spiritually and also attend to my other responsibilities of teaching and running a school and being a parent to two small children.

PWCW: So how do you pull off doing all that?

JS: It’s a constant balancing act, and it changes as you get older. When you're younger you can live and breathe it; you can wake up and roll to your drawing table or stay up working until three in the morning. Now I have to get up and get my kids to school and you can bet, if I stayed up until three the night before, I'll have a big fight with one of my children. I did go to MacDowell about a year and a half ago and two weeks there was like six months of work. It set me up for the next year and a half. I went there with a stack of penciled pages and I just started inking. There was nobody knocking on my door, no email, I was just inking all day. I did like forty pages. Having the time to sink into the work that way was just an amazing opportunity.

PWCW: Do you find it difficult specifically to balance your teaching and your own cartooning work?

JS: Well, it’s a double-edged sword because the difficulty of teaching is that it takes time away from your work, but I started a school because I love teaching. And I do believe that there's a place for teaching art, for creating an environment where students can learn from one another. I think being a working artist, that brings a lot into the classroom. The teaching can energize my work, too. It holds me to a higher standard.

PWCW: What made you decide to found CCS? Were you responding to a specific need you saw out there?

JS: At the time, I was attending small press expos, like SPX in Maryland, and there'd be all these cartoonists creating comics there. These were real auteurs with the same passion and intent as a poet or a sculptor would take to their medium, but none of them did this work in their classes, it was all outside their art department curriculum. There were only a couple of schools that taught cartooning and they were mostly part of bigger art and design schools. I just thought that curriculum could be done a lot better.

PWCW: I imagine your students really thrive in that environment.

JS: I’m really thrilled by the quality of the students. When the majority, if not all of your classmates, are mature and ready to learn and engaged, the work is better all around because you’re challenging each other. I think the isolation of White River Junction with its long winters, builds a certain kind of solidarity among the students. Everyone’s waiting out the winter and buckling down. There’s no Starbucks to sit around and people watch. For the most part, the people who come here are serious about working. The students really are inspiring for me.

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