For Evan Keeling, comics are more than a humorous pastime or even an artistic medium. The comic maker views his craft as a conduit for expression that is accessible enough to help those just finding their voice to tell their stories.
This perspective is what Keeling hopes to share with visitors through his installation at the By the People Festival, a new gathering for arts and dialogue that the DC incubator Halcyon, in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution, will be putting on this month. The festival aims to bring together artists, performers and speakers to promote empathy and foster important conversations about the nation’s founding principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This year's inaugural festival features more than 40 speakers, performers and artists throughout different Washington, D.C. neighborhoods. The Smithsonian's Art & Industries building serves as the festival's headquarters. There, a number of immersive and interactive art installations will be on view including Jenny Sabin's Lux and Maya Freelon's Reciprocity Respite & Repass among several others; a series of swift "Picnic Talks," sponsored by the Smithsonian Associates, will feature scientists, artists and experts challenged to speak on unexpected topics; and a host of workshops will instruct on meditation and relaxation, guided art making and creative writing instruction.
The festival's overarching goal fits perfectly with Keeling’s mission of teaching the community that art—especially through comics—can be a worthwhile expressive endeavor for anyone.
“My hope, on some level, is trying to expose youth and adults to different ways of expressing information and showing that there are these different ways,” says Keeling. He says that unlike other forms of conceptual, metaphorical art that can intimidate novice artists, comics are easy, direct and accessible—perfect for beginning artistic education. “I like thinking about things in linear progressive boxes, and that’s what’s drawn me to comics: that sort of telling a story and showing that here-to-there aspect,” he adds.
“A native Washingtonian who grew up a stone’s throw from the Smithsonian museums and studied at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, Evan is a great addition to our line-up,” says Kate Goodall, the chief executive officer of Halcyon. “He’ll use his talents to encourage visitors of all ages to create their own interpretations of the festival themes of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Among many other projects, Keeling works as an in-house comic artist at the Smithsonian. The position is a bit unorthodox for a museum and research complex, to be sure, but Keeling says he has found lots of inspiration for his artwork in the Smithsonian’s work. Though he claims to be able to “find the story in anything,” he has lately focused his artwork on telling historical and educational stories. His most recent comic creations range in subject matter from Japanese internment during World War II in a collaboration with the National Museum of American History, Sonia Sotomayor and Thomas Jefferson with the National Portrait Gallery and artists’ vision of the future for an exhibition created by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
At the By the People Festival, Keeling will share not only his own artwork in a “roadshow briefcase,” but also speak to the medium of comics as a means of universal self-expression. Keeling says he will be teaching visitors the techniques he uses in hands-on workshops. “The work I do with the workshops is based around the idea that anybody can use this technique,” he says.
He explains that his love for comics stems from their accessibility as a storytelling device even for novice artists, given their leniency with imperfection. “Comics aren’t necessarily about drawing the perfectly accurate representation of a person; it’s about iconography and storytelling,” he says. “For example, if you want to draw a comic about Abraham Lincoln, you can draw a stick figure, put a beard and a hat on him, and then as long as you draw him consistently throughout your comic, everybody knows that’s Abraham Lincoln.”
One technique that Keeling hopes to impart on visitors to his exhibit is what he does before his pen even hits the paper. Visitors will get practice with the technique Keeling has honed for folding paper into a miniature comic book, which he says is easy to do and conducive to creating narrative flow. “You can find a piece of paper from the printer, or something you find on the floor, or anything and make a little book out of it,” says Keeling.
Even if visitors to Keeling’s workshop at By the People do not have enough time to create an entire comic, Keeling hopes they’ll walk away from the installation with at least the first and last frames drawn. This strategy of drawing the starting and ending points of a comic, Keeling says, is essential to the process of establishing a storyline, even if these budding artists don’t quite know yet what will go in between. “Comics are a point A to point B type medium—so using techniques where we draw the first frame and the last frame is a way to bridge that gap and utilize the limited space you have to tell the story,” he says.
Keeling has developed his perspective on how best to teach comic art through his extensive experience working in youth education. Most recently, he has done workshops with first generation Latino youth in which he encouraged them to put their personal stories down on paper in the form of comics. He says that though many of his students did not consider themselves artistic before his workshop, the experience was a valuable opportunity for self-expression.
“I’ve found a lot of enjoyment from talking to the students about how you can tell your story in this different manner that can be engaging in other people in a different way than reading an essay or a book could,” Keeling says. He adds that the unique expressive experience is particularly important for youth coming from marginalized social groups who may feel that their stories are left out of popular discourse. “They can use these techniques to tell their story, especially if they don’t feel like someone would want to tell their story,” he says.
Working with youth has also helped Keeling come up with specific tools that he thinks will be useful for future educators wanting to use comics to help their students express themselves. For example, Keeling developed in collaboration with his students a specialized blank comic template that he has found helps beginners “jump in” to the creative process. He also has developed a teaching document so that even educators without artistic training could hold an educational comic workshop.
Keeling’s efforts to democratize artwork as an expressive craft fit well with the aim of the By the People festival, and Goodall says that his extensive experience working with youth will help spread the festival’s message to the next generation. “We are especially interested in seeing how the younger generation interprets our country’s founding principles,” she says. “They are, after all, our future.”
Halcyon's "By the People Festival" takes place June 21 - 24, 2018, at five official sites and numerous satellite locations throughout Washington, D.C. Keeling's comic workshop for all ages will take place June 23 and 24 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Smithsonian's Arts & Industries Building, which serves as festival headquarters. A list of more than 100 art installations, performances and talks, and to register for a free four-day pass, can be found here.