On February 18th I began a 2-week stint supervising seniors in Graphic Storytelling program at The Animation Workshop in Viborg, Denmark. I was not presenting or lecturing in the usual pedagogic manner but spent my days in one-on-one meetings with students helping them at whatever stage they were at in their senior project: anything from batting around concept and worldbuilding ideas to reading scripts and thumbnails and providing feedback and guidance.
|I wanted to steal these stickers so bad.|
It was an intense, fascinating and magical experience working with so many students at such a delicate stage of the process of creation—when everything can be created or unmade in an instant and entire story ideas would shift overnight like sand dunes in the wind. I woke up early every morning to read scripts and I went to bed every night turning their stories over in my head like they were my own. It was my most rewarding teaching experience to date, and I can only hope the students benefited half as much as I did.
During my time in Viborg I sent semi-daily missives back to my family. I offer to you an edited view of those accounts, for the curious:
Here I am. In Viborg, Denmark.
I gave my big artist talk this morning and now I'm meeting with students to have them go over their projects with me. They are all, like, waaaaay better drawers then I am. Hopefully they don't know enough to question my qualifications.
I was worried, before my initial meetings, how I would be able to help the students with their senior projects (such an amorphous task) but I've already made some inroads with a few students and I think I'll have plenty to do.
Also it's very green & clean here. I don't think I've seen a piece of trash on the ground all day.
|Some very neat & tidy-looking buildings across a very neat & tidy green.|
I went out to lunch with Peter, head of the Graphic Storytelling program, and we discussed some of the students I'd met with—which was really helpful. My official role here is Supervisor, not teacher, which is supposed to emphasize their independence and self-direction. It's not my job to force myself on them when they don't want my help, which is a huge relief.
I met with all the available students (some are out of town), and I think I have a game plan for most of them. Some have a clear idea of what they need from me but others don't even know enough to know what they need. Anyway, I have a schedule of meetings for tomorrow so I think I can proceed on a day-to-day basis.
It appears we're going to a steak restaurant tonight! Myself, Peter and Joe—another cartoonist visiting the school to teach (he's Canadian). I'm going to wrap things up now and go back to my room and lie down for a little bit but hopefully I'll have some more interesting anecdotes later in the week.
Day 2 was no less deliriously busy than day 1, though mercifully I didn't have to make any presentations. I'm having a rough time getting over my jet-lag so I was asleep by 8:30pm last night and up again by 2am, but it did allow me to read 130 pages of the new Neil Gaiman book I brought so... not a total loss?
The Animation Workshop is located in an old converted army barracks which, while surprisingly attractive, has the unfortunate aspect of being maze-like both inside and out. Luckily, students seem to be used to hapless foreigners wandering their halls in a daze, so I had some help finding the coffee machine, finding my office, finding reception so I could get someone to unlock my office... &c &c.
The work day from 9am on was full of meetings with students and talking through their projects. There are only 18 students but it's a lot to stay on top of. Having back-to-back hour-long conversations about themes, story structure, character, and so on is pretty draining, so by 6pm I was really ready to go back to the apartment—which is what I did.
Dinner was a less formal affair than last night’s school-funded steak dinner (yum) but I picked up some leverpostej, aka: liver paté, which is a traditional danish food, and had it on a baguette with arugula and felt very satisfied indeed.
Hopefully soon I'll get on top of my duties and finish my day early enough to get out and take some photos while the sun still shines. Sunrise is at 7:30am and sunset is at 6pm so the window of opportunity is pretty narrow. Most of the museums, castles, cathedrals and general "sights" here close at 5pm and my workday ends at 4pm so I'm going to have to hustle if I want to see anything. As of today though, I am all out of hustle. Maybe when I sleep schedule evens out.
