In the spring of 2013, a new blog erupted on the RISD cyber scene. Down the hill from the Main Green, Jen Berry started posting a comic series, JISD, informed by all she had experienced throughout RISD’s Foundation year. (Foundation year is RISD terminology for the freshman class’ mandatory, studio-intensive curriculum. Along with two introductory liberal arts courses per term, freshmen must take all three of the 8-hour long Foundation studio courses in the fall and spring semester: Drawing, Design, and Spatial Dynamics. RISD freshmen can be recognized by the charcoal under their fingernails and the bags under their eyes.)
JISD took the bounty of absurd material from this sleepless year and transformed it into an entertaining and witty comic series that can make any Foundation year rosier and more bearable. JISD pulls back the curtain and serves as an accurate lens into the lifestyle of a typical RISD student (if such a thing as a “typical RISD student” exists). Now a sophomore, Berry pens more about rising from the bottom of the RISD food chain and spending her first year in a declared major. Art School(ed) got up close and personal with this art school blogging legend, after the jump.
Art School(ed): What inspired you to start this comic?
Jen Berry: I’ve been following a lot of web comics for a long time, and always wanted to start my own, but it’s a hard decision trying to figure out what you want to write about, especially if you want to keep it up for a long time. So I said, hell, something along the lines of, “write what you know” and what I knew was just how freaking bizarre RISD can be. Also, I guess I’ve always been struck by the fact that nobody I knew in high school is pursuing art — so it’s always mind-boggling to them when I try to explain what goes on at art school… I just wanted to capture that.
AS: I know your comic is called JISD as an acronym for “Jen Is Super Dumb,” but after reading your comics, it seems like you’re funny and not super dumb. Did you also name your comic JISD (jizz-dee) to coincide with RISD’s phallic school spirit (our mascot Scrotie, and our primary sports teams the Balls and the Nads) or was that unintentional?
JB: That was completely intentional—in fact I came up with “JISD” before I came up with an acronym. I just always thought that RIZ-DEE sounds so funny, and the “J” just happened to come from my name. The actual name’s kind of a throwaway, to be honest. But I really enjoy humor that’s a bit crude, a bit uncomfortable. I’ve had so many people ask very carefully if I realize what my blog name sounds like (as if I would be offended if I found out!)… that’s pretty much exactly the response I wanted.
AS: What is your personal favorite of your JISD comics?
JB: I think it’s a toss up between “the stages of charcoal face” and the one about design crits because they are pretty much the two comics I made the blog for. I was already a semester and a half deep in Foundations, and those comics had been kicking around in my head for ages, a sort of joke I wanted to last longer than just saying it out loud.
AS: Favorite Providence spot?
JB: There’s this couch in Carr Haus that is the best couch, even though half the time somebody is taking a nap there… literally I wish I had four of those couches in my house. It’s the comfiest spot to nap but it’s also facing one of the big windows that look out on the intersection of Benefit and Waterman so you can watch freshman as they learn the RISD art of jaywalking. It’s a full-sized couch but I never see more than one person on it because when you have a couch that good, who wants to share?
AS: Do you create your comics manually or digitally?
JB: I use brush and ink, and then scan them into Photoshop to add color! I was really inspired by one of Lynda Barry’s books lately, where she suggests using an ink stick and stone (in an exercise in which you draw out your “demons”)— so I’ve been using that lately—you get this inkstone and a solid stick of sumi ink and you grind the stick on the stone with water to make your ink. It’s a pretty soothing task, and I enjoy that I have an excuse to carry a rock around in my purse. (Also, side note—I’m sure that the content of any RISD student’s purse/backpack is TERRIFYING. Or rather, the stunning amount of razor blades & x-acto knives you will find.)
JB: Craig Thompson is pretty much my hero — his work has the best marriage of gorgeous brushwork and storytelling — my real dream is to create a graphic novel, because of him. Also, I’ve always been super fascinated by Marlo Meekins — she’s really well-known for her Vines now, but I’ve always been super inspired by her comics because they are just so weird. Again, it’s that kind of crude humor that I guess I first (sort of) was exposed to while reading MAD Magazine standing in the grocery store when I was little.
AS: What do you think was the most important thing you learned Foundation year?
