Rhode Island cartoonist Walker Mettling coaches kids about the art and encourages self-expression through cartooning.
Cartooning as medicine? Walker Mettling certainly thinks it can be. The Providence, Rhode Island-based artist believes cartooning has curative powers.
Mettling is the driving force behind the Providence Comics Consortium, a loosely knit collaborative that hosts free cartooning classes in the city’s public library and also publishers the work of children and adult cartoonists. After the 2016 U.S. election, a parent got in touch with Mettling to vent her frustrations about the election of Donald Trump. “Her kid was an artist and was freaked out and was not sure if the family would have to leave the country,” Mettling recalls. His salve? An assignment that would transfer those fears onto paper.
The result of the post-election assignment, Mettling says, was an arresting mishmash of cartoons. “One of them showed Trump’s head on a deer surrounded by hunters. It took this kid’s feelings of powerlessness and projected that through symbols,” Mettling says. “It flipped the power dynamic that way.”
Mettling has worked this same principle in his own life. He remembers that when he had the flu and was groggy from Nyquil, he would use a large brush and cover a large sheet in what he called “blobs.” This series of “Blob Revelations” was not merely therapeutic; it became a series of poster art that was showcased for a while at Providence’s White Electric Coffee.
It seems that many of Mettling’s projects have their genesis in serendipity. In 2008, Mettling hosted a series of story events for kids and loosely published a couple of books tied to these events. The Providence public library took notice. When they were looking to broaden their programming for children, they recruited Walker to launch classes that taught comics and cartooning, a project that cannonballed into the Providence Comics Consortium.
The city’s Ada Books often hosts the artists and showcases their work. When a pipe burst at the store and many books got wet, Mettling and friends took some of the old Providence Sunday Journals and hung them out to dry. The large-format medium was the basis for another series, the Providence Sunday Wipeout, where kids used a larger canvas for their creations.
In addition to work for the PCC, Mettling is a recipient of a grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts for his work and a 2017 Artist Fellow at The Rhode Island School of Design. While his own personal projects have been cooking, he says he remains consistently blown away by the cartooning skills in the children he teaches. Case in point: a girl used the library’s special collections on whaling artifacts to create a mangia-inspired script where all the animal characters had scrimshaw teeth.
“One of the ways these classes have shaken out is that there are a lot of generative improv elements in play,” Mettling says. How so? Teams of kids work in groups and comics are being created in the moment according to different individual interpretations of a common thread. “It’s very cathartic like that,” he adds.