In October of 2012, eight cartoonists spent three creatively game-changing weeks at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida as part of a Master Artist-in-Residency program with Emmy Award winning artist and educator Dean Haspiel (BILLY DOGMA, CUBA MY REVOLUTION). The ACA has hosted non-profit artist-in-residency programs since 1982 in various disciplines and the students who participate are hand selected by the Master Artist running the course. In October, Haspiel’s course ran alongside two other groups headed by artists Megan Kelso and Ellen Forney. Megan Kelso’s group became known as the “Field House Gang”, Ellen Forney’s group called themselves “Team Zep”, and Dean Haspiel’s collective settled on the name “Studio YOLO”, reflecting their challenging “battle cry”, “You only live once”.
[The Atlantic Center for the Arts]
During the ACA Residency, Studio YOLO worked collectively on a unique comics project called “A Letter Lasts Longer”. Haspiel wrote the script for the comic, and each of the eight artists contributed their visual interpretation of the text as a form of “experiment in collaboration”, however, the residency also generated a number of enduring projects, not least the continuing operation of Studio YOLO as an independent entity comprised of Haspiel and the residency’s eight members: Christa Cassano, Fionnuala Doran, George Folz, James Greene, Meghan Lands, Gregory MacKay, Jp Pollard, and Jess Ruliffson.
[Dean Haspiel's interpretation of the "A Letter Lasts Longer" script]
The collective project, “A Letter Lasts Longer” was published on the Brooklyn-filtered Literary Arts Salon, TRIP CITY, while Studio Yolo has continued to challenge creators with collaborative projects in a similar vein via their own website. As YOLO states, “Each month an original script is posted and artists everywhere are encouraged to submit their own interpretations”(with volume 3 newly posted online today, January 14th). In addition to this “challenge”, YOLO continues to present artwork featuring a character created collaboratively during the residency known as “Shifty Goth”, a willfully sad character making his way through an all-too-cheerful world, often with hilarious results, but also occasionally presenting fairly hard-hitting commentary on human nature. Studio YOLO represents several layers of artistic experimentation that have impacted each of the artists involved in profound ways: the ACA Residency itself is a form of experiment isolating creators together in a learning environment, the “Letter Lasts Longer” project was a communal experiment with illuminating results about individual interpretation in comics, and the ongoing “challenge” that YOLO poses to the comics community remains an open experiment. YOLO is a testament to what experimentation and cross-fertilization can bring to comics productivity, taking creators in unexpected and dynamic directions. Some of the members even got “prison style” YOLO tattoos at the ACA to commemorate their experience, featuring a crying skull. Brave souls.
[Shifty Goth panel by Jess Ruliffson]
All eight YOLO members were happy to provide insights to The Beat about their own ACA experience and the impact that the residency had on their artistic trajectory via interview, sharing the virtues of their experiment with the comics community at large. I asked them a series of simple questions in the hopes of getting to root of how a collective experience can nevertheless contribute to creative breakthroughs on an individual level.
Hannah Means-Shannon: What motivated you to sign up for the ACA course?
Christa Cassano: There were two clear reasons motivating me. The first was having good friends (who’d went to ACA for fine art) say it’s an amazing place for study and collaboration. Because I didn’t know any cartoonists or have much training and was at a point where I really needed some feedback, the opportunity felt vital. The other reason is Dean Haspiel. I’d shown very little of my work to anyone before applying due to severe shyness, but I’d seen Dean on a panel a few years before and something about him made me feel comfortable, like I could get past my anxiety and do it. Maybe it was the fact that he’s willing to take his clothes off publicly, which he claimed during the panel as ‘his thang‘. Whatever it was, I had huge admiration for his style of clean lines and old school sensibilities, and thought it would be incredibly beneficial to learn from a true veteran who’s able to work in both mainstream and independent comics.
Fionnuala Doran: My friend, Sarah Joan Mokhtar, who I worked with on Lingua Comica, a comics project from the Asia-Europe Foundation had been on the 2010 graphic novelist residency mentored by Craig Thompson. I’ve been on the ACA mailing list and as soon as #147 was announced I had my application prepped. I don’t have a set genre to my work, so Dean’s focus on storytelling reflected what I wanted to focus on. Also, the application essay gave me an opportunity to gripe about comics.