JB: Really, just to be kind of fearless with my work — if an idea came into my mind, I just sort of flat out pursued it, no matter how crazy ambitious it was. Foundations year is the time to really really push yourself, and I was pretty fortunate that first semester I had a pretty good group of professors that really pushed our sections, but second semester came around and it wasn’t really the same… so the development of a good work ethic was important.
AS: What is the weirdest thing you’ve ever had to do in a RISD class?
JB: All the weird things I’m thinking of are mostly projects I decided to do on my own — they really didn’t need to be weird. It’s just sometimes you’re given an assignment and you’re like, hell, I’m at RISD – I might as well make it weird. First semester freshman year I made a giant self portrait out of frosted cookies and my class ate my project in class.
I also made a giant squirrel out of chicken wire and fabric for an installation piece. When I moved in this year, I tried to throw it away in the dumpsters by Charles Landing, but I found it nestled in a tree a good couple hundred feet down the road a couple days later.
AS: Charcoal or gouache?
JB: Gouache! I’m obsessed. I’m really sorry to anyone out there who hasn’t made peace with gouache yet – it’s a beautiful medium once you get a handle on it.
AS: What is the weirdest thing to have happened to you since you started this blog? Have you experienced any backlash from publishing autobiographical comics online?
JB: It’s really all been very positive – people come up to me on the street and ask me if I’m the one who does JISD. One freshman asked me if I was “the girl that does the thing” and I had to be like, “Yes? Yes, I do a thing.” And I got e-mails from alumni that had been out of RISD a good 15, 20 years, telling me how relevant the comics are, even to RISD back then — that’s probably been my favorite thing about posting these comics. I guess the most backlash I get is when people ask me why they aren’t featured in JISD…
I do remember getting one piece of biting criticism — I posted a comic about how I was sort of gaining perspective — that to draw comics, you don’t necessarily have to be the greatest artist. A lot of comics I really love rely heavily simply on the writing! Somebody sent me an anonymous message that this comic made me come off “rather snobbish” and that I should “examine myself” after writing that. It really wasn’t that terrible of a message, but at the time, I was really just starting the comic, so it kind of hurt, especially knowing that the majority of my readers were my classmates!
AS: What is your favorite blog (besides your own)?
JB: There’s this blog called “RISD KIDS” which has photos of just that, the culture of RISD – and I don’t know who runs that blog, but it is like the National Geographic of RISD. I’m crazy about it, and I wonder how long I have to stand in Market Square wearing something cool until they put me on the blog…
Also, Deep Dark Fears has the most wonderfully dark comics.
AS: How did you decide to major in Printmaking?
JB: I had taken an Intro to Intaglio Wintersession [Ed–apparently this is how RISD stylizes its winter period] class and sort of fell in love, but at the time I still was heavily considering Illustration because it was the obvious choice. I was walking by Benson Hall one day in spring semester and I was whining how much I missed being in that studio – and my friend (one of the few that aren’t in Illustration) turned and said to me, “Jen, why don’t you go into Printmaking?” and it sort of clicked. I just really enjoy the labor that goes into making a print.
AS: Do you ever hand in your JISD works as assignments for class, or do you keep it separate from your studies?
JB: It’s pretty separate. It’s sort of like I’m still trying to figure out how to shape my work in a way that incorporates aspects of comics, but it’s not really there yet. I’m working on a series of six short autobiographical stories for my bookbinding class and they’re sort of JISD adjacent, but they’re definitely more personal. When I was doing the comics every day, I did sort of consider it to be work, but it was like this weird unpaid self-employment where I had to set aside nearly two hours a day.
AS: Which comics do you read?
JB: I think my favorite webcomics right now are Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant, Octopus Pie by Meredith Gran, and Three Word Phrase by Ryan Pequin. I’ve been very into reading autobiographical graphic novels/comics lately — Lynda Berry, John Porcellino, Adrian Tomine.
AS: Will you make a comic or an installment of JISD about Brown?
JB: I’m sure I’ll come around to it! I think I’ll probably have to take a Brown class to sort of absorb the culture – it’s probably as mystifying to me as RISD is to Brown.
[AS: Brown has had its honorary mentions from time to time…]
AS: Anything else you’d like to share?
JB: Just a shout-out to whatever glorious person writes the signs out in front of the First Baptist Church. I’ve considered writing a comic about them but how can you when they are just so perfect and bizarre?