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Town Sees Its Revival in Art

School for Cartoonists Is Key to Vermont Community's Plans

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page A03

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, Vt. -- The changing face of this gritty hamlet appears in the form of a glossy poster mounted under a tattered green awning in the Main Street window of the Colodny's Surprise Department Store, which closed more than a decade ago.

Pen-and-ink illustrations of a woman smoking a cigarette, a baby with a sailor's hat and a menacing-looking robot adorn the advertisement for the future home of the Center for Cartoon Studies. "All Types Welcome," it reads. "Opening Fall 2005."

White River Junction, Vt., an economically depressed former railroad hub, is being recast as an enclave for artists. (Jonathan Finer -- The Washington Post)

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"No one has ever tried anything quite like this," said James Sturm, the school's founder and a cartoonist who has taught and practiced his craft from Seattle to Savannah, Ga. "There are some programs within larger art schools or places where they train you to get work at Marvel or D.C. Comics. But I envision this as more of an art school than a trade school, a place where cartoonists can be intimate with the creative process."

At first glance, it would be hard to imagine a less likely home for what Sturm said will be one of just two academic institutions in the country devoted solely to cartooning. (The other is the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, founded in 1976 in Dover, N.J.) The heyday of White River Junction came and went almost a century ago. The downtown of brick storefronts once bustled as about 50 passenger trains a day rumbled through what was the busiest New England train station north of Boston.

"Then, after World War II, the interstate highway came along," said Gayle Ottmann, executive director of the local chamber of commerce. "And just like that, people didn't have much reason to come here anymore."

Like many New England towns, White River Junction, with a population of about 2,500, over the past century, found itself the victim of changing economic forces.

"We're not terribly different from a lot of industrial-age mill towns, except our mill was the railroad," said David Briggs, proprietor of the Hotel Coolidge, which has dominated much of Main Street since 1925. "The challenge for a long time has been trying to figure out how to make a transition to new uses."

While some communities facing a similar problem have turned to new industries, White River Junction is emerging as a vibrant artists' enclave. Local leaders created studios and galleries in dormant buildings and tapped a small but active arts community as a catalyst. The town's location near the intersection of two major highways -- as well as being five miles from Dartmouth College -- has helped attract new talent.

Among the recent additions to the town are the highly regarded Northern Stage theater company, staffed by a rotating troupe of professional actors from Broadway and London's West End; the quirky and avant-garde Main Street Museum, which boasts an exhibit devoted to "modern art created by accident" and a "hall of industrial antiquities"; and a former bread factory that has been transformed into thousands of square feet of affordable studio and retail space for more than 40 local artists and craftspeople.

More than 300 people attended a "Creative Economy Summit" that Briggs and other civic leaders helped organize last year to emphasize the economic potential of the community's new niche.

George Mason University public policy professor Richard Florida -- whose 2002 book "Rise of the Creative Class" argued that municipalities capable of attracting and retaining creative thinkers and entrepreneurs can boost slumping economic fortunes -- said that such community involvement is critical to the success of revival efforts.

"Cities and towns all over are undergoing similar creative rehabilitations, whether it's fixing up urban warehouse districts or renovating old rural downtowns," he wrote in an e-mail message. "There's no reason this project can't work, so long as people on all sides become genuinely involved in the town's social and cultural life."

Town officials say the cartooning school, which is slated to open in September, is the centerpiece of their development plan. Sturm, who selected White River Junction almost by accident, after moving north from Georgia to live with relatives in nearby Hartland, Vt., is reviewing applications for an inaugural class of 20 students.

"Because of some of the problems they have had here, it is the perfect place for a school like this," he said. "The issues and conflicts that make for great literature are all here."

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