George Folz: I was motivated to sign up for the ACA residency for a couple of reasons. I’d applied previously in 2010 for Paul Pope’s section, and he selected me as an alternate associate artist. All of his regular associate artists were able to attend though, so I didn’t get to go. Earlier this year, I saw that Dean had been called in to replace one of the other master artists for this past session, and I was inspired to give it application another go. I’ve struggled in the past with both narrative and storytelling, and I applied in hopes of improving both for my current project. I’ve also wanted my current project to straddle both the mainstream and indie world, and I thought Dean would be a particularly good mentor, as he’s had success doing what I aspire to do.
James Greene: 2012 was really been a banner year for comics and I. Last spring I self-published a short graphic novel that was a long time in the making, plus I spoke publicly about comics at the MOCA here in Jacksonville and was even flown out to Eugene OR to do a three-day comics mentorship program with literature students at the U of O. My proposed college course on Comics & Sequential Art course had been greenlighted to be offered in the fall at my university, too. Since I was doing so much with comics, one of my colleagues sent me a link about the extended ACA deadline and that Dean Haspiel would be a Master Artist. I researched Dean and realized I’d already read a few of his comics. My thought was that while I was known locally as the “comics guy,” I really needed some exposure to cartoonists from all over and would benefit from the tutelage of a pro with experience in both the mainstream and in indie comix. Plus he seemed like a fun guy.
Meghan Lands: A friend of mine had been an associate artist at ACA earlier this year and let me know there would be a cartooning residency coming up, and that I’d probably really like it there and that there were turtles. I guess it came at a time when I was looking for some kind of direction, and I do like turtles, so I decided to apply. It didn’t really occur to me that I might be accepted.
Gregory MacKay: I had heard about the course from some friends who had attended the first one, I wanted to focus on my work and try and get to the next level of understanding. Coming from Australia, I wanted to visit the US again and see some more of the amazing comics culture that exists there.
Jp Pollard: I had reached the point of “Enthusiastic Amateur” in the comix community and was looking for a way to level-up, without even really knowing what that meant (outside of just drawing better). I had taken the leap and printed up a couple issues of my own comics, and was at a sort of “now what” point and was receptive to guidance in a way I never was back in college. I had admired Dean’s work for years, so that was a selling point. I figured at the very least I would have three weeks to concentrate on comics and that would be worthwhile in and of itself.
Jess Ruliffson: I heard Josh Neufeld was teaching at the comics residency, and was eager to study with him because of my interest in comics journalism. I had heard him speak at a panel on reportage comics earlier this year and he seemed like a nice guy. I was initially unsure if I should still apply after hearing Dean Haspiel was slated instead. I’m happy I decided to go for it. Dean knows a lot about making comics and has a contagious enthusiasm for making really great work.
[Jess Ruliffson getting her tattoo at the ACA Residency]
HM-S: What impact do you think the course has had on your work and outlook on comics?
CC: It’s been a few months since we’ve been back and all I can say is, it has affected everything. Getting feedback is so important because it gives you a clearer sense of what you’re about and where your weaknesses are. You gain a context for your work that maybe wasn’t there before. I now have a broader, more reliable scope for evaluating what comes out of my pencil and brain that I can only relate back to the critiques and support I received (special thanks to Gregory, Jp and Meghan Kelso), and to the possibility that some of Dean’s immense understanding of story structure got through. But probably the greatest impact is a stark awareness of having an audience to consider, not that I didn’t have that sense before, but now the audience is real. It’s the friends I made there that I want to do my best for, that drive me to keep pushing to make things better and more honest.
[Art by Christa Cassano from the ACA residency]
FD: The residency has had a huge impact on both- from spending three weeks focused on comics and from interacting and learning from Dean and my fellow YOLOs. The quality of my drawing and inking has improved noticeably, and I’ve worked out a lot- but not all- of my storytelling bad habits. Working in a place with no real comics industry can be a little lonely and frustrating, so spending that time with people as enthusiastic about comics as Studio YOLO reignited my desire to make and read comic books.