That's all! Sorry I don't have any photos. Offices look pretty much the same here as they do in America and all the furniture in my room is from Ikea so you're not really missing much.
|Panoramic shot of my accommodations.|
So, I don't have anything new to report other than that I am still very tired. Today was more meeting with students and a mid-afternoon trip with Peter to the Danish version of a Staples to buy art supplies for next Wednesday, when I'm doing my bookbinding workshop.
Actually, I'm feeling pretty stressed out. 18 student projects is a lot and I have a lot of reading to do for tomorrow, which unfortunately I have to go back to the school later to print out because the 2nd-year students were busy hogging the printer (durn kids). I have 5 back-to-back meetings tomorrow so that's a lot to prepare for.
I also feel guilty that I'm not "experiencing Denmark" and making more of my time as a tourist here but I keep trying to remind myself that I was brought here to do a job, dammit, not to eat pickled eel and visit viking graveyards or whatever.
I'm very much looking forward to the weekend in Copenhagen at the Copenhagen Comics Festival, although I expect it will also be overwhelming and stressful in an altogether different way. However, I only have one event I'm expected to attend—an on-stage interview with a signing—so I'm hoping I can do most of my con-stuff (networking, looking at the other tables, &c.) on Saturday and spend some time Sunday being a tourist... I may run that idea by my Danish contacts here though—the festival is paying a per diem and for a hotel room for me so it might be super rude to skip any of the show.
Hopefully by the time I return to the States I will have learned something about Denmark beyond what can be gleaned from the aisles of a grocery store, but it isn't looking likely.
Sorry for not writing yesterday, but as you will hear I had good cause.
Yesterday was the first day I felt on top of things. One of my morning meetings cancelled, which was kind of a blessing because it gave me time to catch up on reading all the student scripts. That, and going to bed at 10pm the evening before provided the kick I needed to get a handle on everything.
I've learned that with so many students, meetings and projects to keep track of I need to stay highly organized and so I've devised a kind of pin-up board with all the student's names and the location of their desks where I can put updates about their projects and the day and time of our next meeting.
I think it's going well. The students seem happy with my feedback, although depending on the student it can be hard to judge their response. Giving advice and constructive criticism is something of an art, especially when you don't know the person and how they're going to react. I've had a couple students spiral into melt-downs or existential crises, sometimes aided by my well-intentioned advice, but in both cases we were able to re-meet and talk it through and figure out another solution.
After hours yesterday I went out with fellow North American cartoonist (from Canada) Joe Ollmann and a couple of his students who are a few years behind my group. We had some beers at an extremely smokey local bar and were accosted, with friendliness, by a drunk local pizza-maker with a very limited grasp of English but a love of hand-shaking and high-fives. It was fun and good to get out in the evening after a few nights sitting alone in my room.
After lunch I'm driving with Erik, the lead coordinator of the second-year class, to Copenhagen for the Copenhagen Comics Festival. They're putting me up in a hotel right next to the convention venue. There's also some sort of dinner being thrown for the guests of the show (that's me!) so that's my only plan for tonight aside from maybe exploring some of the area surrounding the hotel. I asked Peter if he thought I needed to be at the show the whole two days or if it was more loose and he said the latter, so it may be possible I'll have more time for exploring the city then I thought. In any case, I hope to take LOTS of photos.
I will bring my computer to Copenhagen and if I find time to write this weekend I will, but if you don't hear from me until Monday do not be alarmed.
|My hotel room.|
That night after my walk, I attended a dinner for the various guests, employees, and volunteer staff of Copenhagen Comics. I ended up having a long and illuminating conversation with a Danish woman, Marianne, who sits on the Danish Council of Comics (or something like that) and she filled me in on some of the details of the local comics scene.
morning I had an on-stage interview at 12:30pm that went really well
and was surprisingly well attended, despite being scheduled at the same
time as another presentation with the internationally acclaimed
cartoonist Dave McKean. Charlotte, my interviewer, was well-prepared and
the conversation had a nice flow to it; afterwards at my signing table I
had a good line of people who said they'd never heard of me before but
now they felt they had to read my book.
