When word came this fall that she was receiving an honor worth $625,000, Lynda Barry knew what she would do with it: spend money on artists at their most pure — those who had only recently stopped wearing diapers.
Barry, the indie comics creator turned cutting-edge educator, had just been given the MacArthur Fellows Program “genius grant” — only the second female graphic novelist to win the award, after Alison Bechdel. Barry was praised not only for “inspiring creative engagement through original graphic works,” but also for her “teaching practice centered on the role of image making in communication.”
As an associate professor of interdisciplinary creativity at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Barry is pushing the envelope on understanding how the brain creates and responds to words and pictures — a scholarly envelope that, in her mind, should be positively covered with illuminating doodles.
As part of her mission, Barry thinks preschoolers hold many secrets to creativity, before education and social expectations have trained their natural artistry out of them. Now, buoyed by the MacArthur windfall, Barry can plunge into this subject area more deeply.
“That’s something I’d like to do — to get literally on the floor with these 4-year-olds and spend a year at least just figuring out: What happens before writing and drawing split, and why did we split those things — and what happens when we do split them?” Barry said by phone while on tour for her new educational graphical book Making Comics. The book shares creativity exercises from her popular classes and workshops, which span campuses to prisons.
“The arts has a critical function for kids,” writes Barry, noting that we draw and act and sing and build things before anyone teaches us how to do so. “Everything we have come to call the arts,” she adds, “seems to be in almost every 3-year-old.”
Barry, who has already spent time observing pre-K classes on her Madison campus, isn’t looking to teach toddlers, but rather she thinks that researching their creative integration can benefit adults, who easily become too rigid, stratified and self-critical in their thinking. And one path back to unguarded creativity is making images without judgment or fear.
“The educational system really sees these things — words and pictures — as different,” Barry said. “And then the sad part is that writing becomes typing rather than using your hand.”
In Making Comics, Barry shares such classroom-tested exercises as “tandem drawing,” in which two people must each simultaneously draw one half of a picture, or closed-eye drawing, in which you have one minute to draw breakfast, or perhaps a mermaid, with only visualization sparking the mind. “They open their eyes a minute later and they’re always really happy. It’s not that the drawings are always that great, but something happened there,” Barry said. “They closed their eyes and saw something.”
Barry’s techniques — some of which she shared in a previous book, Syllabus — have helped non-artists and acclaimed cartoonists alike in becoming creatively unstuck and inspired.
“Most people stop drawing when they reach the age of 8 or so, because they couldn’t draw a nose or hands,” said Barry, 63. “The beautiful thing is that their drawing style is intact from that time. Those people, if you can get them past being freaked out, have the most interesting lines — and have a faster trajectory to making really original comics than people who have been drawing for a long, long time.”
Barry’s image-making exercises helped spur one of her graduate students, Ebony Flowers, to pursue art. Flowers recently published her first graphic novel, Hot Comb.
Together, Flowers and Barry are also working on a program called Drawbridge that pairs up grad students and preschoolers as “co-researchers.” Flowers said she is moved by Barry’s approach to teaching.
“Lynda has a knack for creating learning opportunities that push the boundaries of experimentation,” Flowers said. “This is why she participates in many different imaginative spaces and contributes valuably to what happens there. She works alongside leading scientists, facilitates lively workshops about art and literacy, and loves to draw with preschoolers.”
“I’ve collaborated with her during these and other projects,” the young artist continued, “and it’s always amazing to witness her profound and authentic curiosity.”
Barry created alt-weekly comics for decades, including the long-running strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek, before deciding to pursue a teaching career in a formal setting. What she learned while attending the Evergreen State College in Washington in the ’70s, especially from one teacher, Marilyn Frasca, continues to fuel her educational curiosity today about the power of image-making — a well of inspiration that never runs dry.
Barry combines such intellectual questing with an infectious spirit and lively sense of humor. One of her Evergreen classmates and longtime friends, “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening, was drawn to her unique presence from Day 1.
“Lynda can take the unlikeliest situation and amp it for everyone around her,” said Groening, who did a public talk with her in Los Angeles during the current tour. “I’ve seen her bring a stodgy outdoor wedding to life by getting the whole party, including the cranky sourpusses in the corner, to join a 50-yard-long conga line. I’ve seen her get a standing ovation in a crowded theater by singing with her mouth closed. And I’ve seen her belt out a song so sexily at a Japanese bar that they unplugged the karaoke machine." In Groening’s eyes, “Lynda is a joy to behold, and she makes it safe for anyone to join in her happiness — except the manager of the Japanese restaurant.”
Barry had a hard blue-collar upbringing in Seattle, and her parents, of Irish, Filipino and Norwegian descent, divorced during her middle-school years. She was drawn to warm comics that depicted family stability, such as “Family Circus,” as well as the kinetic line quality of some underground “comix” artists.
Barry herself creates comics and graphic novels, such as One! Hundred! Demons!, that contain brutally honest autobiographical elements. And her busy lines — once criticized as looking unschooled, she has said — now win major awards, including an Eisner Hall of Fame induction, for their idiosyncratic greatness.
And that pursuit of the most “alive” line — what she sees in the organic work of small children — infuses most everything she draws, teaches and tries to instill in others as they make their own creative discoveries.
“If you have fond memories of that one special teacher who noticed something promising about you, who encouraged you to take chances and be yourself, who took exuberant delight in your creativity, you can have that experience again with Lynda Barry,” Groening said.
And now, armed with the MacArthur money while on sabbatical, Barry is free to pursue so much educationally without distraction. “It is really overwhelming, just beautiful, like somebody handing you five years of life and saying: ‘Look here, what do you want to do?’ ” she said.
So now she can sit with the kids and, right beside the grad students, try to understand the brain on creativity.
“I know that there’s something big there,” Barry said with a laugh. “And to be able to have time to really research it makes me so happy.”