Artist Joe Sacco with an enlarged image from his 2013 graphic novel, "The Great War"
Artist Joe Sacco with an image from his 2013 graphic novel, "The Great War"

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This fall, Whitman's Sheehan Gallery is painting the world of graphic narrative with a broad brush—in the best possible way. Seeing Stories: Traversing the Graphic Narrative, a three month-long series curated by Sheehan staff and Whitman faculty members, has drawn in not only art majors and professors, but members of the history, theatre, Spanish, English, French, film and music departments.

"What I really appreciate is the willingness of so many departments to write this into the curriculum, not only art and art history," said Kynde Kiefel, exhibitions and collections manager for Sheehan Gallery.

According to Kiefel, the exhibition, which was several years in the making, has been the best-attended show since she joined Whitman in 2007, and features some of the highest-profile guest artists within the genre. The display embraces a full spectrum of styles, from classic superhero comics to the work of contemporary graphic artists such as Joe Sacco and Alison Bechdel, both of whom have presented on campus as part of the series.

Sam Alden '12, a cartoonist and illustrator from Portland who now works as head storyboarder for Cartoon Network's Emmy Award-winning show Adventure Time, also showcased some of his work in Whitman's Stevens Gallery. Magasin Général: Artistic Collaboration in French Comics

"The creation of the graphic novel exhibition, as well as the programming we've had throughout the semester, has been one of the most intense, but also the most rewarding experiences of my time here at Whitman," Kiefel said.

In designing the installation, the curators tried to reproduce the feeling of getting swept up in a comic book or graphic novel.

"We wanted to focus on both the immersive and conceptual qualities of sequential art—that hypnotic state you fall into when you're simultaneously reading and looking at a story until you're in a kind of trance—as well as the idea that comics and graphic novels are the ultimate democracy in the art world," said Kiefel. "Everyone can carry the masterpieces in their backpack or spill coffee on it, then pass it on to their best friends. So I thought these giant versions of the featured texts, spaces you could literally and figuratively step inside of, would best capture the inclusiveness of the medium."

Assistant Professor of Art Justin Lincoln, who visited the gallery with his Encounters class, describes graphic storytelling in part as a "complex way of conveying thoughts, information and aesthetics." He asked his students to write a response to the question ‘how does one deal with complex information?'

"When you go into the gallery, you're hit with this wave of different things, all this different information," he said. "So the way you parse it, the way you think about it, is very important. It's as important in a graphic novel as it might be when you're making a syllabus or when you're making an argument in a paper."

For students interested in pursuing graphic art, Lincoln added: "having people come from outside of the school who are doing this professionally is of huge value to the people here who are trying to figure it out." 

View from the entryway to the Sheehan Gallery

Beyond campus, the exhibition has also involved the Walla Walla community, including board members of ArtWalla, a local nonprofit engaged in public arts education, as well as students and faculty from as far afield as Gonzaga University and the University of Idaho. About half of the attendees at an October meet-and-greet had never been to Sheehan before.

"Seeing Stories" runs through Dec. 11. Visit the Sheehan Gallery homepage for more information on hours and upcoming events.