June! July!

Sun 7/19/2020

Well, I was so busy with work that I missed my June update, so here is a twofer.

For the last three months I have been overhauling my Introduction to Hand-Drawn Animation summer workshop for CCS, so that the entire curriculum could be brought online. It was a lot of work because when I teach the class in person, my approach is to animate on paper with pencil, using as little software as possible. This year was a 180 of that -- using RoughAnimator for all of the assignments and the (amazing!) SyncSketch.com platform for all of the lectures and critiques. This meant updating every single handout, creating a few new ones, and converting hundreds of lecture slides into video files. It was a lot of work, but in the end it felt worth it!

I taught the course last week to 12 students in VT, CT, VA, LA, NH, DC, TX, AR, NC, the UK, and Denmark! It all ran pretty smoothly and it was very inspiring to see how much everyone improved over the course of the week. Big thanks to my teaching assistant Ivy Allie (an up and coming CCS senior!) and my wife Claire, who provided childcare for our daughters that entire week, which allowed me to teach.

In June I finished my fourth Isle of Elsi storyline, which was 106 pages. I then put the webcomic on hiatus while I worked on writing the fifth story. It's gone through two drafts and I'm in the process of collecting feedback for a third draft. I will begin posting pages again as soon as possible - hopefully before the end of this accursed summer.

In the meantime, I've finally starting working on Phase 7 #024! I reinstated my "progress bar" over on the Phase Seven Comics website. Currently I'm very slightly more than halfway done, with a goal of putting it out by the end of the year. We'll see if I can make that happen... there is A LOT going on right now!

Ever since the pandemic began I've been doing a lot of extra administrative work for CCS - first helping them figure out how to bring their program online at the end of last year, then helping to get all the summer workshops online, and now planning for the fall. Like everyone, we're doing the best we can with massive amounts of uncertainty. It has certainly been very stressful watching the pandemic continue to get worse and worse in the USA, with no end in sight.

Claire and I are making every effort to stay at home as much as possible. We're doing one grocery store trip per week (wearing masks, OBVIOUSLY), and trying to order other essentials (diapers, pet food, etc) online. The only two ways we have "loosened up" our quarantine are: 1) creating a "double bubble" with Claire's Mom and Step-Dad. This allows them to watch Suzanne and Wendy twice a week which has been an absolute lifesaver for us in terms of our mental health and my ability to catch up on work. 2) When the Santa Fe Public Library began doing curbside pickup Claire reserved a ton of books and has tied this to our bi-weekly trip to check our P.O. Box which is just down the street.

We got a lot of great picture books by BIPOC creators that we have been reading with the girls. Favorites in this batch included:

On the antiracism reading/education front, since my last post, I read They Called Us Enemy by George Takei (et al) and Citizen 13660 by Miné Okubo both first-person accounts about being forced to live in American concentration camps during World War II. I got these books through The Nib's Book of the Month service which is definitely worth checking out. I also began listening to an unabridged audiobook of Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi. The more I learn about the long history of racism in Western culture and specifically in America, the more I realize how little things have changed, and how much work we all still have to do.

More books are already on order from Big Adventure Comics and Bee Hive Books. I'll keep posting recommendations as I keep reading and learning.

Suzanne outgrew her balance bike a while back so we ordered her a new "real" bike (with pedals, a handbrake and a kickstand) back in April. I guess a lot of people are biking more during the pandemic, as one of the few safe ways to exercise right now, so it was super backordered, but finally arrived at the very end of June. She's still figuring it out, but it has been nice to have another excuse to get outside. It has been a very hot summer in Santa Fe, so we have to really try and get outside in the morning before it's no longer fun to be outside.

