A seminal figure in the world of cartoons and illustration, Lynda Barry has been creating award-winning comic strips, books and graphic novels for the better part of four decades. Along making those contributions to popular culture, Barry is also a teacher; she's currently an associate professor in interdisciplinary creativity at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She focuses on drawing and picture-making, teaching both children and adult students and often combining the two groups to work collaboratively and learn from each other.
This Tuesday, March 31, Barry will tackle the question of "What is an image?" — an ongoing focus of much of her life's work. This lecture, entitled "What It Is," brings the artist and teacher to the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design as part of a continuing public conversation about identity, presented through the school's Visiting Artist, Scholar, and Designer Program. In advance of her visit, Westword spoke with Barry about her work as an artist, professor and scholar.
Westword: Can you talk a little bit about what, exactly, you'll be covering in your upcoming lecture, "What It Is"?
Lynda Barry: What I'm going to be talking about is something that I’ve been interested in forever — something I've been thinking about since I was nineteen and I'm almost sixty now — and it is the role of this thing I call an image. My teacher Marilyn Frasca first asked me this question — "What is an image?" — when I was nineteen, and at that time I thought what she meant "picture," and then I thought it meant what is contained by thing this we call the arts. Then I started to get really interested in the biological function of the arts — like, why is it that every society has come up with this thing we call "the arts"? That's how I always refer to it — "this thing we call 'the arts'," because it was there before we have had that word for it.
I'll also be talking about why babies and little kids engage in everything we call the arts, whether it's dancing or drawing or making sculpture or making up stories. I started to notice that this thing I'm calling an image is also present in any object that a kid is very, very attached to. When I started to look at that relationship and its relationship to mental health and how a kid actually makes another character — it's wild if you think about it. They might have this blanket or blankey that a kid has, it really is just a piece of cloth, but it contains something that has a lot to do with that kid's feeling of well-being.
Then I started to think, instead of us thinking of the arts as decoration or an option, what if it turns out that our use of images is sort of in correlation to our immune system or our autonomic nervous system? I started to think of the arts as these external organs instead of internal organs. I'm curious about why is it that people who have given up on drawing or singing or any of the arts would still want to do it if someone gave them the power. I also want to know, why is it that people are so terrified of making a picture? I'm going to talk a little bit about how I've gotten people past that and on to looking at drawing not as making this gorgeous picture that other people will think is fantastic but as this entirely other language and way of thinking that I think is critical to being in the world.
I'm also going to talk about the oddness of this thing we call "the back of the mind." Some people may call it the unconscious or the subconscious, but I like the back of the mind a little better. I remember when I was in about seventh grade and I was first hearing about the unconscious and I remember just laughing and thinking, if I had an unconscious, I would know about it. (Laughs.) I'll be showing some work I've been doing with grad students — particularly people who are working on dissertations —- where I pair them up with four-year-olds as co-researchers, because it turns out that when people are at the point of writing their thesis or dissertations, their focus is so narrow. It's really like somebody saying, I want you to dig a tunnel and all I can give you is a toothpick to do it — and then it's like the students try that instead of thinking, maybe there's another way around this. There is something about being with little kids, especially three- and four-year- olds, which gives you a completely different take on all kinds of problems.
In regards to this idea of identity, the really fascinating part is this idea of who we think we are and then there's what comes out when we start to draw or write autobiographical or creative work. Or actually, when we take who we are and run it through this immune system or liver called the arts. For instance, what is happening with the arts being taken away in our schools — I think it is as catastrophic as if someone opened up a human being and said, let's just take that big slab, that liver thing out, and there will be more room. But then, more room for what?
It's terrifying to think that the arts aren't valued as much as say, math or science, in the foundational learning that we need to become who we are.
I've been working with the public schools in Madison, actually being in the school with fourth- and fifth-graders who have 75 minutes of math first thing in the morning. Everything else is teaching to test. One teacher found some value in drawing, but this is the way she phrased it: "We realized that if we let them draw in the afternoon, we can get another hour's work out of them afterwards." There was something really foul about that to me. I said, "Have you ever thought about starting with drawing?"
