Do you wish you could draw? Do you wish you could write? Remember how much fun you had as a kid, when you stapled a couple of pieces of paper together, wrote a story and made some doodles to go with it? Most of us have stopped doing this, but are we really over it?
This question is at the very core of American author and cartoonist Lynda Barry’s work, especially for her two most recent books What It Is (2008) and Picture This (2010).
While her latest book is about drawing, What it Is is about writing. It’s a handmade collage book based on the theory behind her workshop Writing the Unthinkable, which is about “the state of mind that we need to have in order to do something creative.” The workshop has followed Barry for several years, and she will be bringing it to Montreal writers on Jan. 15, which will mark her first visit to the city.
Barry, who is most recognized for her comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek, re-introduces a familiar character in her drawing handbook Picture This. Marlys is an exuberant little redhead girl of Pook fame, who is also Barry’s most renowned character. A fun new character, the Nearsighted Monkey, also makes an appearance.
“I wanted to take that idea of children’s activity book,” she said, to make “a version of it for adults who had given up on the idea of doing something creative in their lives.”
Barry studied at the Evergreen State College in Washington state, where she became friends with Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons. (He says she was “probably my biggest inspiration.”)
At Evergreen, Barry herself found an inspiration of sorts. “What is an image?” was the first question she was asked when she entered an art class taught by Marilyn Frasca. From then on, the young art student became obsessed with Frasca’s image theory.
One of the concepts behind this theory is that of an image world. “Where are Hannibal Lecter, Dracula?” Barry asked. “I believe they’re in this place, it’s the image world. It’s a world that’s with us at all times, but it’s a separate world.” And, she added, “it’s a world that’s going to outlast us.” Barry is also fascinated by the brain and spontaneous memory, which is “based on the same thing that happens when you’re walking down the street and you smell a smell and suddenly a time of your life comes flooding back.”
Over the years, Barry taught the workshop to various kinds of people, but she said her “strongest experience” was working with inmates in a Philadelphia prison.
She found all the safety precautions surprising. “I wear a red scarf tied around my head quite often,” she said, her signature look. “But in Philadelphia, that particular scarf was a gang sign, so I was not allowed to wear it.”
But Barry said she was most taken aback by “just how vivid and powerful” the prisoners’ stories were. “Like a kid who loved to spy on his neighbor from his bedroom window, because she liked to feed her dog from her mouth,” she said. She chuckled and added, “We were all just screaming and laughing.”
Barry’s other passion is renewable energy; she is very active in her community through Better Plan, an organization that concerns itself with such projects. She is currently writing a book about the downsides of wind farms and how it affects the people in her community in Wisconsin.
The workshop Writing the Unthinkable and the presentation of Picture This will be held on Jan. 15, at The Ukrainian Federation, 5213 Hutchison St.