MacDonald impresses in IDEA grant exhibition

 Students admire Austin MacDonald's cut-paper comic "Prodigal- The Sentinel's Garden" Tuesday night, Feb. 27 in the Art Building Room 109. (Natalija Marosz/The Daily Campus)

Students admire Austin MacDonald's cut-paper comic "Prodigal- The Sentinel's Garden" Tuesday night, Feb. 27 in the Art Building Room 109. (Natalija Marosz/The Daily Campus)

Austin MacDonald, an eighth-semester illustration major, showcased his cut-paper comic “Prodigal: The Sentinel’s Garden,” the prudent, prepossessing product of his IDEA grant on Tuesday night.

The first part of the comic is set in a cooler, more cut-throat dystopian desert version of “Zootopia.” It follows a rabbit getting robbed and his later attempts to get back its last carrot, which it smokes like  a cigarette. Believe me when I say this, the real thing is much cooler than this description provides.

The eight-page comic is made nearly entirely of hand-cut or ripped paper.

Christina Trovato, an eighth-semester illustration major, noted how impressive and time-consuming this process is.

“He’s doing it all in cut paper and that takes forever,” Trovato said. “I just did a cut paper animation and it took me like at least a week to do so. To do an entire project like this is just absolutely insane.”

This unique choice of medium may be part of what set MacDonald apart and enabled him to receive an IDEA grant. During the application process applicants are asked how their work is different from what is already being done. “My take on it was just doing it in a medium that isn’t normally done in comics,” MacDonald said.

Even more interesting than the medium are MacDonald’s decisions to experiment with ambiguity in the comic. One way in which he left the meaning, the plot and the characters up to interpretation was by not including any words in his work, except for the title.

“I think when there’s dialogue in a comic it can be really tempting to just skim through it fast and just read the speech bubbles and not look at the artwork and I wanted the focus to be on the artwork and I wanted people to have to pay attention,” MacDonald said. “I think dialogue can be a crutch because you can just say what is happening in the panel and your drawing doesn’t have to be that clear. So I wanted to just challenge my visual storytelling by telling a story solely through images.”

Like many contemporary artists, MacDonald was less concerned with telling a complete story than he was with allowing viewers to play a role in piecing together and interpreting “Prodigal” for themselves. He embraces the endless opportunities in every individual’s perspective and how those predispositions alter the story.

“The audience’s imagination is infinite and mine is limited,” MacDonald said.

MacDonald’s intentions came through in the exhibition. “I feel like he tried to perform it as as blank slate,” Trovato said. You can project your own views on it, like how you feel and your own character.”

This use of ambiguity is “one of the more effective ways to tell a story,” Trovato said. “If you can speak to a wider audience, you can reach a lot more people, especially if they can connect to it on a deeper level because it’s not so specific.

Unlike many exhibitions and shows, MacDonald included an explanation and evidence of the process of making “Prodigal.” He starts explaining through rough thumbnails, moving through a “cleanup” stage and working layer-by-layer and piece-by-piece until he reaches the final scanning and digital editing phase.

Many viewers, including sixth-semester illustration major Beck Trovern-Trend enjoyed seeing MacDonald’s process, even calling it “inspiring” to other illustrators and young artists who can learn from his techniques.

Mandy Trinh, a sixth-semester illustration major, appreciated the effort MacDonald put into the work after seeing the process portions of the exhibition. “There’s a lot of heart that goes into it,” Trinh said.

By including his process, MacDonald makes the case that the process is as much of a work of art as the final piece.

Beck further explained that, just as “it’s not just a polished finished product,” art is not solely about the final product. Just as much as any other long-term project or investment, art is about the process, the effort that gets put into it and the fulfillment of creating something out of nothing with your own two hands.

“There’s a lot of research that goes into creating something without relying on language because your just relying on visual storytelling,” Trinh said. “That takes a lot of skill.”

MacDonald’s exhibition will be available in the UConn VAIS gallery (also known as Art Building room 109) until this Friday, March 2 and online on MacDonald’s website

Alex Taylor is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at