I went through all my photos from the last month and could only find these few where the girls were actually wearing clothes. It has been a "diaper only summer" for Wendy. She's really starting to talk these days, picking up new words all the time, and recently began sitting on the potty (with her diaper still on) while Suzanne is using the bathroom. There's still a long road ahead of her on that front, but it's the light at the end of the tunnel for Claire and me, after four and a half years of changing diapers. She loves getting dressed up ("Fancy!") and then spinning in a circle ("Dancing!"). She is at an incredibly cute age right now, and seems to be very happy at home with us and her big sister whom she loves to follow around.

Suzanne has been climbing the walls a bit during all this. Claire and I have been trying to institute theme weeks (Under Water, Jungle, Robot, Dinosaur, etc.) which has lead to a lot of focused art-making. Suzanne really loves hanging up her new art in her room, the walls of which are now covered in drawings, posters, collages, stickers, etc. I also broke out a huge box of my old legos which she has been very engaged with lately (which has also been very fun for me). Some days are harder than others, but Claire and I are getting better at figuring out different ways to identify what is upsetting her and how to help her get through the rough spots. Both girls are sleeping pretty well these days, which makes everything easier.

This week Suzanne's preschool is having a meeting to try and gauge peoples' interest in sending kids back to school. Although it would be great for Suzanne to get that socialization, the risk - no matter how small its probabilty - to her (and us) and her teachers hardly feels worth it. The beginning of this school year across America is going to be a turning point, and I've got a bad feeling we're only at the beginning stages of this mess....

Hang in there, everyone and stay safe! Wear your mask. Stay home as much as possible. Hopefully we can get things heading in the right direction again eventually.


Thu 6/11/2020

My goal with these monthly updates was to spend less time on social media and to do more writing this year. I was about halfway through May and had the thought, "Ugh, what am I going to write about this month?" Things here are very much the same as they were in my March and April updates: We are still on pandemic lockdown, my work for CCS is still very intense as we try to get all of the summer workshops online, Claire's work slowed down so she is taking on more childcare duties (which allows me to keep up with my increased day job responsibilities), my daughters are climbing the walls a bit, but hanging in there. With a complete lack of leadership at the national level, it seemed to me that not much else would change for the rest of the summer, and perhaps the fall (...and beyond).

Then, on May 25th, George Floyd was brutally murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis. Hundreds of years of racism and murder and police brutality against black people in this country, compounded by everyone being cooped up for months because of the pandemic (which negatively effects people of color to a far greater degree than white people), finally reached a boiling point which lead to demonstrations and protests in more than 75 cities around the USA (and world).

I am furious that black people continue to be murdered by the police with little or no repercussions for the officers involved, or the racist systems that fund them. Like many white people right now, I'm figuring out ways to turn this anger into direct action, and to commit myself to the lifelong process of being antiracist.

Black friends, I'm trying to be a better ally. I'm ashamed when I think back on specific moments (growing up, in college, in art school) where either I was being racist, or someone else was, and I did not stop and try to correct the situation. I let you down and I'm sorry, and I vow to do better moving forward.

White friends, below are the steps I've taken so far and the areas of my life where I believe I can actively work to break the racist patterns that I have lived in and benefitted from my entire life. Hopefully you are taking similar steps. If not, perhaps some of this will help you think about ways you can get involved.

1) Show Monetary Support
When Trump was elected Claire and I sat down and looked at our budget. We cut back on unnecessary expenses and used those freed up funds to make reoccurring monthly donations to the NAACP, the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, which we have continued ever since. I have now added Black Lives Matter to that list. I will continue to raise these donation amounts whenever it is financially possible for me to do so.

2) Educate Myself
I'm trying to learn more about my own inherent racism and how to be actively anti-racist by reading (and/or listening to) books written on this topic. Back in April, my sister Courtney had a book group where we read So You Want to Talk About Race? by Ijeoma Oluo and then had a discussion about it afterwards. This week I finished White Fragility by Robin Diangelo. Up next is Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi. Each of these books is helping me understand the racist history of our country, what I've been doing wrong, and what I need to start doing moving forward. There are a ton of anti-racist books lists out there. Pick one and jump in!