[Art by Fionnuala Doran from the ACA Residency]
GF: The course had a tremendous impact of my work and outlook. I’ve had the rather unfortunate tendency of really getting down on my work and throwing all sorts of insults at myself for several years, and this residency pretty much did away with all that. I had breakthrough after breakthrough down in Florida, and it made me realize that while comics can be troublesome and frustrating, that’s only the case if you let them be those things. A road trip with three friends to New Orleans a few weeks before the residency had already made me begin to develop a more positive outlook on things, and my interactions with everyone at ACA really helped nurture my newly developed, “can-do”, attitude into a full-blown sense of optimism and bliss. I’ll be forever thankful.
[Art by George Folz from the ACA Residency]
JG: The nonstop working environment at the ACA was perfect for me. My home studio at my is in my bedroom and I am stay-at-home dad when I’m not teaching, so I have to make the most of my limited time at home. The fact that I had 20 solid days and nights in which to work was dreamy. I got to know my own rhythms- I write better in the morning and draw better at night. From Dean I learned a way write for the medium that suits me quite well. He recommended I write the “beats” of the story first and continue the writing process as I did layouts. I have since passed that on to my own comics students. Additionally, just being at the ACA has opened a few doors for me. People who don’t know me take me a little more seriously now. I’m getting more work through some of the folks I met there and I got some valuable feedback on an ongoing project. I was contacted by the Ormond Museum to be in a show of comics artists next fall. I wouldn’t have had that exposure if I hadn’t been an ACA associate. Also I was reminded why I make comics and what makes them such a potent cultural force right now.
[Art by James Greene from the ACA Residency]
ML: I guess the most obvious answer is that I feel less like a hack. I spent 3 weeks surrounded by people whose work I sincerely admire, and I put my stories next to theirs, and I survived and my work survived.
[Art by Meghan Lands from the ACA Residency]
GM: I definitely found more confidence in my work. I arrived at the residency thinking i would have to leave early because my work wouldn’t be good enough and I wouldn’t fit in. I found that the opposite was true and I quickly felt that my work was good and that I would get a lot out of the residency. It has made me focus more on making quality comics and working harder on new projects.
[Art by Gregory MacKay from the ACA Residency project "A Letter Lasts Longer"]
JpP: My impression of Dean over the three weeks was that he’s gregarious man who can not stand complacency (or wearing a shirt for longer than 5 hours at a time). This was evidenced in his mentoring methods. “You want to do a third issue of your comic? Why?”, “In this panel you’re character is looking left instead of right. Why?”, “What is this comic about?”, “Why is your character designed like this?”. It was a barrage of questions asking me to justify my work, and through that process define what I wanted from the work. That combined with being in such close proximity to so many other talented artists: literally the next generation of comics superstars still incubating and preparing to explode, left me energized and motivated in a way I have never been before. Standing next to my Studio YOLO compatriots gives me a mighty confidence.
[Art by Jp Pollard from the ACA Residency]
JR: Working with the eight other cartoonists in our group, as well as cartoonists in Megan Kelso’s and Ellen Forney’s groups was incredibly helpful and allowed for so much insight into my work and opened doors for me mentally in challenging myself to work differently. Making so many friendships with very passionate, funny, and talented people working in comics has been a great gift. I feel like I belong in the comics universe, and that my work really matters. There are a lot of people out there rooting me on, and it’s good to know that when I’m alone at my desk, wondering if I’m cut out for all of this.
[Art by Jess Ruliffson from the ACA Residency project "A Letter Lasts Longer"]
HM-S: What does Studio YOLO mean to you?
CC: Well, I didn’t even know what YOLO stood for and distinctly remember a subtle trigger in my gag reflex upon learning. Not really, it’s actually pretty amusing to be associated with something so sublimely overwrought. What Studio YOLO really means is that thanks to these guys (specifically Dean for creating a platform for experimentation, George for suggesting we continue, Jp for setting up a website, and Jess for the facebook page), I now have a group of amazing artists to work with, around a common goal- that of exploring the possibilities of the comics medium, which is a truly great and inspiring ‘thang’.
FD: It means a football shaped brownie. It means mouse ears on a sad man. A crying skull. Aerated cheese.
