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Illustration of a woman reading a book and surrounded by snippets of the historical events in its pages.

Sarah Shaw talks about her new class, ‘Graphic Memoir: Crafting Life Stories’

Tell us a little bit about your class ‘Graphic Memoir: Crafting Life Stories’

Graphic Memoir: Crafting Life Stories is a 10-12 week Continuing Education course in the Visual Narrative department. In this course, students design themselves as characters and create a series of personal narratives that combine text and image. Each week, we focus on specific topics in the context of making comics, and we analyze and discuss excerpts from a range of diverse, contemporary graphic memoirs. We spend the second half of the course creating a larger-format autobiographical comic and workshopping ideas in small breakout groups during class. In the last couple weeks, as we explore outlets for publishing, students have the option to draft a pitch.

How did you arrive at the point where you pitched the class to the School of Visual Arts?

In the summer of 2020, I graduated from the MFA Visual Narrative program. Throughout the program, I spent the majority of my time making autobiographical comics, and for my thesis project, I drafted a full-length graphic memoir. When I wasn’t writing or drawing, I spent a lot of time reading graphic memoirs and learning techniques from a wide range of artists and storytellers. 

I have been teaching for several years now, but one of my goals throughout the MFA program was to begin teaching comics and visual storytelling to teens, university students, and adults at art schools and universities. As I browsed through SVA’s Continuing Education course catalog, I noticed that there were no comics classes specifically geared towards graphic memoir. Graphic novels are continually gaining popularity, and it’s now common to see autobiographical comics in a range of publications, both independent and mainstream. I knew that developing this course would be a great opportunity to share my passion with interested students, while filling a gap in the course catalog. 

Who do you think would benefit from taking your class?

This course is designed for adults of all ages and backgrounds who are interested in exploring a variety of techniques to craft their personal narratives through text and image. Because this class focuses on story, students choose to work digitally or by hand. Although it’s helpful to have previous drawing experience before joining this class, the only requirement is that students arrive with a desire to tell their own stories from new perspectives. No two students’ work will ever look the same in this class. 

Graphic memoir is personal and intimate, and this online class is a great opportunity to connect with students from around the world and build community. Last semester, there were students from Shanghai, London, and multiple cities around the United States, which created such a rich environment. To my delight, several students even organized a group outside of class to discuss their work, and they are continuing to meet even though the class has ended. 

What do you hope students take away from ‘Graphic Memoir: Crafting Life Stories’?

I believe that stories have the power to influence society and change the way we see the world. In our daily lives, we are exposed to a vast range of visual media, and the images that are most memorable are those that we connect with emotionally. Students in this class have the opportunity to refine their technical and storytelling skills and use their voice to craft compelling personal narratives that leave lasting impressions.

Whether students aim to develop their visual narrative skills for their career or for personal enrichment, I encourage students to come to class with an open mind, take risks, and experiment with the comics medium. By the end of the class, students will have produced several comics, including a long-form narrative, gained a broader knowledge of the medium, and become part of a larger community. 

Could you show us some work from last year’s class?

Yes! I am so proud of the work that my students produced last semester. Here are a few one-page comics from the beginning of the course, as well as some excerpts of longer narratives. 

I look forward to seeing all the new stories that unfold next semester. 

A comic book page

September 19th, by Mariana Tapia: https://www.instagram.com/_mariana_tapia_/ 

A comic book page by Sam Speedy

Running away comic, Sam Speedy: https://www.instagram.com/samsaspeedy/ 

Four yellow comic book panels show a masked woman watching a bus pull up to the curb

Coney Island, by Lily Stamm: https://www.instagram.com/lilystamm/ 

A montage comic book page with a woman on a bike, in repose, and other poses.

Page 1 of longer narrative, Maya Jain: https://www.instagram.com/_tinyartist/ 

Here is an example of a final project in the form of a webcomic, by Carolyn Jao, http://www.heycaro.com/tiamtiam Instagram:@cupofjao

View Sarah’s work on her website: www.saraheshaw.com, Instagram: @saraheshaw, and sign up for Graphic Memoir: Crafting Life Stories here.