as you may have inferred from my radio silence, my weekend in
Copenhagen was quite busy. I got in at 5:30pm-ish on Friday eve after a
long car-ride with Erik and a few of his second-year students and after
checking in at the hotel I headed out for a quick walk around town—I was
so eager to do SOMETHING touristy.
all the museums and sights close early and the sun had already set so
mostly what I saw was cobbled streets and cute shops, which was still
kind of fun. I also saw the outside of a few sights, like one of the
many royal palaces and the "round tower," a look-out tower built in the
17th-century so the Danes could keep an eye on the Swedish ships.
|View from my hotel window.|
|Black diamond building across the canal.|
|Stock exchange with famous "dragon spire".|
|One of many churches.|
I only had an hour and a half at my signing table before I was kicked off to make room for other guests and weirdly enough that concluded all my official obligations to the show—so I sneaked off for some covert tourism. I had booked a free walking tour (aka: donation-based) that had been recommended online so I got to see (from the outside, of course) a bunch of notable Copenhagen buildings including parliament, the 17th-century stock-exchange building, the "black diamond" building (a contemporary structure for the Royal Library), some notable bridges and at least half a dozen churches. We ended our tour at the entrance to Freetown Christiania, a city-within-a-city, with 850 residents and its own laws and political structure based on a combination of socialism, idealism and hippie-style free-love principles.
It's mostly famous for the free-wheeling drug culture that thrives within (weed is illegal in Denmark) which is officially ignored by the surrounding city and tolerated by the Christiania residents (with some notable exceptions)—but I wanted to hear more about the commune-like aspects then party.
Luckily for me, I went into a shop selling locally-made hand-crafts and the woman at the front desk, Nina, was a resident of the neighborhood and had lived there since the 70's. When I introduced myself to her, Nina asked me if I was Jewish (I've been asked that a handful of times this past week) and said she was too, making her the first Jew I've encountered in this country. Apparently her father lived in Denmark during WWII, was hidden from the Nazis in a farmer's attic and was one of the Jews smuggled to Sweden by Danish fisherman (a well-known story in Denmark). Nina's father met her mother in Sweden and Nina only returned to Denmark as an adult.
Anyway, it was a really interesting place and a great display of ad-hoc architectural experimentation, but once it got dark and my phone died I figured it was time to head back.
|"Here There Be Dragons"|
|Women in vests on horseback with flags. Don't ask me why.|
That evening the convention took the international guests out to dinner to a very fancy restaurant with multiple tiny courses spaced too far apart with too much wine in-between. I had great talks with a bunch of folks, including a very nice woman publishing Danish comics and several other guests. The evening ended with a visit to a smoky bar with some some comics luminaries, including french cartoonists Boulet and Sébastien Cosse, Scottish cartoonist Tom Gauld, and a few other cartoonists whose faces and work were new to me. It was really great to have a chance to hang out with some of my idols, who were all very funny, gracious and kind.
After the museum we went to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, which is a museum of mostly classical statuary but is also famous for its "winter garden", a glassed-in tropical sanctuary built in 1882 as a poor-weather refuge for damp and depressed Danish people. We had lunch at the cafe and sat on the benches for a bit around the central fountain before we had to head back to make Tom's signing at his publisher's booth.
|Central pond in the "winter garden" at the Glyptotek.|
Back at the show, I spent a few hours walking around and glad-handing Danish publishers and trading books and that was pretty much that. Erik and I drove back to the town where he lives, which is about an hour away from the school, and he put me on a train to Viborg. I arrived at around midnight.
This week I'm meeting with students just like last week except for Wednesday, when I'll be doing my bookbinding workshop. Tonight I'm taking it easy—doing laundry and relaxing after such a hectic weekend. Feels good.
Sorry for not writing the last few days but TBH, there hasn't been much to report. Sitting down with students to go over their stories pales in comparison to the many wonders of Copenhagen and hanging out with world-famous cartoonists.
