Barry and Kalman on the state of illustration, sort of

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Lynda Barry. ()
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Cartoonist Lynda Barry was nervous at the 92nd Street Y last night.

Barry is a queen among illustrators and cartoonists, the creator of "Ernie Pook's Comeek!," in which working-class tweens drawn in simple, bold strokes appeared in hundreds of newspapers during the 1990s. She now conducts a popular workshop, “Writing the Unthinkable," and works on illustrated novels and art books from her Wisconsin farm. 

“Sometimes I feel like a wild dog who has been tied up outside too long and I get to these things and I’m like, ‘aaaah!’” Barry told Capital in a fluorescent-bulb lit back room. She was dressed in a navy turtleneck, purple socks and blocky black boots that she said she acquired as a “punk rocker” in Seattle. Her wild, strawberry blonde hair was wrapped into two long pigtails and she wore a black velvet cap with gold trim on the edges.

“What I do when I’m nervous is, well, eat a hot dog,” she said on stage, under bright lights in Buttenwieser Hall. “But I don’t have one.”

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“Singing is the scariest thing you can do in front of people and since I’m scared anyway, what the hell, right? Because it’s like, when I had my first big break-up when I was young, well, I was in my 20s, a really horrible one where you’re crying and you don’t think you’ll ever get over it and you look in the mirror and it’s Mr. Potato Head with the tears, you know. And I said well I should get my wisdom teeth out.”

And so, as a form of surgical relief, Barry sang a brief biography, off-key: “My mom is from the Philippines, she was a janitor / I ate TV dinners at night, I grew up by the TV light / While dad drank vodka in the basement and mom hollered.”

At the 92nd Street Y, Barry was joined by illustrator Maira Kalman, who was introduced as an artist who had done work for Kate Spade, the Mark Morris dance company, and the Museum of Modern Art. She is most widely known as the New York Times' visual columnist and the author of And the Pursuit of Happiness, an illustrated study of what Thomas Jefferson might have meant by the term, in which readers follow her from the Supreme Court Building to Alice Waters' edible schoolyard in California. (For her part, Barry was introduced as a cartoonist and memorist, with shouty titles including One! Hundred! Demons!, Naked Ladies Naked Ladies Naked Ladies, and Cruddy: An Illustrated Novel, who has also received an award for “the Highest Literary Achievement by a Wisconsin author,” which elicited a snicker from the crowd.)

It was an odd couple of cartoonists, although they are both visual artists and writers.

Barry is a kind of conduit to childhood wonder, fear and memory. Her new book is filled with smoking monkies who drink "all your wine and read all your tabloids," ballerinas with six eyes, and “scrap-heads” made of newspaper clippings and children’s construction paper.

Kalman takes photographs of her subjectsNew Yorkers, plates of pie, statues of George Washingtonand paints and draws from them. What makes her happy, according to her book, are simple pleasures: reading the obituaries every morning, conducting cleaning rituals, sitting in a garden and eating a meringue before beginning to draw.

After presenting a few slides of their work at a podium individually, the artists sat down in chairs for a chat. Kalman was poised, dressed in a simple black suit, with her honey blonde hair pinned back on one the side. Barry said she has been madly jealous of Kalman's work since she first saw it and asks her how her working day is structured.

Kalman wakes up around 6:30, goes for a walk, reads the obituaries, and then “putzes around the house.”

Barry said she wakes up at 4 a.m., works in a studio not far from her farmhouse, then has a “little drink” before returning to bed around 11 a.m. She sometimes leaves illustrations on the kitchen table for her husband to finish, who returns them a few days later. “I’m married to the greatest guy,” Barry said. “If you have to find him in a room I’ll say he looks like a cross between George Clooney and Santa Claus. And if you’re blind, he’s the one who smells like green Kool-Aid and popcorn.”

The two discussed their process—how sometimes a piece can literally feel like it’s dying. Rescuing it is what makes it work. “It’s literally every day, I’m dying, it’s dying,” Kalman said. “Then something happens and it’s like, 'OK, it’s going to be OK.'”

In fact they were invited to discuss, according to the materials, “why do we stop drawing? And why do we start?” But there were many more questions about the future of cartooning and illustration. If there is a blank page in front of us, do we doodle? And if we do, what does it mean? What does it do for us? Or are we too busy fiddling with our smartphones to free our hands, and minds, to draw anymore?

Kalman said she worked as a waitress before building an illustration portfolio to take around to magazines. Before she found a job, she wrote “bad poetry.” Barry said she thinks it’s good to write poetry, “even if it’s bad.” Kalman frowned.

There were awkward silences. When an audience member asked about their favorite midnight snack Kalman took a sip of water and said, “I can’t answer that,” because she is never up at that hour. Barry replied: “Wild Turkey.”

Kalman said computers are the “antithesis to creation.”

“Well, that’s a stupid thing to say, but for me, the movement of the hand is all about ideas and allowing them to come to you,” she said, partly correcting herself.