There's a real misunderstanding about what the arts are and I have to say, artists are a part of the problem. The whole art world is part of the problem because it really sets itself apart from regular human life. I'm interested in the little tiny places where the arts still are alive — like in doodling. Doodling is a tiny little vestigial tail; almost everyone has something that they doodle. Although a friend of mine pointed out that since we switched to e-mail, doodling is almost gone. And there's something about the fact that e-mail takes both of our hands. When I was younger, phone booths were always covered with crazy doodles.
You work with and teach to people who stopped making art — is there a general cause or timeframe in life when people stop making art?
First of all, my favorite students to work with are the ones who quit drawing at about eleven or twelve years old because their drawing style is intact from that time. There's not a whole lot for them to unlearn. The kind of drawing that I teach is more along the lines of comics than representational work. It's really interesting — it hits at about 26 or 27, when your full-body commitment to the arts, like being in a band or being a painter or a standup comic, kind of wanes. I'm not quite sure of what's happening there. I don't know if it has to do with having to making a living or just being tired of living in a really rotten place or what. But I do know that for people who quit drawing or don't think that they can draw, I'm always fascinated by the horror that people have of their own drawings.
I'm working with pre-K classes and it never even occurred to me that pre-K teachers would be scared to draw in front of a three-year-old kid, but they are. There's an educational theory that if a kid says, "Can you draw me an A or a B?," a teacher will do that; if a kid says, "Can you draw me a 5?," a teacher can do that; but if a kid asks a teacher, "Can you draw me a giraffe?," they can't do that. One of the ideas behind that is, if kid sees you draw a giraffe they will be so blown away they won't even want to try to draw it themselves — which is not going to happen. (Laughs.)
But what the kids do pick up on is that when the pre-K teacher is drawing a giraffe, they are also talking about how bad they are at drawing. If drawing is a language — and I believe it is — we're losing an opportunity to speak it and to let these kids develop it as a language. What I try to do is walk people back into drawing, not as ever making beautiful drawings or representational drawings, but more as finding this other language. The trick seems to be, it takes about three to six weeks of just being able to stand your own drawing. Once you get past about three weeks, there's some steadiness. And after six weeks, well, I've never seen it fail. People have a style and they feel comfortable expressing stuff in drawings, which is really awesome. It's one of my favorite things in the world to watch this happen over and over again. Everyone can draw comics; if you can write the alphabet, you can draw comics.
We have a lot of students who, when I met them, didn't draw at all. Now, drawing is very much a part of their practice even though they're not art students — like my grad students who are in sociology or geography. It's amazing watching that come alive in somebody and have it as another way of working. It's hard to believe you can take an academic question like "What is knowing" and ask someone to make a picture of what that might be and at first, everyone is kind of flummoxed but then they start. Sure enough, this picture will have something to say about this question that from there, the writing about it is a lot richer. Like I said, it's like trying to approach getting through a wall with a toothpick.
If someone asks me to draw something, my answer is automatically, I don't draw. I'm a writer, I don't draw and that's kind of silly because like you're saying, anyone can draw. It's just that initial idea that I've already decided that I'm not good at this and I'm not an artist. If a kid asked me to draw a giraffe, my response would be, I don't want to draw something that a kid will think is crappy. (Laughs.)
It's like saying that unless you can ride a bike like Lance Armstrong, you can't ride a bike. Which by the way, Lance Armstrong can't even ride a bike like Lance Armstrong. (Laughs.) When you get it back to it, it's like riding a bike or going for a walk or when you sing along to a song on the radio — drawing has to have a different identity for people. I've been trying to figure out — what is the metaphor for the way people respond after they've drawn even something small on a piece of paper? It's this horror; I feel like it's the same horror somebody would have of bodily fluids. It's like drool, all of a sudden, like ahhh!
Another group I work with at the university is scientists and I love to go to their talks and see all of the formulas that they draw on the board. Oddly, science and math are the last places writing and drawing by hand are still very much alive, and so they are doing all of these really amazing illustrations and charts and then all of a sudden they have to draw a person and they just freeze in horror and just draw a stick figure. It is fascinating to me that someone can do delta epsilon minus twelve over five and then... a stick figure.
