Alumni Programs

Part Mary Poppins, Part Zen-master:

Lynda Barry '79 Breaks Down What It Is

Q: What's like finding a rainbow in an oil slick, sucking honey out of a honeycomb, and making friends with monsters?

A: Reading the illuminated pages of Lynda Barry's What It Is (Drawn & Quarterly, 2008).

With equal parts whimsy and hard-earned practical wisdom, Barry quiets the mind's chatter so we can get down to the real business of having a creative experience.

lynda barry 'what it is' book jacket image Barry, who graduated from Evergreen in 1979, got her start working on cartoons with Matt Groening '77 for the Cooper Point Journal. Barry's willingness to explore the uncomfortable side of life, combined with her distinctive, unaffected graphic style, have made her one of the most celebrated comic artists of the past 25 years.

Discouraged by grade school experiences, Barry grew up thinking she lacked the ability to write or make art. She describes the question of whether something is "good" or "bad" as a vampire that swoops in to suck life out of the creative process before it can get started. At Evergreen, Barry began to get free of the vampires.

She credits Emeritus Evergreen faculty member Marilyn Frasca with giving her techniques for calling up "real" images - memory-based pictures so vivid one could climb inside and access all the context associated with it (even the way it smells, or who was in the room before you).

What It Is describes finding an "alive" place, a place not stifled by ideas of how things should be. This, she reminds us, is the realm of imagination and memory where children play and where art comes from.

As a small child, Barry had a favorite game. She would sit still and wait for the inanimate objects in her room to move. On page 10 of her new book, amid a dreamscape of rabbits and octopi, she explains: "I'd have to make myself very calm and very friendly, the way I would when I wanted a shy animal to come to me....". Using the same hushed tones, Barry softly coaxes out her reader's playful spirit.

"Q: What is an idea made of?

A: Of future, past, and also meanwhile."

Pages abound with watercolor, hand-painted text, and fragments of collage. The writing is poetic - pinwheeling gently down toward points of philosophic inquiry. Combined, these draw the mind deeper, into a place of subconscious reflection.

The book comes out of Barry's experience teaching a writing workshop known as "Writing the Unthinkable", which The New York Times recently compared to "witnessing an endurance-performance piece". The workshop applies many of Frasca's exercises for image-making to the task of writing.

If Barry's students "write the unthinkable" then her new book "teaches the unteachable." Artists go to school to learn technique, but impetus (that most crucial fuel) cannot be instilled academically. What It Is asks kōan-like questions: "When images come to us, where do they come from?" and "Does your imagination know what year it is?" No teacher can make waters flow from a dry spring. But Barry splits the rock that blocks the spring: where the water has been flowing all along.