On a blustery afternoon at November's end - when it's drearily dark at 4:30 - a standing-room-only crowd jammed into a subterranean lecture hall at the UW's Chazen Museum of Art.
Seating nearly 300, room L160 is typically a place where undergrads soldier through intro art history lectures on the Doryphoros or the Isenheim altarpiece. Yet, on this day, they were there to see cartoonist extraordinaire Lynda Barry, who quickly ensnared the audience with her kooky and sometimes profane wit.
The event was a lead-up to Barry's artist residency on campus this semester, organized by the UW-Madison Arts Institute and co-sponsored by the art department and numerous partners. The cornerstone of Barry's residency will be her 400-level class, "What It Is: Manually Shifting the Image," cross-listed between art, English and theater.
Two evenings each week for two and a half hours, students will be immersed in Barry's creative process, which centers on a tight fusion of images and words and an uncanny ability to access the feelings and memories of childhood, not all of them pleasant. Her materials and message are accessible: Anyone can draw and write, and the simplest of household materials can be a springboard for creativity.
Barry has been part of the alternative comics scene for decades. At one time, her syndicated Ernie Pook's Comeek ran in 70 papers nationwide, including Isthmus, though it experienced a downturn as newspapers themselves dwindled. She's also written a novel (Cruddy), a book that was turned into a successful off-Broadway play (The Good Times Are Killing Me), and many others. She edited the anthology Best American Comics 2008.
Currently, Barry's work is enjoying renewed attention. Montreal comics publisher Drawn and Quarterly, which boasts other acclaimed artists like Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes on its roster, is reissuing all of her older work. The first book, Blabber Blabber Blabber, Vol. 1, came out last fall. The New York Times profiled her glowingly in October.
Drawn and Quarterly also published her most recent volumes of new material, Picture This and What It Is, rich and innovative fusions of memoir, creative how-to and comic/collage. While Barry hasn't lost sight of the childlike appeal and emotional intimacy of her earlier work, her latest work shows prodigious insight into the creative process itself and the functions of images and stories in our lives.
Despite her fame in certain circles, Barry is one of Wisconsin's best-kept secrets. Many of her fans probably have no idea that she and her husband have been quietly residing in Footville, Wis. - a tiny village of about 800 in Rock County - for the last decade.
For Barry, moving to rural Wisconsin has brought her full circle. She was born in Richland Center in 1956, then moved away with her family and grew up mainly in Seattle. After college years at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. (a "hippie school," in Barry's words, where she befriended Simpsons creator Matt Groening), Barry embarked on a nomadic period. She spent stints in New York; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Minneapolis; and Evanston before settling in Footville. "I kept flipping around, trying to get back to Wisconsin," she laughs.
In a way, oaks are what brought Barry and her husband, Kevin Kawula, to Rock County. A prairie restoration expert who had become dissatisfied with his job in Illinois, Kawula began scouting out properties online. "His expertise is in oak savannas, of which there are only a few left," says Barry. "He found a tiny little picture of our farm online. He saw a very specific oak tree, and he came home and said, 'I think I've found the place.'"
Indeed, there's an oak savanna with trees predating the Civil War right behind the Barry/Kawula house. The couple share their 40-acre property with four dogs (all strays), four cats and two birds. Kawula has a nursery for native plants, which he sells at the farmers' market in Janesville.
It's a cozy, rural life for the two. "We cook with wood and we heat with wood. There's a lot to do, particularly in the winter," most of which Kawula attends to, says Barry. "There's only two of us - we don't have kids - so our house kind of looks like a frat house."
The pair have been together for nearly 20 years and share artistic interests; Kawula paints and sculpts. Says Barry, "In Picture This" - her 2010 book - "he helped me with a whole lot of the paintings; we have that in common. He's the funniest person I've ever met, ever. He still makes me laugh."
In the evening, Barry says, "I try to have time where I make pictures for no reason at all. That's where all my ideas come from." Kawula's evenings are often devoted to landscape painting, though he doesn't show or sell his work. "They're beautiful, they're gorgeous," Barry says, beaming. "He's the real deal."
While continuing to publish - and frequently updating her blog, The Near-Sighted Monkey - Barry has become a frequent teacher of writing and drawing workshops and a creativity guru.
What will set her UW course apart is its extended timeframe. "The longest I've had with people is about a week," she says. A semester-long course will allow Barry to hone her teaching methods, which center on mixing people of different backgrounds and experience levels, and making work without immediate judgment.
