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Art brings humor back to the drawing board

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Joyce Man

“Most kids are cartoonists by nature and later abandon it,” said Ed Koren on Tuesday in a phone interview from his home and studio in Brookfield, Vt., “But I just didn’t. I continued.” Now, over 900 cartoons for the New Yorker later, Koren continues to draw smiles from the magazine’s readers with his work.

On May 25, Middlebury opens a small, 20-piece portion of Koren’s vast lifetime of works. The exhibition, brought by Director of the College Museum Richard Saunders and scheduled to end mid-August, will feature comic commentaries on several themes, including education and life in rural Vermont.

Loyal New Yorker readers will recognize the cartoons from the magazine and, if not, from the cover picture of Peter Mayle’s book, “A Dog’s Life.” The style of Koren’s cartoons’ lines are, in a word, sketchy, yet drawn with such refined rigor that reveals the years of skill he possesses in his hand.

Experienced Koren is. Upon entering Columbia University, he began composing comic artwork for the Jester, the campus humor magazine. At the time in the 1950s, such publications were regular parts of campus life at institutions across the country. Publications like The Yale Record and the Harvard Lampoon, both modeled on New Yorker style, were popular media for social commentary. Working on the Jester, Koren was in his element. “We thought we were the acme of sophistication,” he said.

For Koren, cartooning is an art form in flux, and his style constantly renews itself. Although he has developed a highly-distinctive, very recognizable penmanship, Koren insists it keeps evolving even today. “My style,” he said, “is in its own little Darwinian world of cartoons.”

Today, Koren regularly comes up with ideas from his rural studio at home in Brookfield, a small town of 1,222 in Orange County, Vt., and sends them off for his editors’ consideration. Often, he takes his queue from the dramatic contrast between the “cosmopolites” and the local, “indigenous” Vermonters, a social dynamic he finds interesting. “They are like tectonic plates rubbing against each other,” he said.

Tectonic plates?

From Koren’s seismological and evolution comparisons, it is easy to see where his wit arises. Drawing from this spring of humor, he submits 5 to 6 draft ideas per week by fax to editors in New York. And what happens when they get rejected? “Well then, it’s back to the drawing board,” said Koren, taking the line made famous by New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno in 1941.

But, as Koren laments, the world of humor publications has moved far away from the drawing board. Today’s standard funny publication is The Onion, whose popular online edition is a mainstay among many a college student’s most-frequented websites, and whose tone is mimicked by the humor magazines that remain at universities. College campus humor, it seems, does not includesdrawings of Koren’s kind. “Cartooning is not considered high art and historically, there was a hierarchy. But I see it as a major art stream,” he said.

The exhibit may dispel this misconception. Though not immediatebly apparent to readers of the New Yorker, the images, published at only several square inches, are copies of much larger originals of approximately 20 by 26 inches. The smaller versions do not reveal the detail – and, of course, that is where the devil is. “These drawings are many times larger than what appears in the magazine,” said Saunders, who decided to invite Koren on a suggestion by a friend from the Preservation Trust of Vermont, whose board Saunders is part of. “The detailed originals we plan to display will reveal all the technical skills.”

The exhibition may not take us back to the drawing board, but it will take us back to humor in drawings at least for a short bout.

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