Barry said she took ten years to write a novel using a computer because of that “dang delete button.” She is fascinated by scientific research that studies the way our brains work when we are being creative. There are definitely “different things going on in the brain when we are drawing, compared to doing this,” she said, punching down on an invisible keyboard.

As Barry has noted in previous interviews, she has found that “writing in frosting” is one of the best ways to write, because the process is so slow. “Do you write in frosting?” she asked Kalman. “It seems like you would from your art. I want to eat it.”

"No," Kalman replied. (Although she'd think about it now that Barry mentioned it.)

The artists’ common ground was clear: Writing, like drawing, is a visual art. The process improves with mistakes and requires quiet moments to see where the lines, and the characters, take them.

In Barry's new book, Picture This: The Near-sighted Monkey Book, readers can learn how to draw again. The pages are scrapbook-like, nearly bleeding with bright watercolors, and scattered with scraps of paper, cotton balls, tears from newspapers.

She wanted to model the book after the children’s magazine Highlights.

“You know why you read that book?" she asked rhetorically at the Y. "Because you were in a tense situation—doctor or dentist. It was actually kind of a shitty magazine.” But Highlights helped ease anxiety. And if you were waiting at someplace terribly boring, like a Jiffy Lube, it made the time go by faster.

“It’s an art book but I didn’t want to give any specific instructions on how to make something,” Barry said. “I just wanted the Jiffy Lube person to feel this mad urge to make something.”

Barry describes drawing pictures of a monkey after a close friend dies as a way to comfort herself. She drew him over and over again.

“When you are blue, try dots,” she urges on one page in the book; including outlines of birds, bunnies and a bat; to fill in with dots. “It is good to move your hand. It is good to leave some marks during a hard time.”

The book is structured by season. She begins with winter and the pages are bordered in a light purple-blue shade. On one page, a drawing of a simple chicken sits in the middle of the page. There's tiny wads of cotton stuck to it for feathers. “Sometimes in life when we are very sad, it is good to make a chicken in winter,” Barry painted in a box in the corner of the page. “It is not a beautiful chicken but it is a chicken that will guard you through the hours and hours, quietly.”

On the next page, there is another outline of the chicken. “Sometimes we feel we cannot draw a chicken, so here is a chicken to use on those days, to copy, trace, cut out and paste. The dear chicken is on the job.”

“Take some dark moody paper and draw a chicken outline. Ball up little pieces of cotton or lint or tissue paper it will get better things will get better put down a line of glue on the chicken and put the wads of sadness onto the chicken, and then more glue and then more wads of sadness. it is ok to watch TV while you are doing this, it will get better. Please note: there are times when all we can do is ball up paper and glue it down.”

Throughout the book, there are small illustrations of boxes of cigarettes, which act as a fake sponsor of the book.

“We all know that smoking cigarettes is bad for us, but not if you’re smoking imaginary cigarettes, which can be very good for us," Barry said. "I wanted to have the whole book sponsored by Dope cigarettes with this whole idea that maybe not drawing is as bad as smoking.”

Back at the Y, Barry explained that drawing is a form of catharsis. She is especially enamored with the work of a neuroscientist named V. S. Ramachandran, who wrote a book called Phantoms in the Brain. One of his patients had phantom-limb pain—a fist that kept clenching tighter and tighter. Ramachandran built a box, with a mirror and two holes in one side. When the guy put his arms in, he saw the one hand reflected. "He opened his hand, and he saw it unclench and he felt it unclench." That’s images do; that’s what the arts do. As Barry recently described to the Paris Review: "In the course of human life we have a million phantom-limb pains—losing a parent when you’re little, being in a war, even something as dumb as having a mean teacher—and seeing it somehow reflected, whether it’s in our own work or listening to a song, is a way to deal with it."

"MY ABSOLUTE FAVORITE CARTOON OF ALL TIME IS: ARE YOU READY? It’s Family Circus,” Barry said at the Y. “You know that thing you hear of when you’re a kid that if you see beautiful art that you’ll burst into tears and around the same time you hear about that lady who, if she hits the right note she’ll blow up a wine glass? I always wanted to burst into tears in front of beauty, especially around a cute guy really close. He’d go, ‘she’s so sensitive.’ And I’d say, ‘I am.’ So what happened is I was travelling around Europe by myself and I was always at the galleries trying to burst into tears right?” It never happened.

But years ago, she went to a comics convention and met the illustrator behind Family Circus, which was created by Bil Keane and inked by his son, Jeff. “I burst into tears and it wasn’t cute at all,” she said. “I tried to introduce myself to him but I couldn’t stop crying.”

“The reason why I loved Family Circus so much was because I came from a very difficult, violent, horrible home and I look in that circle and see a happy little life. And I always wanted to get to it. And I realized when I shook his hand that I had come through the circle. I was on the other side. And the way I did it was by drawing a picture.”