I'm also trying to read more books and comics by people of color in general! And following more black creators on social media, etc!

3) Educate My Children
I do not remember ever having an open conversation about race with my parents. I'm watching videos, reading articles, and discussing with Claire how we will have those ongoing conversations with our daughters (currently 2 and 4). For starters we are taking a close look at the media they are being exposed to on a daily basis.

A year or so ago I was very embarrassed when, in a podcast I recorded I asked my daughter what was her favorite song on a compilation VHS tape of Disney musical numbers which she had just watched, and she responded "Zipp-a-dee-doo-dah." Nobody said anything to me, but just the same I felt a deep shame. Afterwards I thought, "Why is this #$%&ing tape even in my house? Why am I letting my kid watch this??!" (and like, why is there a giant Song of the South rollercoaster that opened at Disneyland in 1989 and that is still in operation today???)

Anyway, Claire and I went through all our kids VHS tapes (mostly Disney movies from my childhood) and removed the ones with racist depictions of people of color, including: Dumbo, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, and a bunch of Sing-A-Long tapes, which included scenes from The Aristocats, and other offensive stuff. This process also changed how I see other animated films that are racist through their exclusion of people of color. Films like Tangled or Klaus which are 100% white, not just in all the main characters, but also all supporting characters, all background characters. What does this tell your kids, when people of color are simply excluded from a story? We also sought out Disney movies like The Princess and the Frog and Moana, in which most of the characters are people of color.

We have a bunch of diverse picture books in the house by authors who are people of color, and/or that feature children of color, but we definitely still need more. When the girls are learning about something new (for example, potty training), we get a bunch of books on that topic, and we make sure that every story time includes at least one book on that topic. Claire and I decided that from now on every story time will include at least one book with diverse characters, so that our daughters are seeing and empathizing with people of color through the power of storytelling every day. We have yet to navigate the Santa Fe Public Library's curbside pickup system, but I'm saving some of the great diverse children's book lists that are going around right now, and I'm excited to load up on a bunch of books next time we're there.

4) Leverage my Positions of Privilege
I work in higher education, at an art school (The Center for Cartoon Studies), spaces that are predominantly white. The CCS board of directors met and released this statement, committing to being an actively anti-racist institution. I'm currently in a lot of meetings with administrators, faculty and students at the school, and we are talking at all levels about how to change our curriculum and practices to better support cartoonists of color at our school and in the the comics community at large.

5) Continue Diversifying My Comics
Last week one of my previous CCS students, Josh Kramer, posted a link to a 2015 blog post I wrote about diversity in Isle of Elsi, which I had not yet launched as a webcomic at that point. Re-reading it, I see my early efforts in making my comics more diverse. (The post includes a link to a free Photoshop color palette of skin tones which cartoonists can use to add more people of color to their comics). I still have so much work to do in my comics to make sure all readers feel represented, especially in Isle of Elsi, which is for kids.

6) Make Mistakes, Learn From Them
As you can see above, I've made plenty of mistakes in my life, and will sadly continue to do so. (I'm probably doing this wrong right now!). These conversations are uncomfortable, so I'm trying to get better at being present in that discomfort, listening to feedback and trying to improve. Hopefully together we can all tear this racist system apart, one interaction at a time!


Sun 5/3/2020

April was the height of the Coronavirus Pandemic out here in Santa Fe (and throughout much of the USA, and the world), which made it a very stressful month in a variety of ways.

One of the first stressful things to happen was our chicken Penny went up into the coop and stayed there for about two days. This was similar to what Camilla did last month, right before she died, so I was very worried that we would lose Penny too. I also just began to despair that I was doing something very wrong in the way that I was caring for my chickens.

It turns out that Penny had simply gone "broody" which is when a chicken's hormones kick in, telling her to hatch a clutch of eggs. This behavior has been bred out of many types of chickens, but I guess it is still quite common in Black Australorps. Since we don't have a rooster (you're welcome, neighbors!) her eggs will never hatch, so every day we took them away and pushed her out of the coop. She would walk around the run for a few minutes, puffed up like crazy (trying to look intimidating, to protect her imaginary chicks), repeating this unusual cluck. Then she'd eat a bit, drink a little water and then go straight back up to sit in the coop.

