Wednesday, December 25, 2019

31 Days Of CCS #25: Sandy Steen Bartholomew

Sandy Steen Bartholomew is an example of a talented, established illustrator who decides to attend CCS a little later in life. She also attended SVA and RISD, but CCS is a place you go to learn how to become a storyteller. Much of her work at CCS, including her thesis, was autobiographical. Her mix of having a sunny disposition while dealing with a complicated life and depression make for some interesting comics, as does her formal approach.

We Will Never Leave You!! is a great example of how Bartholomew works cute no matter what. This is a mini that starts with her opening up her head and letting her various, cutely-drawn demons out, as she deals with them, one-by-one. After talking to OCD (who was labeling everyone and everything), she turned to Anxiety, who melted into a puddle. Creativity and Imagination came out to play, but Divorce nearly suffocated her. There's an interesting note about her young daughter running to find Hope, Heart, and Happiness. There's a lot of tonal dissonance in Bartholomew's work, as she's willing to spill some ink and get raw & personal, but there's a surface smoothness to her line that keeps things a bit restrained.

Bartholomew is an illustrator and specializes in kids' books. Ready, Set Gorilla!, written by Melissa Stoller, plays to her strengths with regard to character design and color. Her use of colored pencils, in particular, not only adds levels of detail to the characters, but it also adds depth and weight to the pages. Negative space is used with greater intentionality as a result of color being there to soak up eyeball space on the wide-open pages. The Fright Before Christmas demonstrated her pure skill as an illustrator, with her cross-hatching, in particular, providing a dense atmosphere in this story that mixes Christmas and Halloween imagery. It's cuter than laugh-out-loud funny, which describes much of her work.

Bartholomew's most ambitious work is the expanded version of her thesis, Quo Vadis: Where Are You Going? That title is a clever play on words, as Bartholomew used an academic planner to do her daily diary strips. That meant most strips for most days were a panel or two at most, so there was some vagueness with some of her bad days. For this updated version, she added "intermissions" which spelled out some of the more emotionally tumultuous incidents in her life. That added a lot of depth and intimate detail to her day-to-day feelings. The other title for her thesis was Begin Again, and that's reflected in this being very much a post-divorce journal, even if it had ended several years prior.  Bartholomew offers few details as to why her marriage ended, but her ex's role in her life, especially with a young kid, is clearly a thorny point of contention. There's a lot of unprocessed grief evident here.

Like all good diary comics, Bartholomew throws the reader into her narrative in media res. This approach was doubly chaotic for the reader because of the unsettled and chaotic nature of her own life. She was splitting time between her house in New Hampshire and her apartment in White River Junction. She had a shop that she had closed and was trying to figure out what to do with. She was beginning her final year at CCS. She was doing graphic medicine freelance work. On top of all that, she had a tempestuous relationship with a guy she called "the Fireman." She had to figure out ways to make money, take care of her elderly mother, and maintain a relationship with her college-age son.

It was disappointing that I didn't get more of a sense of what being a student at CCS was like, although to be fair the second year is thesis time, where more of the work that's being done is independent. That said, hardly any of her fellow students made much more than a cameo, which I thought was an odd choice. It may well speak to her actual interaction, as an older and more established person with a family who spent a lot of time out of town. I also didn't get a sense of what the student-mentor relationship was like either, and that is a key piece of the senior experience.

On the other hand, Bartholomew's one or two-panel approach was perfect for cute bon mots, funny drawings, and the rollercoaster of emotions she felt with her boyfriend. In the end, that's what the journal's rawest, most authentic moments of vulnerability detailed the best. There were a lot of highs that were given a lot of exposure as well as a lot of lows where one got the sense that the relationship was always going to be on borrowed time. Bartholomew only hints and tiptoes at a lot of the dysfunction, preferring to dwell on the positive most of the time. However, when the bottom fell out, it really fell out, and those days feel like scorched earth. Her pleasant, cartoony character design still worked for this kind of story, as on good days, the Fireman had flames emanating from his head and on chilly days his head would be encased in ice. I don't think Bartholomew deliberately holds back as much as that her point of view is naturally upbeat and sunny, even on hard days. The result is a consistently entertaining if not always revelatory account of the life of an artist, single mother, and hustling businesswoman.

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