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C'est souvent intéressant de voir comment des Montréalais se connectent avec le reste du monde.

 

 

May 11, 2008

Art

 

By CAROL KINO

 

PITTSBURGH

 

BY celebrity standards the cartoonist Lynda Barry leads a reclusive existence. When she first developed a cult following in the 1980s, she cut a highly public figure, with frequent appearances on “Late Night With David Letterman” and the like. But after the market for her work began shrinking in the late 1990s, she gradually withdrew, refusing to talk on the phone with reporters or her editors. Today she draws her 30-year-old weekly strip, “Ernie Pook’s Comeek,” on a dairy farm just outside Footville, Wis., where she lives with her husband, Kevin Kawula, a prairie restoration expert. Since moving there six years ago, the couple have been relatively self-reliant, growing much of their own food and chopping their own wood for fuel.

 

Even though Ms. Barry has a new book coming out next week — “What It Is,” which explains her method of making drawings and stories — she isn’t always eager to emerge. “I can go three weeks without leaving, or driving my car,” she said in a recent interview.

 

But you would never guess that from Ms. Barry’s behavior on a recent weekend here. On a balmy spring day she stood at the front of a classroom, effusively greeting 25 strangers who had signed up for her two-day workshop, “Writing the Unthinkable,” which is also the basis for her new book. “I can’t believe you’re here and you look so 3-D!” she said, grinning toothily at them from beneath thick black glasses. “I was wondering about you all last night!”

 

On a table behind her she had laid out scores of scribbled 3-by-5 note cards, each of which held a nugget of information that she would relay over the next several hours (like “Don’t read it over” and “An image is a pull toy that pulls you”). On the blackboard was a chalk drawing of Marlys, the spunky pigtailed kid protagonist of “Ernie Pook’s Comeek,” the strip about growing up that made Ms. Barry a star of new-wave comics soon after it began running in alternative weeklies in 1978.

 

“Dang! I’m in Pittsburgh!” Marlys was saying in a word balloon. And Ms. Barry, who at 52 still has the habit of twisting her own curly red hair into Marlys-like pigtails, addressed her students in a similarly exclamation-mark-studded style. As they snapped open their three-ring binders, she said delightedly, “That’s the only sound I want at my funeral!”

 

Taking the workshop, which Ms. Barry teaches several times a year, is a bit like witnessing an endurance-performance piece. Aided by her assistant, Betty Bong (in reality, Kelly Hogan, a torch singer who lives in Chicago), Ms. Barry sings, tells jokes, acts out characters and even dances a creditably sensual hula, all while keeping up an apparently extemporaneous patter on subjects like brain science, her early boy-craziness, her admiration for Jimmy Carter and the joys of menopause.

 

But this is just camouflage for the workshop’s true purpose: to pass on an art-making method that Ms. Barry learned from Marilyn Frasca, her junior- and senior-year art teacher at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

 

It involves using a random word, like “cars” or “breasts,” to summon a memory in unexpected, filmic detail; writing about it by hand for a set time period (as she says, “Limitation creates structure!”); and then not reading it or talking about it for at least a week. Within the workshop it also involves positive feedback. As students read aloud, Ms. Barry kneels before them, head bowed, listening intently, and says: “Good! Good!” (“I was a kid who was never read to,” she explains.)

 

This is essentially the method that Ms. Barry has always used, not just for “Ernie Pook” but also her novels: “The Good Times Are Killing Me” from 1988, about biracial childhood friends, and “Cruddy” (1999), whose 16-year-old narrator recounts a long-ago murder rampage. She also deployed it for “One! Hundred! Demons!,” a soulful 2002 graphic memoir that she describes as “autobifictionalography.”

 

“What It Is,” which outlines the method in detail, could be considered a picture book for grown-ups. Using ink brush, pen and pencil drawings as well as collages and luminous watercolors, many of them on lined yellow legal paper, it explores deep philosophical questions like “What Is an Image?” (The answer, Ms. Barry says, is something “at the center of everything we call the arts.”) It also includes an activity book, instructions, assignments and several passages of purely autobiographical writing and drawing in which Ms. Barry recounts her own journey to making art.

 

As the book starts, we see her as a child, crouching as still as possible in a corner, waiting patiently for pictures in her bedroom to come to life. “We lived in a trailer then, and any pictures we had up were taped to the walls,” she writes. “Sometimes they fell. But this is not what I mean when I say they could move.”