It was like a tiny chicken-version of what we've all been going through -- cooped up in the house going crazy.

Anyway, this behavior lasted three weeks, during which Penny did not lay any eggs (she sat on Henny's eggs whenever there was a new one). Finally her hormones chilled out, she starting laying again and is now back to normal. Claire suggested we get a chicken book, which we did, to avoid any future stress of not knowing what's going on. The good news from all this is that someday if Penny goes broody again we could get some fertilized eggs and Penny could hatch them for us, without the need of any incubators or anything!

The next stressful thing that happened in April, was that CCS made the hard decision to bring all of its summer workshops entirely online (including my Introduction to Hand-Drawn Animation workshop). Given the uncertainty about how the pandemic restrictions will eventually be lifted, this was the only way to ensure the workshops would definitely happen.

We (the CCS administration, staff and faculty) were already swamped trying to get through the last few weeks of the spring semester (also online), so having to come up with a new plan for online summer workshops and roll it out very quickly was incredibly overwhelming. In my 15 years working for CCS in various capacities, this was easily the most stressful month I've ever experienced. Our team is working so hard to keep this tiny school going, no matter what the circumstances. It's an honor to play my small part in that effort.

At one point, I gave a lecture to the CCS seniors and during Q&A one of the students asked me what I was doing to help myself get through the pandemic. I gave a lame "keep my head down; draw comics every day" answer, but afterwards I thought, "What could I do to help myself get through this situation?" The answer I came up with is animation!

This month I started animating every Friday night after the girls go to sleep (2-4 hours, depending on how late I'm willing to stay up). It's been great, because animating is so complicated that while I'm doing it, I'm unable to focus on anything else. It's also super fun for me, and it's a great excuse to try out new techniques from the various animation books I have been reading, or to experiment with various kinds of animation software and hardware.

This lead me to create a new instagram account ( @AlecAnimation ) where I am posting some of my old animations, recommended resources (books, podcasts, etc), and my weekly progress on current projects. It has been a fun distraction, leaning into this hobby which I enjoy so much. It's also helping me prepare for my workshop in July!

Claire was very busy in April too, working on toy concepts for Meow Wolf, and providing extra childcare watching our girls while I've been sitting in a thousand different meetings. In her very limited spare time she has been cooking lots of different soups from scratch, as well as the pizza you see here! She's also been digging in the backyard, planting vegetables in her new raised bed and flowers all over our property. We've already had a few hot days, so some of the flowers have already bloomed and then wilted away, but here are some photos of them at their best:

For the most part, our girls have been great, grinding out the days playing in the backyard, reading books, drawing, painting, watching old VHS tapes, video chatting with friends and family, building with legos and blocks, playing dress up, etc. etc. etc.

Wendy seems blissfully unaware of the current situation - we are all home with her as we usually are, so she seems the most unaffected. As April wore on however, Suzanne began having a harder and harder time being cooped up at home. She doesn't really engage with the Zoom sessions her preschool is hosting so we've mostly stopped doing that. There is just a general feeling of her going stir-crazy, climbing the walls. She's been getting upset more frequently and more intensely over small things. Who can blame her? She should be at school running around with other kids her age, not trying to play make believe with her parents (we do our best, but never quite measure up) or fighting with her little sister over some random toy. Without a clear plan of when/how the current measures will be lifted, it's hard to know when things will mellow back out for her.

There was other stress on top of all this (being far away from my parents, whom I am worried about) but I'm certain if you added up all my stress from every day in April it was probably still less than millions of people experienced in one of those days. I'm very much looking forward to this all being over. I wish we had better leadership at the top.

Well that's all I've got for this month. Hang in there, everyone! Stay safe.

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