An Interview with Jason LeClair, Artist Extraordinaire, RISD Instructor
In yesterday’s NK Blog, I wrote about my son Griffin’s incredible experience at RISD’s Young Artist Program. Griffin has learned advanced techniques, theory, and skills which will further his drawing and cartooning. His instructor, once a teenage cartoonist, now the instructor is Jason LeClair. I recently caught up with Jason on cartooning, the program, and art. Here is an excerpt from our conversation. And click on the links in this article to see some of Jason’s amazing work!!!
My son Griffin is one week from completing the Comic Art program at RISD. He has thoroughly enjoyed his experience with you as his instructor, so thank you. How did you get associated with this program? Are you affiliated somehow with RISD (alumni, faculty, student)?
As a teenager, I took Cartooning at RISD in the same building in which I teach it. I started by working in the Pre-College Program through the Continuing Education department and teach Critical Studies (Art Theory and History). From there, the folks at Young Artists saw my work and asked if I would teach a class in Steampunk Fabrication. I was more than happy to join the team. As time progressed, I was honored by my colleagues at the Beacon Charter High School for the Arts to be awarded 2014 Teacher of the year which is where I met Cathy Davis-Hayes who does programming for YA (Young Artists Program). She offered me more classes and now I teach almost every session.
With music, timing is everything. What is that special “something” with art?
Visual Communication. We are able to transcend language and have a fuller conversation with the addition of a visual medium. As with music or theatre, listening to it is amazing, but there is nothing like being present at a show. We drink in the signs and signals, symbols and sights and read them like a novel. The portion of visual art that most appeals to me is its ability to have an entire conversation with someone without ever saying a thing. That is to say, every person approaches every work of art with her/his own idea of communication and emotion. They “read” the work in their own manner giving a life to it that the artist may have never intended, but is very present in the reality of that viewer. We are able to get beyond words and speak to each other across eons and cultures with visual art.
Do art instruction type classes fall into the pass/fail scenario or is there no such as a thing as a failed art piece?
I tell my students that the only true failure is giving up. Art is a process and many young artists work on their art thinking that the first pencil stroke must be perfect or they have failed. I remind them that the way we work is to proceed after making mistakes by reflecting upon what did not work and then pursue what did. The visual arts process has this creative problem solving inherently built in. There are many sketch phases, research, drafts and other processes that we employ to achieve the final work. With a young artist, most of them see the end product in the media they look at and do not see the process by which it was made. The best thing to do is to watch pencil tests of animations and see the lively strokes of the artist and the “mistakes” come to life. It is something that I think most students can relate to, seeing what they consider perfect in a form that is far from it.
In terms of this class, what is the overall objective of the program? What are some of the short term goals you would like to see the students achieve?
The objective of Comic Art is to encourage students to explore the realm of visual communication through sequential art. The exploration of that is the overarching drive for the course. It teaches valuable 21st century skills needed for college and the workplace such as communication, creative problem solving, and collaboration in that the students critique and comment on each other’s work during the process to help each other improve. That portion is absolutely vital. Allowing them to look, comment and help each other to create a work that communicates their ideas adds a dimension to something that for most of these students is a very isolating, introverted process.
From newspapers to comic books and now film, what do you think is so captivating about comic book heroes, villains, and characters?
Oh, this is a big one. Well, first, let me say that we have always had these things in human culture. We called the myths citing gods and goddesses that reigned over the heavens and earth having battles and mighty epic adventures. Thor himself made it into the Marvel Pantheon as well as the Nordic. So we have always looked to stories to explain what we could not. At this point in history we are not explaining things like thunder and lightning, but rather the human condition (Dilbert, Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes), and our relationship to science/ technology and whether it changes us or not (X-Men, Fantastic Four, Hulk, Spider-Man, and many more Marvel characters). We also look at the potential for human growth through tragedy (Batman, The Crow, Luke Cage, Daredevil). But we are still questioning and trying to achieve an understanding of our place in the universe (Superman, Sandman, Deathnote). These characters allow us to explore our feelings and our questions through myth and story. They allow for flaws that we are otherwise reticent to share to be brought out front and center and create some empathy.
In terms of Marvel or Hasbro or other production companies, do comic book characters still start on the drawing board or is everything computer generated at this point?
It all starts by hand. Even the computer processes need a physical model to film and a concept artist to work throw down the idea. Whether it is on paper with pencil, or on a tablet with a stylus, we still work by hand when putting together these visuals. The common misconception is that it is computer “generated.” It is more computer assisted. In order for the math within the programs to work, a human has to feed the creative concept and visual understanding into the matrix. There is still a person needed to make a character relate to another human with expression and again, empathy.
Who are your influences? Specifically in the art world.
My biggest influences are Brian Froud, Bill Watterson, Art Spiegelman, Rene Magritte, and Michelangelo Merici da Caravaggio. I have a laundry list of other artists that influence my work, but those are the top. Shaun tan, Alison Bechdel, Scott McCloud, and others in the graphic novel work are currently who I am studying and reading.
How has the class taken to your instruction?
They are wonderful! All of the students are really bringing their own vision of what makes a good story into the classroom. It is great to see the willingness to try new materials, experiment with layout and grasp the finer points of the technical aspects of the medium. Their work is wonderful and varied without trying to compete with each other, but support the visions of everyone. Its great to see an understanding that there is no good, or bad, just different. They are getting it, and the stories are very individualized.
How can potentials learn more about RISD’s Young Artist Program?
There are several ways online. You can follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat @risdyoungartists. Also, you can call the RISD CE office at 401-454-6200 and request a course catalog.
What is next for these artists? Is there a Phase II of the Comic Art Class?
Good question. There is a Heroes and Villains character class where concepts of characters are more deeply considered. As far as Phase II for this class, we haven’t put that together formally, but it sounds like a great suggestion! Really the best thing for the students to do is stay in constant practice and draw the world around them. The more realistic things they develop, the richer and more relatable their stories. So I would say have them take still life, landscape, figure drawing, etc. all basic skills to develop their visual voice more.
How about yourself? Where can students, art enthusiasts, parents see your work?
As for me, I work full time as a theatre teacher at the Beacon Charter High School for the Arts in Woonsocket. We have an award-winning troupe of thespians that are currently working on bringing comics to life through The Addams Family Musical going up Jan 19 – 22 at the RISE Playhouse. Tickets available at beacon.booktix.com. I am an illustrator and scenic designer with much of my work on Facebook at “The Art of Jason Robert LeClair” as well as “Jason Robert LeClair Theatrical Design”. My website is www.harshrealityltd.com. I am currently working on a graphic novel which is a new story unrelated to my novel Broken Silences released in 2011.
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