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From R. Crumb and Ernie Pook to what we can learn about art from 4-year-olds, here we take a look into the fascinating mind of cartoonist, author, educator and new MacArthur Fellow Lynda Barry.

You’re too old. Too young. You’re a bartender or an accountant, and you have no right dabbling in the arts. You don’t look the part. The arts belong to people other than you. You tried and failed once, and should throw in the towel, save face.

These are the types of things we tell ourselves when we’re pondering a new creative practice—and these might even be the types of things that are told to us. (Which is worse is anyone’s guess.)

Thankfully, Lynda Barry would throw another negative onto the pile: You’re wrong.

Barry is perhaps an unlikely creative hero … but ultimately perhaps the ideal one. She had a nightmarish childhood and found solace in comics, especially Family Circus and the pristine parents portrayed on the page. She learned to draw by copying R. Crumb’s work when she was 12, the same year she dropped acid for the first time. She worked as a janitor as a teen and pondered becoming a flight attendant. Her mother hated when she read—and hated even more that Barry wanted to go to college.

What is remarkable is not only that Barry survived, but that she would distill all of that pain into her brilliant comic documenting two children navigating the world, Ernie Pook’s Comeek. It was new—both in its outlook and its presentation, from its artistic style to the fact that it often featured more text than image. It was utterly, wholly Barry’s own. As The Chicago Tribune wrote in 1984, “You might call it the new wave of cartooning, or you might call it a radical wedding of sound, thought and drawing, but the creator calls it a Comeek. Some entries are just weird, others are sad, and still others are bitingly funny. All are presented in Barry’s ridiculously hard-edged scrawl.”

Of the work, author Rob Rodi declared, “If there’s a last word on childhood, it belongs to Lynda Barry.”

The strip appeared for three vibrant decades, before the mass death of American newspapers ended its run. And then, in 2008, the same year as her final Ernie Pook, she released What It Is, an illustrated exploration of creativity, and suddenly she was a guru of the field. Picture This and Syllabus followed, and November brings Making Comics, the latest bout of her insights into the creative process. Whether they’re a product of her years on the page or things she learned long ago, this episode of Design Matters explores.

As she details at the beginning of Making Comics, “There was a time when drawing and writing were not separated for you. In fact, our ability to write could only come from our willingness and inclination to draw. In the beginning of our writing and reading lives, we drew the letters of our name. The motions each requires hadn’t become automatic yet. There was a lot of variability of shape, order and orientation. The letters were characters, and when certain characters got together a certain order, they spelled your name.”

Barry advertises her live writing and art workshops as being ideal for non-writers and non-artists; ideal for those who have given up on the crafts—and yet still feel that nagging within themselves.

Over the years, she has quietly rescued some of her students’ discarded and abandoned drawings from the recycling bin. And in Making Comics, she immortalizes many of them. One wonders how a former student might react upon discovering such a piece in Barry’s book. Perhaps that is her ultimate lesson to them—and the rest of us.

—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief

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