Doodling, for most people, produces nothing more than cute little pictures drawn on notebooks, textbooks and tablecloths. But for Aitkin's Duane Barnhart, doodling developed into a lifelong career. He even married a doodler and has collaborated with his artist wife, Angie, on a number of projects.
Barnhart's doodling during class in school often led to frowns from teachers and giggles from students. Now a professional cartoonist, Barnhart creates cartoons that elicit much appreciation, laughter and thought, and sometimes controversy.
"I didn't plan on becoming a cartoonist. I just knew I needed to draw and I got lucky," Barnhart said.
His "lucky" jobs have included a daily newspaper strip; illustrations in regional and national magazines, children's books and textbooks; advertising comic books; and many products using licensed Warner Brothers and Disney characters. He also teaches cartooning to adults and children and has co-authored a book on how to cartoon.
"One of my favorite projects was designing and creating statues depicting the 'Peanuts' characters in a tribute to Charles Schulz," he said.
Even when he was young, his talent was recognized. His first published cartoons were in his elementary school newspaper. He continued cartooning for his high school newspaper and, while attending the University of Minnesota, was the editorial cartoonist for the Minnesota Daily. After college, he worked in the art department for a computer company developing cartoons for slide shows.
PHOTO BY CROSSING ARTS ALLIANCE/MICHAEL PAULBECK
"However, ideas kept bombarding me and I always carried a sketchbook to record them," Barnhart said. "I sent cartoons to the Saturday Evening Post and they bought one."
Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine also bought a cartoon. Then other magazines discovered his work and the requests began snowballing.
Creating a daily comic strip, "Can You Solve the Mystery," published in about 200 syndicated newspapers around the country, gave him a real challenge with two complete mysteries published every week.
"At first, there were writers for the plot," Barnhart said. "After about a year, the writers ran out of ideas and I had to create the plot, write the dialogue and draw the strip."
It was a full-time job until the owner of the strip decided to end publication. Barnhart had to scramble to find work.
PHOTO BY CROSSING ARTS ALLIANCE/MICHAEL PAULBECKMichael Paulbeck
He contracted with an artists' representative to promote his work, but he also spent time "knocking on doors of companies such as Pillsbury and General Mills." He would pack his work into a portfolio and head for the art departments. Often the response to the showing of his work would be, "No, we don't have any use for that." But two or three weeks later, he'd receive a call saying they had a cartoon project. One such project was painting the colorful Kemp's cow.
One day he saw a poster publicizing the Artist in Residency program in schools. Barnhart applied to the Minnesota State Arts Board, was accepted and began a new phase in his career. He and Angie have taught cartooning to 10s of thousands of students in the past 15 years and have conducted teacher workshops on how to teach drawing. Most of the work is with grade-school students, probably "because there are few art teachers in the elementary schools," Barnhart said.
Barnhart, a true believer in the idea that the arts promote learning in other subject areas, said, "I find teaching animation and claymation challenging and fun. Improved technology facilitates the process. Students improve their reading and learn to use technology effectively. In addition, they learn to write dialogue, make background sets, do research into a topic and create animation."
Their experiences in teaching led the Barnharts to co-author "Cartooning Basics," a book that has won several awards and has been translated into Chinese and Spanish.
Barnhart said of the endorsement of the book by Schulz and "Garfield" artist Jim Davis: "It is an incredible compliment. It's cool to have recognition from the masters of cartooning."
Davis writes in the foreword of the book: "After years of struggling to figure out how to draw hands and feet, Duane Barnhart comes out with 'Cartooning Basics' and makes it all look easy. Where were you back in the '70s when I was trying to get syndicated, Duane?"
The Barnharts were contracted to design and build the clay sculptures depicting "Peanuts" characters for St. Paul's "Peanuts Paintoff" in a tribute to Charles Schulz. These sculptures now enhance O'Gara's Garage in St. Paul, the hometown of Schulz.
A watercolorist since age 15, Duane set aside that skill while immersed in cartooning. However, he recently renewed his work in the genre and entered watercolors in the Jaques Art Center's Plein Art Competition in Aitkin, where he won the People's Choice award.
Three years ago, the Barnharts sold their home in the Twin Cities and moved to the Aitkin area where they built a new house. Duane will contribute a weekly political cartoon, presenting a local point of view, to the Aitkin Independent Age. The couple continues to teach in schools and conduct workshops and are eager to do more of this work in the Brainerd lakes area.
For Duane Barnhart, doodling has paid off in a very full and satisfying life.
He said, "I'm living where I want to be and doing what I want to do. It couldn't get any better than this."
ELSIE HUSOM may be reached at email@example.com.
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