Lynda Barry: Never Stop Drawing

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday September 26, 2019

Lynda Barry, known and loved for her zany irreverence and imagination, brought the graphic literature genre onto new terrain with her invention, the graphic memoir. In its first iteration, Picture This: The Nearsighted Monkey Book (Drawn & Quarterly 2010), she brought back Marlys and Arna, characters from her previous book, What It Is, and introduced the Near-Sighted Monkey, a cigarette-smoking alter ego from Hell. Photo above courtesy of Macarthur Foundation

During the ensuing decade, Barry has turned her focus to education and enabling others to discover their own creativity. When she learned that she has been honored with a Macarthur Foundation “Genius” Grant, announced this week, she said, “The thing that I was flooded with was this realization that I was really going to get to apply myself to this work I’ve sort of been chasing after for 20 years, which is this whole thing about images and how they travel between people and why we use them. Key to that has been working with four-year-olds, she said, because she considers them on an important developmental cusp, before drawing and writing start being identified as separate forms of communication.

“So that was when I started crying. And then the other thing that happened was after I hung up, both my fists went up into the air, you know, like ‘Woo!,’ like that. But I couldn’t bring them down for a really long time. And the only other time that happened to me was when Obama got elected. I couldn’t bring them down.”

“The honor of it. My god,” the artist said. “It’s just such a magical, amazing thing. I’m so, so excited about the next five years and the work I’m going to be able to do. I’m so grateful for that.”

Art for a page from Two Sisters / Blabber Blabber Blabber: Volume 1 of Everything.

Following is an extract from my 2014 DART feature based on a conversation with Lynda Barry at Adam Baumgold Gallery:
Through the tough cookies Marlys and Arna Barry features in Picture This, she poses questions that no adult in their right mind would ask. For example: "Why do we stop drawing? And why do we start?" Or "What is the difference between torn and cut paper? Which do you prefer?"

As you squirm in your seat, remembering how boring childhood often was, and how we sometimes squandered our time and talents on coloring books (they destroy creativity, according to Marlys) in order to conquer our fears about making pictures. And so, for the days when we don't feel that we can draw, the kindhearted artist offers a stand-in chicken to use instead. We can trace it, cut it out, and paste it into our own drawing space.

"What happened on the day I realized I could not draw?" Now that's an ugly thought, but Marlys, a courageous artist, assures us that "it happens to almost everyone." She explores the fear that a blank drawing book, or even a blank sheet of paper can conjure up, then proceeds to annotate the process of making ugly and pretty shapes, collecting them into nice piles, and then "finding your way back to the place where the shapes are happening." Another piece of sage advice about overcoming our inherent inabilities is a blinding glimpse of the obvious: "The trick is to stand not knowing certain things long enough for them to come to you."

Picture This covers just about every kind of art crisis imaginable and what to do about it. "What makes you able to endure uncertainty. What makes your mind wander? Why do we lose focus?" Part of the solution, says Barry, is "You have to be willing to spend time making things for no reason." In my view, that is foundational to being a genius.

Making Comics [above] is Barry’s latest collage of comics and instruction, drawn from the course that she teaches at the University of Wisconsin–Madison art department, where she’s an associate professor. In the book, exercises are interspersed with views on creativity and storytelling, with illustrations based on the simple but inspiring scrawls of her students. It’s both exhilarating and challenging as it asks students to draw themselves as Batman or make a comic about their life in a few hours

Lynda Barry is going on tour for Making Comics in October with Chris Ware (Rusty Brown), making stops in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Portland, Brooklyn, and Boston. She will be in Brooklyn on Thursday, October 17, 2019, 7:30pm, at Murmrr Ballroom with Community Bookstore, 17 Eastern Parkway. For info and tour dates go here.




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