[Art by Fionnuala Doran from the ACA Residency]
GF: Studio YOLO is a means to an end: WORLD DOMINATION THROUGH COMICS!!! I’m not 100% serious when I say that, but I do have a point. I’ve long had issue with the fact that comics are not celebrated in America in the way that they are around the world. Yeah, we have a handful of museums and comics are getting a slightly better rap over here, but to have a disproportionate amount of people say, “they still make those?”, or, “why would you do that?”, when I tell people that I’m a cartoonist/someone who makes comics, is unacceptable. Comics are an incredible art-form with limitless potential that can do so much good and inspire so many lovely things. Studio YOLO is composed of some incredibly talented folks who have passion to spare. If we keep putting in work and pushing ourselves to do better, we can do our bit to bring this incredible art-form to the attention of more people, in the process, growing the love and inspiring others.
JG: Well, there’s the cultural meaning and then there’s the personal meaning. I think many folks consider YOLO to be the worst word of 2012 due to its overuse, so I was a little surprised that it became such a useful catch-all for what everybody was feeling. I live in Florida, so I may have been slightly less under the spell of the steamy, subtropical wilderness aspect of the ACA, as well as the neon trashiness of the area. Florida has a fun effect on the vacationer, so YOLO is kind of perfect for expressing the feeling. Skinnydipping in the ocean at night? YOLO! Eating at a suspicious looking crabshack? YOLO! Buying shirts and shot glasses that say YOLO? You get it. Personally, though, I think it is an affirmation of a life spent making comics. You only live once, and spending that life making comics is about as good as you can get.
ML: Studio YOLO is a bunch of people who want to tell stories with comics.
GM: Studio YOLO means that we can still all interact on a project no matter where we are. We worked so hard at the residency that we really built up a bond, so it’s great that we can keep that going. We get to all draw alongside each other again, and remark on each others work. It also means we get to work on an new script every month which presents a challenge and makes me think differently about how to go about making a new comic work.
[Jp Pollard's YOLO tattoo from the ACA Residency]
JpP: A 16 year old girl proclaims “You Only Live Once” on her facebook status, and it’s silly, but it’s also much more true than she realizes. That same girl at age 32, assuming Facebook still exists, will read “Jello Shots? YOLO!” on her 16 year old status, as she whitewashes her timeline so her growing children don’t see it when they get old enough to start poking around on the internet, and she’ll think about that time and all the decisions she’s made in the years inbetween. YOLO! It’s a joke that pays off down the road, a way-homer. You Only Live Once, and cartoonists all over the world have chosen to spend an inordinate amount of that precious time in solitude, releasing our works to an industry where there is no money and no practical future. YOLO! It’s a little “gallows humor”, I guess, but thats how I see it. You either love this thing and decide to give up a large portion of you life to it with no promise of reward, or you do something else and slowly die inside. COMICS!
[Studio YOLO crackers by Jess Ruliffson]
JR: It’s sort of a terribly corny joke taken to extreme levels, but through our unabashed enthusiasm for bringing great stories to the table and challenging one another, it’s become a serious web venue and communication platform for our work and a place to rally each other on our projects. I’ve found that staying connected to other human beings is essential in living a meaningful life, and it’s great when your friends are just as nerdy about comics as you are.
[Art by Jess Ruliffson from the ACA Residency]
HM-S: Thanks, Studio YOLO, for contributing your personal experiences here. These interviews help document some of the strategies comics creators have at their disposal for broadening the scope of their work through community-based activities and interaction. It’s all too easy to get stuck behind a computer or desk in this digital age and fail to make the connections that might break the syndrome of operating in an artistic vacuum. There’s little doubt that the ACA has contributed greatly to new artistic production in its over thirty years of existence, but for the members of Studio YOLO, the ACA and their mentor Dean Haspiel made a big difference in developing new work that engaged them on a deeper and more personal level.
So What? Press, started by fellow ACA resident artist Lara Antal and her partner Dave Kelly, will also be releasing an anthology of work created at the residency. It will feature collaborative efforts such as Studio YOLO’s A Letter Lasts Longer and Shifty Goth as well as individual daily comics, short stories, and reflections. The book is slated to premier at Stumptown Comics Festival in April. For another artist’s experience of ACA, you can also check out Gabrielle Gamboa’s 5 part “Cartoonist’s Diary” at The Comics Journal.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.