Yesterday I led a bookbinding workshop for some of the students (it was up to them if they wanted to participate and about half the class did). We did case binding, a somewhat laborious and time-consuming method that produces a very professional-looking book... when done correctly.
It mostly went well and we had a good time, but when it came time to glue their books together there was a lot of trepidation and disappointment. Some of the books came out crooked, and even though I warned students repeatedly that their first books wouldn't be perfect they still had very high expectations of themselves. The day ended on a bit of a down-note, with me wondering how I could have done better and them feeling like their efforts were wasted.
How different today has been! It's unusually sunny, which has put everyone in a good mood, and after sitting under heavy books (a kind of ad-hoc book press) all night the students books look much better then when they initially glued them! They seem really pleased with what they've made and much more positive about the idea of bookmaking in the future. Some students were already brimming with ideas for future bookbinding projects, which I took as a very good sign.
|Instagram photo: Simone's blueprints for her final project.|
|Instagram photo: Students hard at work in the bookbind workshop.|
|Instagram photo: Students showing the products of their labor. So proud.|
|Close up of Nilas's book from the bookbinding workshop with some of his charming concept art for his story.|
This evening should be fairly busy. There's a dinner for teachers tonight that appears to be some sort of pot-luck thing. Then at 9pm I'm meeting up with some of my students at a bar in the area. It seems a bit odd to me, as an American, to go out drinking with students but apparently it's appropriate and even expected in Denmark—though of course not required. Anyway, I hope it'll be fun to chat in a more casual environment.
Tomorrow is my last day, and every hour of it is packed with student meetings. At the end of the day I've arranged to have a tea in one of the lecture rooms so any students who wants to can come say goodbye. I've promised sweets, so hopefully I'll be very popular.
It's been a great trip but at this point I'm pretty eager to go home. My two weeks here has really sped by but, paradoxically, I feel as though I've been here much longer. Ain't it always the way.
|The highlight of any art school: the crazy shit they put up in the bathroom.|
Last day done! That's all she wrote!
Much like the former few, most of the day was taken up with meetings with students. It was sad to be concluding these final story talks, knowing I wouldn't be going any further with the student projects. Over the past few weeks I've gotten to feel invested and it's a little hard to let go. It must be weird being a student at the school and continually experiencing this coming-and-going of teachers, but they seem to take it in stride.
Last night was the teacher dinner and drinks out with students. The dinner was a lentil soup with home-made bread and rice, with a side salad and cheese and wine. The food was good and I had a nice long conversation with an older gentleman, Leigh, a British ex-pat from Birmingham who is now a permanent resident in Denmark. If I've learned anything on my trip it's that the common rule against talking politics with strangers is complete hogwash—bashing Trump has been a great ice-breaker here.
After I went to a smoky bar and met up with about six or so of my students and we had a few beers and chatted. It was pretty "hugge", a Danish word that is sometimes translated as "cozy" but also encompasses many more subtle attributes—the most important of which being the absence of anything negative or upsetting.
It was nice to get to know my students outside of a discussion of their stories and we got to talk comics, traveling in the USA (which many of them have), and delve into the seemingly bottomless topic of cultural differences. Then, today, I got to do a round two when I hosted a farewell party in one of the lecture rooms with tea and cookies (provided by me, of course). That was well attended—as one might expect from an event offering free food at a college—and four boxes of cookies were swiftly inhaled. Several of the students went out of their way to tell me how grateful they were for my help, which was truly gratifying.
Tonight I'm spending a quiet night in the apartment, packing and watching movies. Despite having sold and/or given away so many copies of The Oven I have somehow ended up with more comics then I left with. It's like some sort of very benign curse.
Tomorrow at 11:05am I'm being picked up from the apartment, driven to the airport, and from there I begin the long exhausting voyage back to America.
It's been a good trip.
|Viking runestone: like everything else about vikings, hella metal.|