Phnom Penh and Ink
by Evangeline Politis (MA 2013)
Two life-changing events have happened for comics artist and youth educator Sara Drake (BFA 2011) in the last five years. First was the discovery of her love for comics. Growing up, she always felt like comics and cartoons were geared toward a male audience—both young and old. When she attended SAIC after transferring two times prior, she was exposed to the greater potential of comics, and the sizable comics community in Chicago led her to finally feel at home.
Along with taking a handful of comics-making classes at SAIC, she became very involved in expanding the community on campus: editing student-run comics and drawing zine Xerox Candy Bar; co-curating the exhibition CartoonInk!: Emerging Comics in Context at SAIC's Betty Rymer Gallery; and teaching several comics-making workshops. She also took action on the male-centric world of comic art, and helped illustrate faculty member Anne Elizabeth Moore’s (Visual and Critical Studies) column focusing on gender and comics called Ladydrawers on the website, Truth-out.org.
This relationship led to Drake’s second life-changing experience. In 2011 Moore offered Drake an opportunity to travel to Cambodia to teach comics to women at Pannasastra University, an English-language institution, and Strey Khmer, a nonprofit, human-rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of women. Four years prior, Moore made a similar pilgrimage to the Southeast Asian country where she taught self-publishing and zine-making to female college students (later remembered in her book Cambodian Grrrl). Moore has since returned to the country several times.
Funded by Arts Network Asia and a Kickstarter page, Drake spent two months in the capital, Phnom Penh. While her experiences with the two organizations were divided by Drake’s lack of knowledge of the native language (which made time spent at Strey Khmer difficult), she found that most Cambodian women have limited access to creative expression. Most of her students hadn’t even drawn before. Some didn’t see value in the medium because they placed them on the same level as illustrated children’s storybooks. With Drake’s guidance, the women quickly embraced the form and began producing and distributing their own comic books. One student even had her work featured in the Phnom Penh Post the following summer.
Propelled by the positive work done in Cambodia, Drake wanted to continue her efforts with both the Cambodian community and women involved in comics. Last year she took on a full-time position as the Youth Programs Coordinator at the Cambodian Association of Illinois. She teaches students a range of subjects from sex ed to media literacy to self-publishing. Meanwhile, she is also taking classes there in Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, so she can communicate better with her students and hopefully someday utilize it on a trip back to the country.
Her other "part-time” job, as she describes it, is her comics art practice. Roy G Biv Gallery in Columbus, Ohio is currently showing a collection of her puppets and two new comics: one about a Saul Steinburg quote and the other, a critique of expat culture in Cambodia called Elsewhere. She is also involved in Brain Frame, a series of performative comics readings in Wicker Park. And last month, she and fellow comics artist Krystal DiFronzo launchedMeanwhile..., an interview series with women in comics and publishing.
Drake hopes to expand the audience reading comics through both the subjects in her creations and vehicles like Meanwhile.... "It took me too long to realize the limitlessness of comics,” she explains. "I don’t want that to be the same for younger generations of women whether they’re in Chicago or Cambodia.”