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Comic reality

Woodbury Art Museum delves into realm of comic books with interactive exhibit

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The world of comic books is intricate and complex, rooted often in mythology and history, but set in more modern times. Heroes and villains take center stage, with a battle for the ultimate good depicted through the incredible talent of top comic artists.

And now you can step into that world and literally play a role in it thanks to a new exhibit at Utah Valley University’s Woodbury Art Museum, a project headed by Chad Hardin but made possible by 12 different contributing artists.

“Heroes and Villains: How Mythology Made Comics” is probably best described as a living comic book, and it’s set to remain open to the public through Sept. 15 with a special artist reception and VIP screening set for Friday after museum hours. The panels contributed by artists include a series of mythological characters, including Perseus, Athena, Medusa and more. The ultimate hope is that those who come will not only enjoy themselves but see the parallels to the comic realm today.

“The cool thing about innovating is it’s something new,” Hardin said of the unique exhibit. “The bad part is it’s something new so nobody knows what they’re doing.”

With contributions from across the artistic community and a hefty handful of favors to friends, though, Hardin has helped to orchestrate an exhibit that features 44 canvases measuring 40 inches by 60 inches with line drawings from a series of professional artists and illustrators that have turned the entire museum gallery into a giant coloring book just waiting to be completed by visitors to the exhibit.

As a frame of reference, Hardin serves as an assistant professor of art and design at Utah Valley University, but has also spent significant time in the past illustrating for both Marvel and DC Comics, on popular characters such as Harley Quinn, Wonder Woman and even Spider-Man. He also works with the Woodbury’s Museum Coordinator Lisa Anderson to help curate shows for the venue, which is what sparked the idea for the exhibit in the first place.

“The idea came up to do some sort of community art event where the community could come in and somehow participate in a gallery event,” Hardin said. “Then the idea came up for a giant coloring book. … What if we had comic book artists do pencils and inks and then turn the entire gallery into a giant coloring book that the community can come in and color?”

And that’s exactly what happened. An impressive series of top-notch artists, illustrators and comic creators joined together to cover the walls in line art with a series of coloring guides to help participants add to the exhibit in positive ways.

“What we don’t want to have happen is a whole bunch of people show up and basically paint over the line work and ruin it for everyone,” Hardin said of the guidelines for the exhibit. “The canvases alone took months to print and they’re extremely expensive.”

It’s all made possible thanks to generous donations from the gallery itself and from a series of private businesses, not to mention the dozen artists who donated their time and work to the project.

“We’re hoping everybody comes in here and behaves,” Hardin said. “It wouldn’t take much for someone to come in here and sort of ruin it for everyone, which is the thing I’m nervous about, but we live in a community that’s very much mindful of others. We would just ask that everyone do their best to color within the lines, which is something that has been drilled into us since preschool, and hopefully that works out.”

An impressive amount of time and effort has gone into creating a positive experience for the community, and according to Hardin, it couldn’t have been done without the hard work and volunteer hours of the artists.

“I pulled in every favor that I’ve ever made in the comic industry,” Hardin said. “I went from people owing me to now be owing people, and I’m going to owe people for a long time.”

But if everything works out as planned, Hardin said it will all be worth it.

“I hope that it is something families can do together,” Hardin said. “I hope that it introduces them to comics, and I hope they realize comics are basically American mythology. One of the things we’re talking about is that these art types have basically been around forever — ever since humans started telling stories. … Maybe they’ll get a little bit of education and enjoy a comic or maybe they’ll go read ‘The Iliad’ as well. We’re trying to be educational, have fun, and introduce people to art — all of those things and hopefully not put anyone to sleep while doing it.”

Get to know the artists

Along with Hardin as a creator, the extensive list of contributions includes Guy Francis, a children’s book illustrator; Bill Galvan of “Archie” and “The Simpsons”; Mike Grell, whose work includes “Superman” and the “Green Arrow”; Ian Johnston, who has animated for the “Justice League”; Mel Milton, a Disney animator whose work includes Disney Interactive video games; Philip Sevy, who worked on “Tomb Raider”; Sal Velluto, who has created in the past for “Black Panther” and the “Flash” and Jemma Young, a web comic artist and creator of the “Children of Eldar” series, with additional shoutouts to Ryan Brown, Chynna Miller and Travis Walton, the last of whom spent a significant amount of time creating color guides for the artwork.

Each artist came to the show with different backgrounds, experiences and motivations, but walked away offering the community the experience of a lifetime.

“Museums don’t normally let you draw on their walls, they don’t turn the museum into a canvas,” Anderson, the museum coordinator, said. “But in this case, almost the entire museum will be a living comic book, a giant public art project. The twist with this show is visitors get to co-create art with famous comic book artists.”

Jemma Young

Along with creating the image of Hecate, the goddess of magic and contributing other personal works to an exclusive artist gallery, Young helped to create color guides for the exhibit and essentially press forward the organization of everything in a role Hardin said has been vital to the success of the exhibit.

