The Vancouver Observer profiles LYNDA BARRY

Just Between Us

Vancouver Observer    |    Alfred DePew    |    October 18, 2010

American cartoonist Lynda Barry is an original. Best known for her comic strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek, she’s also a novelist, philosopher, and champion of an unpopular cause: calling attention to the unintended impact of industrial scale wind turbines on a rural community.

Last month, I spoke to her from her home in southern Wisconsin in preparation for her appearance at the Vancouver International Writers Festival, October 19-24.

In her new book, Picture This: The Nearsighted Monkey Book, she explores where drawing happens, why it doesn’t, and all that drawing can be.

“I wanted to figure out a way to write about drawing that didn’t involve writing about drawing,” she says. “I wanted to make some stuff on the page that as soon as you saw it it made you want to make stuff on a page.”

Take her Recipe for Depression, for example: “gluing wads of sadness on a chicken.

“Drawing isn’t the thing that’s left on paper,” she says. “That’s not where it happens. It’s an experience.”

For Barry, drawing is a process that begins well before we put pencil to paper.

“When you were a kid on a long car ride,” she continues, “there’s lots of staring—at stains on the back of the front seat, for example—and if you stare at them, they turn into stuff. That counts as drawing. You don’t have to physically make a picture. You’re taking this thing and relaxing until an image presents itself to you—clouds, let’s say—that counts as drawing.”

Then once we’ve begun to make marks, drawing has everything to do with hands and motion.

“A completely different kind of story is available when you write by hand,” she says. “Also graphically. Something different happens. The happy accident gets undone on Photoshop. When you don’t see immediate value, you delete it. Let’s say I want to draw, and I start drawing. I’m liking it, and then I do something that starts to kill the drawing. It’s dying! Give it CPR! The thing you’re doing to keep it from dying is the real drawing.”

Picture This was completely handmade. Barry glued all of the images onto pages with Elmer’s school glue.

“We didn’t have money growing up. We never had art supplies. We used whatever was right there—Q-tips and watercolours, ball point pen, pencil, glue, scissors, a ruler. That’s it.”

What was important was the act of playing.

“We have a tacit understanding of the connection between mental health and playing. The one thing almost everyone knows around the world is that a kid who’s never allowed to play is crazy by 21.

“I’m really interested in the brain and what’s going on. Now they can put a shower cap with a million wires on the head of toddler and an artist and look at what the brain is doing in creative concentration in the adult and deep play in the child. Their brains look identical in that the whole brain is activated.

“This thing called ‘the arts’ is something we’ve been doing forever—as important as opposable thumbs. When you are shamed out of the thing that helps you stay not crazy … we’re in trouble.”

Luckily, Barry often works in schools, with students and teachers alike.

“I’m trying to figure out a way to teach painting without interfering. I start painting, and if somebody wants to paint, I dip their brush in and say ‘make a mark.’ I watch them. They get gorgeous lines, and I’ve seen some weird ways of holding the brush.”

She was once asked to present a workshop at a design conference.

“Hot shot designers!” she laughs. “Those guys didn’t want to touch the brush; they were freaked out by it. I had to invent a game. I said, ‘Divide the page in half and in half again until you can’t divide it anymore. But if the lines touch, you get electrocuted.’ It changed from making a drawing to play.”

People fill her workshops, saying they wish they could draw.

“Look,” says Barry, “if you’re stuck on the phone, you doodle. Eyeballs, whatever. OK. That’s all that’s left for a lot of people but that’s all it takes.

“It’s weird for adults—unless we know why or what it’s for, we won’t do it. When I sit down with six-year-olds, they don’t ask ‘what’s our budget?’”

When Barry isn’t thinking about drawing, writing, and creativity, she finds herself active in an unpopular cause: making people aware of the unintended impact of huge wind turbines being used to generate electricity in rural Wisconsin.

A nearby national wildlife refuge is being affected by 85 industrial scale wind turbines (each one is 40 stories tall) two miles away. The bat population is threatened, for one. Wisconsin now has the second highest bat kill rate in the U.S. And wind developers are lobbying to build more turbines within one mile of the refuge.

Other turbines have been built closer to people’s houses and farms. And this has caused real problems for many of her neighbors.

In principle, Barry supports alternative energy sources. She and her husband heat with wood. They cook with wood. They have no clothes drier.

“We were all about the wind,” she says. “But the way the developers were talking, I got this sick feeling. They were so slick.”

So Barry started doing research. At a public hearing in the state capitol, people complained that they couldn’t sleep because of the noise of the turbines. They asked legislators to come stay in their homes, so they could see for themselves.

Barry volunteered.

“I didn’t say I was a cartoonist. They call for an ambulance, and I show up in a clown car!”

When she visited them, she began to see there was a problem. So she decided to follow 20 families, interviewing them and making videos. People’s health was deteriorating due to lack of sustained sleep because of the noise of the turbines. Normally fit people were getting fat due to a low frequency thump which affected the organs and the body’s ability to process glucose. One family finally abandoned their home out of desperation.

“What makes me crazy,” says Barry, “is no one’s listening. I saw these wind developers using legislation to bully local communities. I don’t like bullies. I never have.”

And here the story takes an interesting turn. Many of her neighbors are at the other end of the political spectrum from Barry.

“I’m a liberal with a capital L,” she explains, “and many of them are Evangelical Christians. One of my neighbors invited me to church. My stomach turned. I girded my loins to sit through—whatever. And they never mentioned liberals once. I was disappointed. It was like a regular church service. It didn’t occur to me that they would do anything else but demonize liberals.

“When the other side becomes human to you—being with these families and seeing how much misery they’re in—it’s difficult to be smug. Polarization opens the door for corporate greed. If neighbors aren’t communicating, it allows for something very bad to come in. It’s done wonders for me knowing conservatives. It’s been life transforming.”

Lynda Barry will be participating in three events at the VIWF: # 40. Comic Book Confidential; # 61. Do You Think You Can Write?; and # 57. The Lighter Side.



Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival presents Lynda Barry, author of "Picture This: The Nearsighted Monkey Book"

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