It's interesting that there is a standard stick figure that everyone seems to know how to draw.
It used to be that I wouldn't see stick figures showing up in kid’s drawings until maybe the third grade; now it's kindergarten. There's a really great cartoonist named Ivan Brunetti whose work I use a lot in my classes — he figured out a way to get people to start drawing by using the way kids actually draw. That's with a giant head, some sort of shape for a body and some kind of curvy limbs. If you do that, they are already way ahead of the game. The stick figure is, I think, a way to not draw. It's sad because it's kind of like trying to get all of your nutrition from gummy bears because you just think they are the color of vegetables and it's like, there's a fault in this thinking.
You talk about pairing grad students with children — how does that collaboration play out?
There are three pre-K schools on the University of Wisconsin campus — very different schools, all three of them. What I do is I have about twelve grad students and I divide them up among all the pre-K students. Their assignment is to get on the floor and participate in whatever the kids are doing — if it's circle time they have to be the part of that, if it's cleanup time you have to do that. Whatever the kids are doing, you do. I asked them to bring a notebook and let the kids know that they are interested in any stories they have to tell. I ask them to also think about what it would be like if they were going to break down their dissertation to something they could talk to a three- or four-year-old about. How would they do it? I also ask the students to pay attention to the way that kids wonder about things — when you are around kids, it's in the form of behavior. Basically, what I'm asking them to do just borrow the state of mind.
You've been working on this same question "What is an image?" for several decades. What keeps you coming back to it?
I think that it may be that it is an element that I feel is in plain sight and at the same time, completely missing. I look at it as the thing that is increasingly missing from human life, particularly modern human life; there's this big gap between what people are doing and how they are feeling about stuff. One of the things I say to students in the very beginning is, what if I was a genie and I had this power to give you the power to draw anything to your satisfaction — but the rule is, you could never make a living from it and you could never become famous from it, would you take it? The response is always, yeah! And I go, wish granted. Let's figure out how we do it!
For kids, if you say to them, would you like to fly, turn invisible and time travel? They are like, yeah! For adults, you can ask them the same questions and they will say, can I make any money from it? I'm like, wrong answer. Genie back in the bottle.
I've been writing my whole life and I often think, what if I wake up tomorrow and it just doesn't come out? What if I can't write and I have deadlines? It sometimes feels like a faucet that's on but could be turned off at any moment.
We always have to think that we can't do it — that's the part that is the mystery, right? Every single time I go to do a comic strip or go to teach a class I think, how the hell do I do this again? I think that instead of thinking there is something wrong with that, it may be that that's the critical part — it has to be this finding over and over again. There's no way of being able to predict how it's going to work out; that part's the thrill. The thing for my comic students in particular — you can sit there and think about a comic strip for forever before you start drawing. Or, you can draw a head and a little body and put some eyes on it and make the eyebrows point down or point up. Then draw another head next to it and do the same thing — now, what are they saying to each other? You can see it but you can't think it. I always tell my students that the problem with the part of you that's thinking stuff out beforehand is that it doesn't have any hands — it's not really good at figuring out what you're supposed to do with your hands.
It's like thinking about a conversation you're going to have going to have with someone and forgetting the fact that there's going to be someone else there. It doesn't even go that way when you're imagining it. This is how we think about our work before we even sit down to do something. Before we start, it's like, how's this going to go? Is it going to be great? Is it going to be shitty? What's going to happen? The working state of mind doesn't have that going on — it's in a different place. Especially when it's rolling, man. It's great. Then you feel good for about 24 hours and then you have to do it all over again.
Lynda Barry's lecture "What It Is" starts at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 31, at the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design's Mary Harris Auditorium at 1600 Pierce Street in Lakewood. The engagement is part of RMCAD's Visiting Artist, Scholar, and Designer Program's ongoing lecture series on identity. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.; admission is free but seating is limited and you must RSVP in advance. To do so, visit RMCAD's website.
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