 

Later we see her as a young adult, puzzling over the method as she learns it from Ms. Frasca. And later, on the farm with her husband, we see her battling depression and frowning as she struggles to quiet her inner editor’s voice and get back to making pictures and stories happen “in a way that didn’t involve thinking.” Meditations, stories and images float past in a random fashion, segueing between darkness and hope, or adulthood and childhood, the way they might in dreams or memory.

 

“I think of images as an immune system and a transit system,” she said; not only does working with them keep her emotions running smoothly, but it has also taken her to unexpected places. (As she told the class: “I am here in Pittsburgh because I drew a picture. And all of you are in this room because you saw this picture.”)

 

Clearly her ability to draw and tell stories was her ticket out of a difficult childhood. When she was 5, her family moved from Wisconsin to Seattle, where they at first lived with five Filipino families (Ms. Barry’s mother immigrated from the Philippines) in a house whose rooms were subdivided by bedsheets. Her father, a butcher, decamped a few years later, leaving Ms. Barry and her two younger brothers at the mercy of what she describes as an unhappy mother. (Ms. Barry said she has had no contact with either parent for more than 15 years, and “it’s been mutually joyful.”)

 

Although her more fictional work has always focused on children, she is not sure why. “I used to think it was easy to write about them because their world is small,” she said. “But it might be because writing about what’s happening with people my age, I’m too deeply in it.” (Surprisingly, her next novel is about a man in his 70s.)

 

Perhaps she has memorialized childhood because she didn’t have much of one herself. By 16 Ms. Barry was virtually independent, supporting herself by working nights and weekends as a hospital janitor. “I lived at home,” she said, “but that was it.” The experience gave her great exposure to people’s stories. “I don’t think it was good for me, necessarily, but I saw stuff, and I grew up really, really fast. And I wrote all this really sad janitorial poetry.”

 

With savings, a scholarship and work-study Ms. Barry made it to college, where she struck up a long friendship with a fellow student, Matt Groening, the creator of “The Simpsons.” In those days Mr. Groening was editor of the school newspaper, and she was a reporter. As a self-described hippie, “I used to love to torment him because he looked really straight,” she said.

 

“I always kind of mixed up drawings and words,” she said, “but college is where I definitely started to do cartoons, and it was mainly for Matt.”

 

In secret she began to concoct odd drawings and zany letters to the editor, which she submitted anonymously. Mr. Groening, who knew it was her all along, called her bluff and published the lot. “I had a policy of running all letters to the editor, and Lynda took advantage of it,” he said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.

 

“She was very, very funny,” he said. “It seemed obvious that creative self-expression was going to be her life.”

 

It was a happy accident that Ms. Barry graduated just as alternative weeklies were springing up around the country and searching, as she put it, “for oddball comics.” She soon became one of a small elite, her strip appearing with Mr. Groening’s “Life in Hell” alongside the work of Jules Feiffer. At its peak in the mid-1990s her strip appeared in 75 papers. She also published books and collections, and in 1991 her theatrical version of “The Good Times Are Killing Me” had an Off Broadway run.

 

But her career took a nose dive as alternative weeklies fell victim to corporate acquisitions and mergers in the 1990s. “Ernie Pook’s Comeek” now appears in only six papers, and the bulk of her books are out of print. These days, Ms. Barry said, her most reliable source of income is eBay, where she sells original artwork, and MySpace, where she markets her workshops.

 

She hit a low point in 2002, she said, right after the publication of “One! Hundred! Demons!,” when her longtime publisher, Sasquatch Books in Washington, rejected an early proposal for “What It Is” and declined to publish more new work. “It was like an ax in the forehead,” she said. But today her career seems on the verge of resurgence. In early 2006 Drawn & Quarterly, a small comics publisher in Montreal, approached her with a surprise offer to reprint her old work and collect all the Ernie Pook strips. Ms. Barry leapt at the opportunity and proffered her new book.

 

The plan is to publish one Ernie Pook collection a year, starting this fall. In early 2009 another new book, “The Nearsighted Monkey,” on which she is working with her husband, will be issued.

 

To Ms. Barry her career trajectory still seems somewhat unbelievable. “The fact that anybody knows what I do and likes it feels surreal to me,” she said. “It feels like the Make-a-Wish Foundation.”

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