Artist Appreciation: Lynda Barry

Lynda Barry is an American cartoonist and teacher best known for her comic strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek, and What It Is, an instructional “autobiofictionalography” for which she won an Eisner award.

Linda Barry grew up in a diverse neighborhood in Seattle, Washington. Her parents divorced when she was 12. She changed her name to Lynda that year. While finishing high school, she worked seven nights a week as a janitor at a hospital. She went to the same high school as comic book artist, Charles Burns, and the same college as Simpsons creator, Matt Groening. Groening credits Lynda for teaching him that “You could do anything.” He published Lynda’s Comeek in their school paper. He even asked her to marry him according to one internet rumor. The two remain close friends, referring to each other in comics as “the Funk Lord of USA” and “the Funk Queen of the Galaxy.”

After college, Lynda Barry sold her comics to alternative newspapers like the LA weekly. She published a series of comic books, drew cartoons for Esquire, and appeared several times on Late Night with David Letterman. Her comics focused on telling funny, sometimes painful stories using unselfconscious, child-like cartoons. The artist described her first book, Boys & Girls, as “a lot of love information” drawn in the “crude style that has rocketed me into fame.”

Over time, Barry’s cartoons shifted focus from relationships to childhood. In books like My Perfect Life, It’s So Magic, and The Greatest of Marlys, Maybonne and her sister, Marlys, starred in stories loosely based on the artist’s childhood. Barry also wrote two novels, Cruddy and The Good Times Are Just Killing Me which was later turned into a play.

Barry’s work took another turn when she created a Zen comic strip for Salon.com. One! Hundred! Demons! was inspired by a Buddhist painting technique in which an artist waits for “demons” then paints them as they come. Barry’s demons included regret, abusive relationships, self-consciousness, and lice, among other things. The comics were more autobiographical than usual. They were drawn with a brush, and augmented with collage. The book also included instructions for readers who might want to try the one hundreds demon project. These changes set the stage for Barry’s next two books.

What It Is and Picture This might be considered the text books for Lynda Barry’s inspirational writing workshop, Writing The Unthinkable. She teaches the class fifteen times a year at colleges and writing conferences around the country. “We’ll be working with this question in mind,” Barry writes in the course description, “If the thing we call ‘the arts’ has a biological function, what is it?” The answer focuses on the emotional and physiological importance of play, and the ability of everyone to make art. The workshops pass on the writing and creativity techniques that Lynda learned from her own teacher, Marilyn Frasca.

Lynda Barry lives with her husband in Footville, Wisconsin. She works in “a free-standing, sun-filled studio overstuffed with scrap paper, art supplies and knickknacks given to her by students.” You can read her comics, buy her art, sign up for her classes, or check out her favorite Youtube videos on thenearsightedmonkey.tumblr.com.

It’s hard for me to pick a favorite piece by Lynda Barry because I have been affected by so much of her work. Visually, I definitely prefer her more recent, more colorful, more densely collaged books. Emotionally though, I am still moved by Maybonne’s observation that “You never know when the beautiful magic of life will happen to you. You never know when all the stars will fall from the sky.” And I am always inspired by joyful, spirited Marlys. Who just might be Lynda Barry’s alter ego.

I have read several descriptions of the transformative effect that the Dalai Lama has on people who meet him. People are calmed supposedly, awakened to joy, even inspired to live more compassionate lives. It’s weird to compare Lynda Barry to His Holiness, but I have met her several times and I have spoken with other people who have met her; The comparison in this case is apt. Even in brief encounters, Lynda Barry makes people feel special. She makes the world seem wonderful, despite the pain. She makes art and writing seem possible and necessary. More importantly, she inspires me to be kind and to do my best. As a teacher myself, I can not imagine a better role model. Lynda Barry is my hero.

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Posted by admin on 11/01/11 under artists,master of the month
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  • http://ramahughes.com rama

    this one’s for you, michael wertz!

  • michael wertz

    thank you rama. i love the portrait! xx

  • http://www.brunchwithdarling.com christine

    Having one of my heroes draw another one of my heroes has just blown my mind.

  • Ronald McCutchan

    Hey, Rama–I just read the NYT Magazine article on Lynda Barry’s writing workshops (especially excited because I’m doing a creative writing workshop–more about having fun than self-actualizing writers, though) at the library next week. But it was great to see the Marlys puppet in your blog post, since the NYT didn’t provide one!

  • http://ramahughes.com rama

    hey ron, i cribbed heavily from that NYT article. so, of course, i had to go looking for the marlys puppet. have fun with the writing workshop! i would love to do one with lynda barry of course but any class is fun imho.

  • http://www.facebook.com/thunderhag Hannah Miller

    Flattered you all took the time to track down a picture of the little Marlys but really, how can ya’ll look at ANYTHING but that gorgeous portrait?

    Lynda Barry has been a hero of mine since high school, when Ernie Pook’s Comeek was syndicated in the Orlando Weekly. Taking her workshop was like waking up. Or like ripping space and time apart like the wrapping on a Christmas present to find a heartbeat inside.

    If you’re interested, here is a link to the thank-you card Lynda (and Marlys) gave me for the puppet:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/thunderhag/6325423228/in/photostream

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