Julian Dassai can catch you off guard.
Born in Ohio but raised in Greece, he is both soft-spoken and outspoken—about topics ranging from architecture and journalism to all things Columbus. A mostly-self-taught comic artist who draws and writes “The Columbusonian” in (614) Magazine, Dassai has led workshops for teens and trained teachers and docents at the Wex, and he’s performed at the Off the Grid party with the band Nick Tolford & Company. He also played a crucial role in the Weinland Park Story Book project, a Wex-led, limited-edition graphic anthology that illustrates stories gathered from the University District neighborhood. Dassai sat down with us over the summer to talk, and here are but a few excerpts from the conversation:
On the Weinland Park Story Book
It’s a not-for-profit book intended to go to people in the neighborhood. The neighborhood is extremely diverse and very interesting. It’s a classic neighborhood in transition….As with the majority of neighborhoods being gentrified, there’s an entire history there that people outside the neighborhood have never been aware of. There are generations of people who’ve lived there, and their local history is fantastic. We tried to get as much as we could from all sides—new residents, old residents…It was a very organic process.
On teen workshops at the Wex
We have had kids from upper-middle-class families, kids from poor families, and kids with emotional or developmental problems…but for a week, they were here experiencing a totally different world. I’d tell them, “You’re not in your high school. You’re at the Wexner Center for the Arts. This is a nationally recognized art institution, and you’re expected to operate on that level.” You can really see how these things have an effect on kids, especially during those early teen years—13, 14, 15. It gets gears turning. Those gears aren’t necessarily getting turned in their high schools. This is a place that can do that.
On one specific teen
Khari Saffo attended two of the Wexner Center’s cartoon workshops as a high-school student. Then he was brought back as an assistant. Now, he’s going to Denison University, studying animation history. From his first workshop when he walked in, he said he wanted to study history of cartooning and animation. Now he’s here with [Wex educator] Jean [Pitman] going to an exhibit. That’s, specifically, is what those programs are about. (During the interview, Saffo stopped by to say hello; Dassai asked him if he’s still drawing, and noted, “Khari’s always on top of it!”)
On comic artist Art Spiegelman
At the Festival of Cartoon Art [in 2010], you had multiple national/international comic book artists into the classroom. The highlight was [renowned graphic novelist] Art Spiegelman. There were 13, 14 kids in this room, and they’ve got Art Spiegelman. And when he walked into the room, [Columbus-based, internationally known graphic novelist] Jeff Smith came in with him. These kids got to sit there and question Art Spiegelman—a Pultizer Prize–winning artist—and Jeff Smith. These are two of the most important independent comic book artists in the world. Most of these kids won’t end up going into cartooning or comic book art. But 10 years later, they can be thinking about the time they got to talk to Art Spiegelman and Jeff Smith in an intimate setting like that. That can only happen at the Wexner Center.
Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, next door to the Wex
This place is seriously one of the most important places in the word for comic-book research, cartooning research. It has the greatest collection of American cartoon artwork in the world.
On the Wex’s role in the city’s cultural landscape
The main feature of the Wexner Center is that it’s a rotating exhibit. There’s no permanent collection. In many ways, that keeps it alive, keeps what’s going on here active. It’s the most forward-thinking of the arts institutions in the city.