Sunday, August 7, 2011

Lynda Barry: Pursuing a Vision

We take classes for different reasons. We may attend intent on learning a skill, meeting new people, getting feedback, checking out a new community, or just having the time and space to do something we love. The chemistry of the class is unpredictable; we have signed up separately, but we hope we will all be compatible. We can research the instructor, but we still don't know what s/he will be like with this class and with these people. If we are jumping in cold we can evaluate the class based on a few observations:

  • Are we encouraged to pursue our own visions or the instructor's vision?
  • Is the class process- or product-oriented?
  • Do the exercises open our minds and inspire us or shut them down and block us?

A couple years ago I picked up a book that inspired me by Lynda Barry. What It Is was published in 2008 by Drawn and Quarterly Press, and I found it answered affirmatively to the three questions, above, in a visual (nearly overstimulating) way with collagelike pages. I brought it to an educator's group where it was met with mixed reactions. One person was horrified because she felt the aesthetic was messy and she didn't want her students to think that was okay to make things like that in her class. While I could see her point, I thought that the aesthetics might be the start of an interesting discussion. I felt that the book was much deeper and that the ideas supported the creative choices. In an interview Barry said:
I just wanted to make it so that when you started to flip through the pages you just had this itchy urge to make something, and I wanted to make both those books completely by hand and to use stuff that you could just get at the corner store. They're all made with scissors and Elmer's Glue and some paper from the trash.
The creative process is messy.

And Barry is all about process. This particular book draws from journals, sticky notes, paintings, personal stories and children's writing and artwork from the archives of the Mitchell family, one of whose members had been a school teacher in the 1920s. Barry asks many questions, such as "What is an Idea?" and "What is an Image?"  "What Makes Something Meaningful?" "Why Write By Hand?" and "Where are Images Found?" She is interested in play and what children and grown-ups do when they make art/write.

The pages are numbered and the book has four color-coded sections:

  • periwinkle: What It Is; this is the bulk of the book that asks questions and tells stories.
  • salmon: Activity Book "contains some of the excercises [sic] we use in class to help us find images and follow them as they take form" (138).
  • light green: Let's Make Writing a "do it yourself writing kit" (174) She gives suggestions for making a "word bag" and a "picture bag" and ways to use them.
  • pumpkin: Notes on Notes; she keeps a pad of paper next to her main work so she can doodle and keep her hands in motion while she is thinking (190).

One of my favorite pages (145) is titled "Now Let's   Turn Around   Inside of This    Image." She says that "An Image is a Location." This idea makes me focus on what I'm seeing in my head and then go there. I love the idea of looking around an image or place in my head.

If you find a copy of this book, take some time with it. Go through it about three or four times. If you can focus on one aspect each time the book can be inspirational rather than overwhelming. Look at all the pictures. Then go back and read it. Then see if you can understand the order and what you might take away from it for yourself. You don't have to make work like hers. Think of the book and her voice in it as a nature guide pointing out a trail.

An article, "Inside a Master Class: Breath, Punctuate, Forget Led Zeppelin" by Erik Piepenburg in the NYTimes touched on learning and teaching. In the article actor Raúl Esparza said essentially that the master class is to help someone improve. Actress Betty Buckley suggested that teachers are like coaches and guides, that a master class is like "a tuneup." Both sounded supportive, ready to nurture an individual's dream.

So, this is what I'm looking for in teachers. Coaches, people who want to help me be more ME rather than more THEM. I think Lynda Barry gets at that in her book, and she gratefully thanks her own teachers in the process.

Interview with Lynda Barry by Jesse Thorn
KQED interview
Lynda Barry has recently written another book—this one about drawing called Picture This.

Start with Pencil, 2005
photo by Sibila Savage

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