Cartoonist inspires kids to take artistic look at current events

Local cartoonist Michael Cotter asked the assembled youngsters at the Annapolis area library to name a big story in the news, and 13-year-old Rhaei Brown, who was sporting a Ravens jersey, couldn't utter his answer fast enough.

"The lockout!" the Annapolis resident exclaimed, referring to the NFL work stoppage that recently ended. Then Rhaei created a cartoon about the lockout in which he depicted an NFL executive and a football player tugging at opposite sides of an oversized dollar bill.

Rhaei was among about two dozen youngsters who took part in Creative Cartooning, a 90-minute drawing workshop, on Tuesday evening. Part of the library system's Summer Reading Club for Teens, the workshop encouraged youngsters to convey their knowledge of current events and news trends through cartoons.

Subject matter included one topic nearly every youngster seemed familiar with: cellphone usage. But students also explored such current events as the U.S. debt ceiling.

Cotter, who is also a producer and director of University Park-based Blue Sky Puppet Theatre, encouraged students to use the medium as a means of creative expression.

Rhaei's cartoon, called "The Lockout," showed helmeted players dividing a table full of money just as the work stoppage is declared over.

"Happy?" the player asks.

"No," the owner replies. "You?"

"No," the player says. Then the two utter simultaneously, "We're done."

"What I like most about the class is that it was structured but not strict," said Rhaei, whose first name is pronounced, "Ray." He also illustrated his creativity and love for the local NFL team by drawing its logo and naming it "Rhaei-vens."

Library officials said that the participants' cartoons would be featured on the county library's teen Facebook page.

"The main thing is teaching them how to generate new ideas," said Cotter, 63, who added that he taught an interrelated arts program in the Montgomery County school system and was a faculty member at the Fillmore Arts Center in Washington.

"Sometimes ideas just come to you, that's the rare thing, but [I am] just trying to get them to make lists … of issues, and then [to see] how can you make it funny. How can you exaggerate it? As long as they can communicate their ideas, that's the main thing. If you look at the comic pages, some of the things are amateurish at best, but they're very good."

Cotter showed some of the nuances of the trade: When using dialogue in a cartoon, he said, it's best to write the words then enclose them with a word balloon, instead of vice versa, which sometimes makes the message illegible.

Cotter said he enjoys working with students who are in tune with social issues, but he conceded, "When I was in sixth grade, I didn't care about politics, either. That's why I always work with cellphones; they all have cellphones. They all have school. What is their thing, and go with that, and teach them, because eventually they will learn the other thing."

Rhaei said he came to the workshop because his mother signed him up, yet he was among several students who apparently didn't seem to mind spending a summer evening doodling in a library.

"I was so amazed at how [Cotter] would explain how to do stuff with us and how creative he was with us," said Peyton Dacko, 11, of West River.

While he marveled at the work of some students who had clearly had some experience drawing before the class, Cotter said that a cartoonist such as Peanuts creator Charles Schulz wasn't a great artist but communicated his ideas effectively in a visual format.

"Get your own style of drawing; don't worry about being a really good drawer," said Cotter. "And work on how do you get good ideas and how do you tell the story."

Cotter had staged similar July workshops at the West County and Brooklyn Park libraries in Anne Arundel County.

Joan Bradford, programming and outreach coordinator for the county library system, said that the workshop has become a hit with teens, drawing nearly three dozen participants at each of the previous library stops.

"For a teen event, that's excellent," said Bradford. "Art is of interest for that age group. It's that developmental stage for teens, and they are really in a creative place."


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