Homer Alaska - Arts

Story last updated at 12:00 PM on Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Jim Woodring Cartoonist carries his studio in a pocket

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Cartoonist Jim Woodring sketches at Bunnell Street Arts Center on Monday in front of his large drawing of his character Frank. He used the large pen nib, left, to ink the drawing.

At a table in Bunnell Street Arts Center sits Jim Woodring. Through March 25, he's making Bunnell his studio. With sketchbook, pencil and pen, Woodring works on a collection of drawings titled "Homer."

Sit down before him, and he might draw you. Hang with him, and he'll talk about art and cartooning. Walk around town on a nice day, and you can join him on an sketch tour, looking for cool things to draw. Bunnell even has sketchbooks and pens for sale.

That's the idea of Woodring's second artist-in-residency at Bunnell, and the latest of the arts center's series that brings artists to Homer for brief stays.

Not that Woodring needs four walls, a roof, a table and a chair to make a studio. He carries one in his pocket.

His "Homer" work goes in the big sketchbook, but the thousands of thoughts, jottings and strange visions? Woodring puts them in a 3.5-by-5.5-inch Moleskine sketchbook, one sketch to a page.

"If you have a pencil and pen and one of these sketchbooks, you have a studio," Woodring said. "A studio you can put in your pocket."

At Bunnell, Woodring sits before a bed sheet size sketch of his recurring character, Frank, a synthesis of every anthropomorphic creature ever drawn. On the wall is his giant pen nib, a working pen he helped fabricate.

Woodring also shows "Problematic," hundreds of small sketches that have been blown up to about 8-by-11-inch prints. Selected from four years of work, some sketches depict incidents from reality, from the normal to the strange. There's a trio of sunbathers, for example, and then an armless man horribly scarred in a game of dynamite roulette. "He won," Woodring notes on the sketch.

Those realistic sketches are one aspect of the art. Woodring mentions Jacques-Louis David's "Marie Antoinette Led to Her Execution," a classic sketch David did as he watched the queen go by.

"It's kind of like a handmade photo," Woodring said. "He saw it. He drew it."

Other of Woodring's sketches come from another land, and a mighty strange land that is indeed. You see whales with eyes instead of barnacles, humanoids with animal heads and bizarre mechanical devices. That's the essence of cartooning, Woodring said.

"Cartooning is really just a way of drawing ideas and not what's in front of you," he said.

Raised in Burbank, Calif., Woodring, 59, never went to fine arts school. He taught himself through constant, continual practice. On his artist's statements he never talks about the process, he said.

"I talk about what it means to me and what I try to do," Woodring said.

At his slide talk last Friday, "Please Stand By," he discussed his influences and his development as a cartoonist. As a teenager, he drew a character, Inkhand, from whose hand flowed beautiful work. He wanted to be Inkhand and was frustrated at his ineptitude.

An epiphany of sorts came with his frog image, a vision that appeared to him in "a beautiful hallucination." He drew that vision compulsively.

"Is it a spirit guide or totem animal?" he said at his talk. "I don't know."

Influences include R. Crumb, creator of Mr. Natural, the 1960s artist Woodring said set the tone of cartooning as art; George Herriman, creator of Krazy Kat; and Boris Artzybasheff, the Time and Life illustrator whose work borders on the surreal.

Woodring first started publishing with his comic, "Jim," published by Fantagraphic Books. Semi-autobiographical, "Jim" later was collected in "Book of Jim." His character Frank appears in "The Frank Book" and the "Book of Frank," and his recent "Congress of Animals," portions of which were drawn during Woodring's first residency at Bunnell in March 2010.

Frank lives in the world of the Unifactor. It's a "closed system of moral algebra into which Frank was born, is in control of everything that happens to the characters that abide there, and that however extreme the experiences they undergo may be, in the end, nothing really changes," as Woodring describes it in the cover copy of "Congress of Animals."

The sketches from "Problematic" offer not just a glimpse into Woodring's fantastic worlds, but some hints at his process. He hasn't erased the pencil lines underneath his later inking, so the outline of how he started his sketches can be seen. Woodring likes working in that small scale with one dominant image per page, he said.

There's another process going on, too: how Woodring gets his ideas.

"That's a question everybody likes to ponder and nobody knows," he said.

One guess? "If you ever need an idea, it's like fishing," Woodring said. "You go out and get one somehow."

Sometimes, all Woodring has to do is look at those sketchbooks and the images on Bunnell's walls.

"There's a lot of what may not look like much, but there are ideas in all these things," he said. "A lot of them have ideas that are significant to me in inspiration and source — they're idea batteries."

Fantagraphic Press will publish the "Problematic" sketches, including some pop-up drawings, in a future book.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.