Lynda Barry is not your average hippie. In fact, she is not your average anything. She is a comic book writer, playwright, scientist, artist, and stand-up comedian—all of which the audience quickly discovered last Thursday night during her “What It Is” lecture for Cornerstone Arts Week.
As Barry walked onstage, the crowd burst into applause. She shimmied out of the audience, past the microphone stand, to the center of the stage. When she got to the center, she looked up and seemed to see the crowdfor the first time. “I’m nervous,” Barry said, rubbing her hands togethe., “So first I’m going to sing.” She began to sing a short, quippy song about her family; and from that moment, she had the audience hooked.
Barry grew up in poverty. Her mother is from the Philippines and her father is Norwegian; his blood won out in the genetic exchange. Their story started in her opening ditty: “My mom was from the Philippines. She was a janitor / I ate TV dinners at night / I grew up by the TV light / While Dad drank vodka in the basement and Mom hollered.”
The TV dinners were particularly salient for Barry, who felt like she was raised by J.P. Patches and his wife. Her parents were not entirely absent from her life, though they struggled to get by, often moving from place to place. Berry’s mother, who used to teach lessons through stories from the Philippines, is featured prominently in Barry’s work.
After her song, Barry told the audience a story about losing and finding the well-loved stuffed animal of a friend’s child. She made the audience emotionally invested in this stuffed animal’s story to prove that possessions we care about take on greater meaning than one might think and are not quite alive but certainly not dead. This is the defining question in Lynda Barry’s book “What It Is,” and it is a topic that came up often over the course of her lecture and in the workshop she led the next day. Art, in its varied forms, is an everyday magic.
The first comic Barry ever made was a small doodle that she passed to a friend while studying at a small liberal arts college in Olympia, Wash. She passed it over, and suddenly her friend’s body began to move, shaking erratically. Most of us know this movement as laughter, but the way Barry described it givs us a glimpse of what it must be like to move through the world as she does, wondering at everything.
Barry is an artist who believes in the natural ability of people. When her friend laughed at her sketch, she saw the real purpose of art. It was that moment that she decided to try to elicit responses through her art by making people laugh, move, and think. “The only way to get things open is art,” Barry said. The best way to open up your heart is to see your life reflected, what she called “an ordinary superpower.”
Barry is an expert in helping people open themselves up. I was lucky enough to experience this in the comic workshop she held for students in the comics and graphic narratives class, taught by professor Jared Richman. My typical drawing style is stick figures, but I decided to give art a try, inspired by Barry’s enthusiasm and charm. “What It Is” is primarily a how-to drawing book, so I figured I was the perfect audience member.
She started the class with a poem, calming the expectant participants. Then we dove in. Draw yourself in space; you have 30 seconds. Draw yourself transforming into a monster. Draw yourself turning into a vegetable. Draw yourself turning into an animal. There was one rule: don’t stop drawing until the time is up.
We all held up our comics when we were done, breaking into laughter at the sight of our work. It was a morning filled with smiles, giggles, and small pride. As I followed Barry around the room, she looked back at me and said, “It’s amazing. No one ever looks at these and thinks to criticize them. No one would say they are bad.”
When Barry finished her presentation last Friday night, she walked away from a standing ovation, but I think she was more pleased by the grins plastered on our faces.