Though it involved a lot of work, according to Young, the experience has been incredible.

“It looks really amazing — I’m excited for people to go see it and be able to be involved in this,” Young said. “(These artists) have done so much in the comic book industry, so to be able to go color some of their work as a part of this project is really cool, and I’m honored to be a part of it and have my work next to these people’s pieces.”

Young has already taken her own children to the exhibit and helped them color one of her works, and it’s something she’s looking forward to seeing evolve as more people visit.

“I created (these pieces) knowing other people would be coloring them,” she said. “For me, even if it doesn’t turn out spectacular, all I really want is people to do it and to be involved. Even if they are not artists, I want them to give it a try. My daughter is 5 and can barely color in the lines, and she was there coloring and having fun.”

Though coloring in the lines is a guideline for participating on the large canvases, Young said there are also activities for younger guests, including coloring pages and a youth gallery.

“In the past, comics have never really been considered art, or something you could hang in a museum,” Young said. “Comics were just what those geeky kids did and it wasn’t mainstream. I’m hoping this helps bridge the gap and shows that comics are not just a means of storytelling, but also a form of art.”

Phillip Sevy

As noted above, Phillip Sevy has spent much of his professional career drawing Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, so when Hardin approached him to design Artemis for the exhibit, his contribution was natural.

“I love drawing strong female characters, so Artemis was a perfect fit for me,” he said.

According to Sevy, he’s known Hardin for years and considers him not only a friend but also an unofficial mentor of sorts.

“He reached out to me at the beginning of the year and asked if I’d be interested in contributing to the exhibit,” Sevy said. “He’s done a lot for me over the years and I was more than happy to help him out here. … I was excited to be a part of the exhibit and thought the idea of focusing on mythological characters and their superhero counterparts was very interesting. I was once told by someone that superheroes are the American Mythology.”

As to the exhibit set-up, Sevy said, “I really like the interactive aspect of the exhibit — that people are allowed and encouraged to color the pieces that are hanging up. I think we all need more art and creative outlets in our lives. Whether you are artistic or not, being able to be a part of the creation of something is very satisfying and therapeutic.”

It’s also given Sevy a chance to connect more with the local art community.

“As a comic book artist, my work is seen by the people who buy the books, but they don’t reach a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise buy the comics,” he said. “Being involved in a public gallery and exhibit like this allows me the ability to reach and connect with more people in Utah County.”

Mel Milton

As an artist and former video game animator for Disney Interactive, Mel Milton knows his way around a gallery, so when he was approached by Hardin to participate in the “Heroes and Villains” exhibit, he dove in with a series of works focusing on the character of Athena.

“This is just a fun project,” he said. “It wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about ‘I need to put this in front of people,’ but the ability to create something for the fun of it is why I wanted to be an artist in the first place. It can get you to look at something in a different way. Art made my life pretty magical.”

Milton actually made the decision to do art more for fun and as a hobby after the birth of his daughter so he could focus on being a father. Surprisingly though, it was after that decision that he gained a pretty decent following. Still, he said it was a humbling experience when Hardin approached him about being in the Woodbury show.

“It was a hard call to be an artist then be a father because art always calls to me,” he said. “There is always that part of the artist that wants to go to work, and wants to make some money.”

This exhibit, though, is one that he said is just for fun — bridging the gap between the desire to make art and be the best father he can.

“As long as I’m happy, that’s the best experience that I could give to her, and for me I want her to see that,” he said. “I can’t wait to take my daughter to the museum and have her color on it.”

Milton said he met Hardin while teaching, a fact that’s shown him you can do whatever you want to do, as long as you can get over the hurdle of self-defeat.

“You condition yourself to say, ‘I don’t do art,’ ” he said, mentioning how he also told himself, “I don’t teach,” before he caught himself. “If you enjoy something, you’ll grow (from doing it). I grew as a human being doing my art.”

Guy Francis

Illustrator Guy Francis was also teaching at Utah Valley University when he met Hardin and became good friends with him.

“He asked if I’d like to participate (in the Woodbury exhibit) and it sounded like a blast, so I said sure,” said Francis, who tackled mythological monsters including Medusa and a giant harpy.

“I think it’s kind of neat to see people out there already participating,” he said of photos that have been taken since the gallery opening last week. “I think the more interactive it can be makes it just a lot of fun.”

Francis has been illustrating children’s books for the last 25 years, and offers a unique perspective to the show since he’s not a traditional comic book artist.

“I think I played a pretty small part in it overall, but I hope that (visitors) can really see how much fun and work that comic book artists put into their artwork,” Francis said. “That they can participate and have fun and hopefully come out with better appreciation for the work that goes into comic book art. … I’m excited to go see it myself – I’ve been looking forward to seeing what other artists have put into it as well, and it should be a lot of fun.

Kari Kenner manages and creates digital features and niche content for the Daily Herald.

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