“Draw what you know best.”
Those words helped define a career for Matt Daigle, a former RIT/NTID student now better known as the co-creator of “That Deaf Guy” cartoon.
Daigle was the guest speaker Thursday at the Edmund Lyon Memorial Lecture, named for a Rochester manufacturer and philanthropist and former RIT and Rochester School for the Deaf trustee who died in 1920. The lectureship series, which began in 1980, aims to bring speakers to RIT/NTID whose expertise and scholarly contributions stand on the cutting edge of advancement in the education and career success of deaf persons.
Born deaf, Daigle said he spent hours every weekend as a young child watching cartoons on television and reading the comics in the Sunday paper. “I was very interested in the visual arts.”
When he was 12, he visited a museum where a collection of works from cartoonist Gary Larson, creator of “The Far Side,” was on display.
“I was amazed they would have cartoons in an art museum,” he said. “I was in love. I decided right at that moment I wanted to be a cartoonist.”
Daigle enrolled at RIT/NTID in 1990 – originally majoring in industrial design. He became involved in theater at NTID and was a cast member of Sunshine Too!, a performing arts company that toured schools across the country. He eventually married a fellow performer, Kay, and followed her to South Dakota where she took a job as a professional sign language interpreter.
When their son, Hayden, was born seven years ago, he agreed to stay at home and work as a freelance artist, designing logos and marketing displays.
He drew cartoons often involving Deaf culture. But he was told sometimes that only deaf people would understand them.
“I had my struggles, I’ve had frustrations,” he said.
He found his niche after meeting with professional cartoonists at a convention in Missouri. They saw his talent and encouraged him to draw cartoons based on what he knows best: his life as a deaf father with a hearing son and wife.
In 2009, Daigle created “That Deaf Guy,” comic strips co-authored by his wife based on characters in their family and their experiences. His work can be seen at www.thatdeafguy.com.
“We didn’t want to come across as condescending or preachy in any way,” he said. “We wanted to have a balance of fun mixed with real experiences in our lives. Through humor, we’re trying to solve problems. Comics are for everyone – not just for kids. It’s a great way to express Deaf culture, our history and language.”
One strip features his hearing son on Santa’s lap. The boy tells Santa he wants him to shave his beard so his father can read his lips more clearly. Another strip shows the family at a restaurant and the child urgently signing his need to use the bathroom, while hearing onlookers marvel at the beauty of American Sign Language.
Daigle is about to publish a book with hundreds of his comics from over the years, and continues working as a freelance artist designing logos. He also designs and sells T-shirts with deaf-related themes.
The Daigles now live in Burbank, Calif., close to where Kay can be active in the entertainment industry and close to Walt Disney Studios, which may need Matt’s talents one day. He says incorporating a three-dimensional language such as ASL into a two-dimensional medium such as a comic strip can be challenging; an animated movie could be his next big project.
Daigle enjoyed returning to Rochester and meeting with students in classes and at a workshop he held Friday before flying home.
“I love sharing stories with the students,” he said. “Hopefully I can inspire their future directions in life.”
His advice to students contemplating a career as an artist: “Do what you love, what makes you happy, what your passion is, what you dream.”
Kristin Akina, an Arts & Imaging Studies student from Waipahu, Hawaii, said Daigle inspired her to follow her passion in art.
Igor Djenge, a New Media Design & Imaging major from Libertyville, Ill., was impressed that Daigle spent so much time creating a comic strip, yet it seemed so simple and easy to understand.
“I makes me think I might do it,” Djenge said.