It's one of Barry's missions to reconnect people with the unfettered creativity that most of us give up on in youth. "I really do believe that, with just a few exceptions, we are all hardwired to make images and to use them," she says. "When you give up on doing that professionally, people just stop doing that altogether."
Through an application process, Barry assembled a class of 24 students from varied disciplines, from art to physics. "I was hoping to get a really diverse class so that there was no corner you could sit in and feel like you were with your team."
For those 24 slots, 90 students applied. (Turning students down, she says, "made me throw up.") The application questions were anything but typical: What were some of your favorite toys before the age of 10? What is your favorite kind of monster? What is your least favorite kind of monster?
Barry's strategy was to gauge how well students could conjure up vivid, detailed images. "When you answer a bunch of questions like that, there comes a point where you can't fake how you talk, or fake your experiences. So one of the things I was after was if the writing was vivid. Was there an image that stood out to me?"
The cartoonist is thrilled about her stint at UW. "I've wanted to work with students here for so long, I couldn't be happier," she says, breaking into a huge grin. "Back-flip happy."
Comics have garnered growing interest and respect in recent years. Barry's an insightful defender of comics as a distinct form: "Comics and fine art, and comics and literature, are very, very different. There's this assumption, like when everyone started calling comics 'graphic novels,' that comics want to be literature, or are trying to be literature. Comics do something else. They're their own thing...but I think they can certainly contain whatever literature can contain. They're that big."
Local librarian Barbara Segal echoes that thought. Segal, who selects comics and graphic novels for all Madison Public Library branches, notes, "A few years ago, a big rallying cry for librarians who are into graphic novels was, 'It's a format, not a genre!' It still rings true." There are, she says, "all different kinds of material that is presented in this style," from autobiographies to historical fiction to hard science. Just as the word "music" doesn't denote a certain style, neither does "comics."
What Barry has brought to the comics world is tremendous empathy for her characters and a finely tuned sense of interior life. Ivan Brunetti, a cartoonist and professor at Columbia College Chicago, says, "She brought something that wasn't there before.… It's hard to articulate, but this idea of empathy for the characters is important. There's been more of that in the last 30 years, and she spearheaded a lot of it."
Barry herself was raised on all sorts of comics, from freaky underground stuff in Zap Comix ("I realized you could make a comic about anything"), which included artists like R. Crumb, to the sweetly innocuous world of The Family Circus and other mainstream fare.
In fact, after Circus creator Bil Keane died last November, Barry offered some of the most heartfelt - and to some, perhaps unexpected - tributes. Given her difficult childhood, the Circus world was a respite: "I liked looking at this family through this hole, and things in there looked pretty damn good."
Brunetti - who has taken a workshop from Barry himself and will speak in Madison Feb. 15 (see sidebar for details) - also praises her teaching. "Lynda's workshop changed my life. It's helped me a lot in thinking about what I really want to communicate and how to get at it. It's like she gave everyone a magic key to access what we can't generally access."
Brunetti sums up her influence: "She's one of the top cartoonists ever. I hate making lists, pitting artist against artist, but whatever the top echelon would be, she's definitely a part of it.… She's finally being embraced the way she really deserves. The Drawn and Quarterly reprint of all her work is sorely needed. Her work's going to be presented in the way it deserves to be presented."
See for yourself
In addition to her class, Lynda Barry's UW residency will include several public talks with other artists and writers. Some highlights:
Seeing, Drawing, Writing and Cooking through a Cartoonist's Eye
Chazen Museum of Art, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 4:30 pm
Cartoonist and teacher Ivan Brunetti discusses his work onstage with Barry. The talk also includes a special appearance by Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth).
The Blind Stare
Chazen Museum of Art, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 4:30 pm
Barry speaks with writer Ryan Knighton, who is blind, about different ways of seeing, and about his travel memoir, Nothing to See Here: Around the World in Four Senses.
The Friendship That Would Not Die: Lynda Barry on Matt Groening
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Thursday, March 8, 7 pm
Barry speaks about her decades-long friendship with Simpsons creator Matt Groening, and the contribution his seminal strip Life in Hell made to comics history.
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Thursday, May 3, 7 pm
Writer Dan Chaon reads from his new book of short stories, Stay Awake, and speaks with Barry about ghosts and their role in the world of images.