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

Lynda Barry: Self Portrait

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.

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