Picture this narrative: a young boy living and making his way in his own mini wilderness. While this may sound like the imagined utopia that many of us reveled in growing up, for alumnus Alex Bettigole '08, this narrative is one that he continues to spin in his bi-weekly Web comic Oak Street Wilds.
Although Bettigole only began this comic shortly after graduating from Bowdoin in the spring of 2008, the seeds of inspiration for the project were planted long before he arrived on campus.
"I've always been drawn to pictures that have their own narratives," Bettigole, who graduated with a major in visual arts, explained. "It was an interest that started at a really young age. I was basically raised on Calvin and Hobbes. Well, I guess you'd say I raised myself on Calvin and Hobbes."
For Bettigole, narratives that unraveled in the cartoon format just made sense.
"I found I always transcribed effectively into a panel or four," Bettigole explained, speaking of an early experience making cartoons for the school paper. "That combination of writing and drawing just always made sense and the idea of illustrating preconceptions was completely fascinating."
Yet, although Bettigole had already located this interest in the narrative, he explained that nothing "really stuck or pulled me in as a medium until my first print making class with Anna Hepler."
"It's hard to say as a medium why it was so completely engaging," Bettigole says of his immediate fascination and love for printmaking that developed in Art Professor Anna Hepler's print making classes.
"It was something about having my hands right in it. Maybe it was the rhythm or the pacing, or the fact that there wasn't that immediate gratification. The process was regimented into these steps which made the process—and the result —so much more incredible," he said.
Throughout the art classes that Bettigole took at Bowdoin, he explained that he "wrangled up as many projects as possible that dwelled on the idea of narrative."
While in these classes, Hepler became an incredible mentor to Bettigole as he continued to conflate his passion for cartooning and narrative with his developing printmaking and animation skills.
Following an artistically rich study abroad experience in Tanzania, Bettigole returned to Bowdoin for his senior year with the intentions of embarking on independent study projects that honed in on his narrative interests and also took advantage of the visual arts professors with whom he'd already developed close relationships.
"During my senior year I took on two concurrent independent studies—one in animation and one in woodblock printing. It was such a wonderful opportunity because I really wanted to be working on this stuff and I loved working so closely with a professor, but I wanted to get out of the very structured format of art classes," he said.
Looking back, Bettigole speaks especially fondly of the project he developed in his animation independent study—creating post-it-note animations.
Bettigole explained that his stick figure animations "came together thoughtlessly. It all made sense," he said. "Which I've figured out is how I work best. One thing leads to the next and then its done, which is incredible because there are so many decisions being made." It was an amazing experience, watching these animations at the end of the semester - having that realization of just how awesome such crudely drawn post-it-notes can look when strung together to create a narrative."
Upon graduating from Bowdoin, Bettigole continued to pursue his interest in artistic narrative creating the web comic Oak Street Wilds.
"My idea for Oak Street was always brewing," Bettigole said. "I'd created the character while abroad. I've always had an interest in Greek myths and I had this one moment abroad when I saw a raccoon pelt and was reminded of the myth of Heracles killing the Nemean Lion and wearing its skin with the paws tied around his neck. I saw that pelt and I just had this strong idea of a young boy hero."
Bettigole explained that the inspiration for his comic also grew from his own experiences growing up in the suburbs of Westchester, Conn.
"There were these great woods behind my house," Bettigole said. "You go in there and it was wilderness, you just knew it. You go in there and you're away from it all even if you can hear the cars on the highway."
To create each page for the Web comic, Bettigole explained that it all starts with a notebook, upon which he begins simply by writing out the narrative like a script. From there, he makes various stages of thumbnails of the panels, which he then eventually inks and scans to color on Photoshop.
"What's exciting is that I'm not sure exactly where it's going," he said. "I have these ideas for its future. Really enthused ideas because I love this character but there is a lot of flexibility there. What I do know is that from the beginning, I've never felt stronger for an artistic idea."
In addition to his comic, Bettigole has begun work at Creative Trails, an innovative community support service program that is part of a larger, private nonprofit that provides services for children and adults with developmental disabilities and mental health challenges.
Bettigole's interest in working there stemmed from experiences he'd had at Bowdoin teaching workshops at Spindleworks, a similar artistic nonprofit.
"I've always known I wanted to teach art and in both my experiences at Spindleworks and at Creative Trails I've realized that teaching art is such a wonderful way to connect with people. I would describe my job at Creative Trails as a permanent camp counselor at a forever summer camp," he said, explaining how any given day he is either taking a group hiking, doing culinary arts or teaching art.
"It's amazing to work with the participants, especially in the open studio. It's awesome the projects we come up with together," Bettigole added.
"It is incredibly rewarding and incredibly fun," he said. "And its something I can definitely see myself doing throughout my life."
To check out Alex Bettigole's Web comic Oak Street Wilds please visit www.oakstreetwilds.com.