Picture This by artist/cartoonist/teacher Lynda Barry (2010) is among the strangest and most intriguing books I’ve ever read. And in this case, by “read,” I mean “looked at the pictures and read the words,” because in this case the images are more important than the words, though each provides the perfect complement to the other.
Loosely structured, many of the book’s pictures are done on throwaway paper — a yellowed dictionary page, phone book pages, old magazines. Recurring story lines include the dysfunctional romance of Mr. Beak and Mr. Trunk, cousins Marlys and Arna and their adventures in art, ads for “Don’t – the imaginary cigarette with controllable smoke,” and especially the Near-Sighted Monkey, a sort of bespectacled trickster figure who is partly the alter ego of Barry herself.
The book makes reference to itself when Arna finds it lying “on a table at the library. On the cover was a picture of a monkey wearing glasses. The monkey was smoking. She had a pet chicken. The chicken also smoked, but not as much as the monkey. What kind of book was it? It was an activity book but the activities were mysterious. Was it a book for kids or grown-ups? The monkey drank beer, played cards and bought lottery tickets. What that a good influence?”
Picture This is a book for anyone old enough not to draw and paint spontaneously. Barry believes strongly in the power of art as spontaneous human expression, as a way of thinking and feeling that has nothing to do with whether or not the result is deemed “good” by others. Anyone who thinks this is a book about teaching people to be artists (at least in the conventional sense) is missing the point. Barry believes we have forgotten the power of doodling, even simple repetitive things such as making dots or drawing spirals. (“A spiral is portable, reliable and takes up unbearable time and space and thoughts that torment. It gives us an active place to rest and be.”)
“What makes adults scared to draw?… Why aren’t kids scared of it?” she asks. The problem is the judging of drawing and painting that begins when we are still children.
“Shapes are divided into pretty or ugly and the ugly shapes are pushed away into a place on the other side of thought. To keep them there some of us had to stop drawing completely. Or we had to learn how to draw in an organized way that others could recognize and say yes to.”
This, I think, is why the Near-Sighted Monkey lounges around all day smoking, drinking, and playing cards. As a trickster figure, she represents what we’re taught to reject as irresponsible and bad. She doesn’t do things the right way, and yet there’s something magical about her. Barry’s goal is “to find your way back to the place where the shapes are happening.” The Near-Sighted Monkey is the personification of that place.
“What if drawing was a way to get to a certain state of mind that was very good for us? And what if this certain state of mind was more important than the drawing itself? …I believe making lines and shapes and coloring them in can still help us in the way it helped us when we were kids. When we used paper as if it were a place rather than a thing.”
For me, as a writer who tends to live in the world of language, I’m intrigued by someone who relates primarily to shapes and who uses them like language. A 2011 New York Times profile of Barry is a good introduction. So is her Tumblr.
Currently she teaches courses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her “Unthinkable Mind” course combines doodling and neuroscience.
New York Times review of Picture This.