Graphic novelist Laura Lee Gulledge found inspiration in Charlottesville

Graphic novels were an epiphany for the creator of Will & Whit. “Everyone has different creative habits,”  Laura Lee Gulledge said. “Some people are like scientists, experimenting and testing. Others are like archaeologists, digging out the truth.” Graphic novels were an epiphany for the creator of Will & Whit. “Everyone has different creative habits,” Laura Lee Gulledge said. “Some people are like scientists, experimenting and testing. Others are like archaeologists, digging out the truth.”

When you ask Brooklyn-based artist and graphic novelist Laura Lee Gulledge about Charlottesville, her upbeat voice turns nostalgic. “Places like the IX building were full of my people. People who cared more about what you did than where you went to art school. People who helped me make art.”

Creative community is the crux of Gulledge’s sophomore work, a young adult graphic novel set in Charlottesville. In Will & Whit, which Gulledge wrote and illustrated, a teenage girl must face her fear of the dark —and a family tragedy—when a hurricane knocks out power and threatens to ruin the carnival her friends have been building.

Gulledge, who lived in Charlottesville from 2002-07, based her fictional storm on Hurricane Isabelle, and the novel references several institutions that locals will recognize. The longtime artist and teacher chose details, like a flier for Moto Saloon, consciously. “In Will & Whit, I wanted to model a creative community for young people,” said Gulledge. She drew the grassroots Charlottesville that helped shape her own artistic path as “my little love letter to the creative scene.”

In her debut graphic novel Page by Paige, Gulledge explored the way creativity helps students understand themselves. Nominated for both the Eisner and Harvey awards and one of YALSA’s Top Ten Books for Teens in 2012, Page by Paige reflects Gulledge’s own experience as a teen.

“When I was younger, I could draw out my stuff even if I couldn’t say it. I could use pictures, not words,” she explained. “Now we work out our issues on paper so we can share them with other people.”

Gulledge describes herself as an instrumentalist artist, someone who makes art to convey an idea or teach a concept. “Education and art are the same thing,” she said. “I approach new stories, like the picture book I’m currently working on, as ‘what do I want to teach these little kids?’ Their brains are like sponges.”

Long before she wrote her first graphic novel, Gulledge earned her master’s in art education from James Madison University. She moved to Charlottesville to teach, working in the Louisa County school system for a few years. But the public school “felt really wrong,” Gulledge said. “We need creative people, but the outlets to teaching creativity [in schools] are getting squished and squashed.”

Once you acknowledge the complexities of the creative process, Gulledge said, standardized education looks one-size-fits-all, and you see “a disconnect between how we learn and how we teach.”

Conflicted by her chosen career, she left the school and took a job in the furniture store The Artful Lodger. Flexible hours allowed Gulledge to start making art for herself. “You can’t teach someone else to be an artist if you aren’t an artist,” she said, “so I started experimenting. I lived in this renovated motel room near the railroad tracks, and I painted murals. My first art show ever was held at Fellini’s, and I was, what, 26?”

It was a happy time, and Gulledge immersed herself in Charlottesville’s collaborative art-making scene. But as local venues like Traxx, Starr Hill (music hall), and the IX building disappeared, Gulledge and her friends began to look elsewhere. “People told me I should go to New York to make connections and discover my niche,” she said. “Even my boss—she liked working with me and knew I was good at my job, but she told me ‘this is my dream, not yours. You should figure out your dream instead of playing it safe.’”

In 2006, C-VILLE Weekly’s readers voted Laura Lee Gulledge Best Artist. A few months later, she packed her bags and “took 2007 as my science experiment year.” She spent a few months with the Junior Art Club in Ghana, West Africa, as a volunteer art teacher in elementary after school programs, and then she moved to New York.

“As an artist you need help—a docent, a cheap living situation, a spokesperson, something—you just can’t do it on your own,” Gulledge said, and when the redhead became an au pair, she discovered it to be true. “The children’s mother was one of Leonard Bernstein’s daughters, and we were on the same wavelength about so many things. That young people need to express themselves, that creativity belongs in education.”

Her new mentor gave her a gift that would change her life: her first graphic novel. “For years, I’d only worked in sketchbooks,” Gulledge said. “I had spent years trying to figure out where my oh-so-personal-metaphorical drawings fit in, from self-publishing zines to gallery shows,” and graphic novels were the piece of the puzzle she didn’t know she’d been missing. Like the heroine of Will & Whit, Gulledge discovered that “once I stopped trying to control my life, everything got easier. Like trying to swim upstream versus just floating.”

Not that life as a working artist is easy. She’s worked as a scenic artist for department store Christmas windows, an interactive event producer, and a body painter for burlesque dancers. She also does publicity tours for her novels. “It’s a long game, the comic industry. You have to keep plugging away and going to shows and conventions,” she said. “But it’s also much more soul-satisfying.”

These days Gulledge practices education-
in-process through therapeutic illustration and collaborative art projects. “When people use their hands, they just open up. We need to use our hands. It unplugs all this other stuff.”

In her work, Gulledge reminds us that art is not self-indulgent, not trite. “As kids, we all naturally make stuff. Until age 7 we sing and tell stories. It’s how we’re wired, it makes us happy. In fourth grade we put ourselves in a context and start censoring ourselves, but you’re the only person who is qualified to write that book. It’s one little volume in one small corner of the huge library of human experience, but only you can do it.”

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