Vermont Folklife Center wins grant to aid serious cartooning effort

MIDDLEBURY — The Vermont Folklife Center (VFC) has received a $25,000 grant through the Art Works program of the National Endowment for the Arts to support the Vermont Cartooning and Culture Project, an 18-month initiative that brings the power of non-fiction cartooning to the Vermont Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program and the Vermont Folklife Center Archive.
As demonstrated by works such as Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” and Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” non-fiction cartooning has established itself as a powerful medium for sharing human experience. The interest in cartooning grows out of an awareness of the strengths of the form and from larger efforts to explore new approaches — including virtual reality — to sharing the culture and heritage of Vermont.
“I’ve been a comic book nerd since I was kid,” said Vermont Folklife Center Associate Director, Andy Kolovos. “Bringing comics directly into our ethnographic work opens up exciting new ways to share the experience of everyday life.”
VFC began exploring cartooning as a medium for documentary research several years ago through their partnership in El viaje mas caro/Most Costly Journey, a graphic medicine project initiated by Middlebury’s Open Door Clinic. El viaje mas caro created Spanish/English comic books from the personal stories of Latin American migrant workers on Vermont dairy farms with the goal of generating engaging, approachable health and wellness outreach tools. Along with other project partners, including UVM anthropologist Teresa Mares and New Hampshire cartoonist Marek Bennett, VFC helped root the project in the methods and ethics of anthropological and folkloristic ethnographic research.
The Vermont Cartooning and Culture Project is a next step in creating Vermont-based, ethnographically framed, documentary comics. “Our goal is to bring to the comics form the same collaborative ethics and methods we use when creating audio or video documentaries,” said Kolovos.
The project consists of two parts, one focused on the Vermont Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program and one that uses comics to bring to life stories from the VFC Archive.
Cartoonist Iona Fox will use comics to document participants in the Vermont Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. Fox will produce four installments of her Almanac comic that explore traditional music in Vermont from Franco-American, Somali-Bantu and Tibetan communities. Each comic will be published in Seven Days. “Working ethnographically brings with it a deeper and more intimate kind of collaborative engagement than journalism,” said Fox, “and reaches more widely into a community than do traditional slice-of-life comics.”
VFC will also work with cartoonists Marek Bennett (“Civil War Diary of Freeman Colby”), Joel Christian Gill (“Fast Enough: Bessie Stringfield’s First Ride”), Robyn Smith (“The Saddest, Angriest Black Girl in Town”) and Ezra Veitch (“The Chronicles of Templar”) to tell Daisy Turner’s personal and family stories.
Turner, who died in 1988 at 104 years old, was the daughter of the formerly-enslaved Alec and Sally Turner, who settled on a hilltop farm in Grafton, Vermont in the years following the Civil War. VFC founder Jane Beck interviewed Daisy extensively in the 1980s, creating an archive of over 80 hours of audio interviews as well as the Peabody Award winning audio documentary, “Journey’s End: The Memories and Traditions of Daisy Turner and Her Family” and the video, “On Her Own: The Traditions of Daisy Turner.”
Bennett, Gill, Smith and Veitch will work with audio, text and photographs from the Folklife Center Archive to create a collection of comics drawn from Daisy’s stories. The resulting graphic histories, tentatively titled “Turner Family Stories,” will be distributed free to public libraries in Vermont with the assistance of the Vermont Department of Libraries.

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