A keen eye on the zeitgeist, student artist shows `great promise' in community college exhibition

Cartoonist draws on life passion


As a child, teachers often told Juan Spearman to stop scribbling drawings in his notebooks during class. His mother and uncle encouraged him to branch out into other activities.

But, he said, "Cartooning has always been my passion. It's always been the No. 1 thing on my mind."

This month, several of Spearman's comic strips and cartoon-style illustrations are part of the Howard Community College Invitational art exhibit.

James Adkins, HCC's director for visual arts, said the annual invitational show is intended to be "a way of rewarding excellence" among students and alumni. The exhibit features five artists who were nominated by professors and runs through July 27.

Spearman, 21, is an art student at HCC and plans to transfer to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in the fall 2007 to pursue cartooning and illustration.

Raised with Disney cartoons, which he thought were "amazing," the Columbia resident said he began drawing when he was 4. He was a fan of Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes and Mad magazine, and he recalled drawing notebooks full of comic strips with a group of friends in middle and high school.

"Ever since I was a kid, it was an escape," he said. "It was therapy for me."

He said he is largely self-taught and was inspired to refine his style when he became a fan of edgier fare, including Frank Cho's Liberty Meadows and Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks.

"I was amazed by the humor that was in them," Spearman said, particularly their willingness to speak out on a variety of issues and risk offending people.

Spearman said his drawing style takes a few cues from Japanese anime, as well.

Lately, Spearman has been drawing Jam City, a series that focuses on a group of characters in a college setting. They include Tortle, a turtle who stands in for the everyman; Cindy, a smart, voluptuous woman; and Rick, a laid-back mole.

Some strips are taken directly from Spearman's college life, including a series in which Tortle learns to have more respect for women when he takes a class in Women's Studies. Another strip shows Tortle turning into a superhero called "The Procrastinator," when faced with a looming paper deadline.

Others strips parody commercials and movies. Some take on more political issues, including those featuring a balding, sunglass-wearing character called "The Man."

A cartoonist has to have drawing ability and has to be a writer, said Adkins, who taught Spearman in drawing classes.

"You also have to be sensitive to the symbolism of things. You have to be very up to date with current trends," Adkins said. "You have to be an astute person, a real observer of what is going on around you."

Adkins said he thinks Spearman is "very skilled." He said, "For somebody of [Spearman's] age to be where he is shows great promise."

After he graduated from Wilde Lake High School in 2003, Spearman found an outlet in the HCC campus newspaper, which uses one or more of his strips each issue.

"He's just one of those guys who has a real grasp on popular events and social events," said Laura Bellomo, who was an editor with the HCC Times in 2004 and 2005. "He's really observant"

She also said Spearman was a consistent contributor on whom the editors could rely. "He's a real institution at the paper," she said.

Spearman said his biggest challenge is to get the idea "just right" so it comes across in a few panels. But he said he had plenty of material with which to work.

"It's easier to poke humor at real life," he said. "My uncle told me humor is the most important thing. You have to laugh at life sometimes."

Spearman is joined in the exhibit by four artists working in a variety of media.

Brenda Guardala uses oil paints for still life and landscape. Carmelo Torres works with digital images, charcoal and pastel. Frank Toner takes color and infrared photos while traveling around the world. And Stephanie Kreuz makes abstract patterns in cut paper, tempura paint, ink and black marker.


The HCC gallery is open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Information: www.howardcc.edu/arts_and_humanities.

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