MacArthur ‘genius’ Barry explores brain creativity with true artists: Pre-schoolers

Michael Cavna

THE WASHINGTON POST – When word came this fall that she was receiving an honour worth USD625,000, Lynda Barry knew what she would do with it: Spend money on artists at their most pure – those who had only recently stopped wearing diapers.

Barry, the indie comics creator turned cutting-edge educator, had just been given the MacArthur Fellows Programme ‘genius grant’ – only the second female graphic novelist to win the award, after Alison Bechdel. Barry was praised not only for “inspiring creative engagement through original graphic works,” but also for her “teaching practice centred on the role of image making in communication.”

As an associate professor of interdisciplinary creativity at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Barry is pushing the envelope on understanding how the brain creates and responds to words and pictures – a scholarly envelope that, in her mind, should be positively covered with illuminating doodles.

As part of her mission, Barry thinks pre-schoolers hold many secrets to creativity, before education and social expectations have trained their natural artistry out of them. Now, buoyed by the MacArthur windfall, Barry can plunge into this subject area more deeply.

“That’s something I’d like to do – to get literally on the floor with these four-year-olds and spend a year at least just figuring out: What happens before writing and drawing split, and why did we split those things – and what happens when we do split them?” Barry said by phone while on tour for her new educational graphical book Making Comics. The book shares creativity exercises from her popular classes and workshops, which span campuses to prisons.

Lynda Barry, who hopes to study the creative habits of pre-schoolers, was awarded a 2019 MacArthur Fellows Programme ‘genius grant.’

“The arts has a critical function for kids,” wrote Barry, noting that we draw and act and sing and build things before anyone teaches us how to do so. “Everything we have come to call the arts,” she added, “seems to be in almost every three-year-old.”

Barry, who has already spent time observing pre-K classes on her Madison campus, isn’t looking to teach toddlers, but rather she thinks that researching their creative integration can benefit adults, who easily become too rigid, stratified and self-critical in their thinking. And one path back to unguarded creativity is making images without judgement or fear.

“The educational system really sees these things – words and pictures – as different,” Barry said. “And then the sad part is that writing becomes typing rather than using your hand.”

In Making Comics, Barry shares such classroom-tested exercises as “tandem drawing,” in which two people must each simultaneously draw one half of a picture, or closed-eye drawing, in which you have one minute to draw breakfast, or perhaps a mermaid, with only visualisation sparking the mind.

“They open their eyes a minute later and they’re always really happy. It’s not that the drawings are always that great, but something happened there,” Barry said. “They closed their eyes and saw something.”

Barry’s techniques – some of which she shared in a previous book, Syllabus – have helped non-artists and acclaimed cartoonists alike in becoming creatively unstuck and inspired.

“Most people stop drawing when they reach the age of eight or so, because they couldn’t draw a nose or hands,” said Barry, 63. “The beautiful thing is that their drawing style is intact from that time. Those people, if you can get them past being freaked out, have the most interesting lines – and have a faster trajectory to making really original comics than people who have been drawing for a long, long time.”

Barry’s image-making exercises helped spur one of her graduate students, Ebony Flowers, to pursue art. Flowers recently published her first graphic novel, Hot Comb.

Together, Flowers and Barry are also working on a programme called Drawbridge that pairs up grad students and pre-schoolers as “co-researchers.” Flowers said she is moved by Barry’s approach to teaching.

“Lynda has a knack for creating learning opportunities that push the boundaries of experimentation,” Flowers said. “This is why she participates in many different imaginative spaces and contributes valuably to what happens there. She works alongside leading scientists, facilitates lively workshops about art and literacy, and loves to draw with pre-schoolers.”