Footville's 'accidental professor' seeks scientific insight through cartoons
MADISON—John Brennan was deeply engrossed in organic chemistry, studying for an exam last week, when he absent-mindedly began drawing goofy cartoon fish with conversation bubbles explaining mechanisms behind chemical reactions.
The UW-Madison genetics major from Racine had homework to do for another class, too: Drawing Comics.
Doodling fish with an aptitude for chemistry was like flipping a switch.
“I noticed I was learning the material better. It was a merging of actively learning — doing the problems and taking notes — and having fun with it,” Brennan recalled.
Brennan, who remembers drawing Pokemon cards as a kid, was doing exactly what his professor, Lynda Barry, encourages scientists and mathematicians on the cutting edge of their fields to do. Drawing in the margins invites insight, like opening the window to another world, she says. Doodling connects the hand to the creative back of the mind, and that's where insights originate.
“It's about circumventing your logical, plodding way of thinking,” Barry says. “There's interesting research on how doodling enhances one's ability to listen and retain information.”.
Long before she was a self-proclaimed “accidental professor” with the persona Professor Chewbacca the Near-Sighted Monkey, Barry was creator of the avant-garde comic strip “Ernie Pook's Comeek.”
The strip and the larger-than-life cartoonist behind it rocketed to underground comics fame alongside her longtime friend from college, Matt Groening, who later went on to create “The Simpsons.”
“Ernie Pook's Comeek,” first picked up by the Chicago Reader, was syndicated to dozens of alternative news weeklies for nearly 30 years until the weeklies began to fold and the work dried up. The oft-sad strip depicted dysfunctional characters Barry drew from her childhood, including a pigtailed Marlys who bears a striking resemblance to the cartoonist.
Barry has been profiled by The New York Times Magazine and National Public Radio for her mind-bending “Writing the Unthinkable” workshops around the country, where she teaches average Joes — nonwriters — how to free their inner writer by visualizing and cataloging images, then picking one image to write intensely about without looking up from the page.
She learned the process from a college art teacher she still idolizes, Marilyn Frasca. It involves, among other things, drawing a tight spiral to connect the hand to the back of the mind. And then being open to whatever the back of the mind intuitively gathers before the top of the mind can arrange it.
“My hope is that when people leave, the world looks alive, like leaving a Sunday matinee,” Barry says.
Brennan describes Barry — also a prolific author of graphic novels — as a charismatic, “cartoony” professor. “She sort of bounces around. She's mercurial. She's very lively.”
ROOTING IN WISCONSIN
The professor with big glasses, bright red lipstick and pigtails is happily ensconced in the state where her life began 58 years ago.
Barry, who was born in Richland Center, lives on a small farm with her prairie restoration expert husband, Kevin Kawula, about an hour south of Madison near Footville.
She went through a rough stretch while living in Evanston, Ill., prior to Wisconsin. At one point she could only sell her work on eBay. The deaths of several friends in close succession hit her hard.
Life began looking up in 2002 when she moved back to Wisconsin and reconnected with her best childhood memories.
“For the first three years, I cried quite often from sheer happiness,” Barry recalled. “I couldn't believe I'd finally made it back.”
Barry is in perpetual motion now with a unique tenure-track position at UW-Madison and her writing workshops on the side.
She is an assistant professor of interdisciplinary creativity in the art department and a Discovery Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery — a place on campus where science, mathematics, the arts and humanities intentionally intersect.
While Barry never dreamed of working at UW, “now I can't imagine life without it,” she says.
Wrapping up her second full year of teaching this week, she knows what she wants students to take away from their time together.
“My hope is that they understand that this practice of creative concentration we've been establishing is transferable to pretty much whatever they are working on in the future,” she said.
'CREATED TO DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT'
The Wisconsin Institute for Discovery has an unconventional mission of studying the information that supports life.
“We can do it in very unconventional ways with unconventional minds,” says director David Krakauer. “We were created to do something different.”
Rigorous thinking is not incompatible with creative thinking, Krakauer says. “Lynda is very rigorous about something traditional education doesn't explain — the exploration of novel possibilities.”
All creative thinking — whether it's in art, mathematics or science — is an attempt to make the familiar unfamiliar to discover a new fact, principle or concept, Krakauer says, noting that famous scientists like Einstein and Darwin showed the world in fundamentally new ways.
Many scientists become scientists because they were inspired by a fascinating novel or a film that captured their imagination, he says. “The reasons don't often lie within science itself.”
Barry has an Image Lab on the first floor of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery where she hosts free monthly “Writing the Unthinkable” workshops for adults and Drawing Jams for kids. She often colors alongside kids, and listens intently as they tell her the stories behind their unabashedly creative drawings.
'THE LYNDA BARRY EXPERIENCE'
“The Lynda Barry experience” requires an open mind, says Tom Loeser, an art professor and chairman of the art department. He recruited Barry to UW-Madison after his wife participated in one of Barry's writing workshops elsewhere and came home “glowing.”
“It's a hybrid of a military boot camp and a comedy routine with high entertainment value,” Loeser said.
Barry doesn't shy away from the uncomfortable. And her disarming personality inspires others not to, either.
At the close of her monthly “Writing the Unthinkable” workshops on campus, Barry leaves students with “a very magical trick that takes a year off my life every time I do it.”
Puffing out her cheeks to hold in the most air possible, and keeping her mouth closed tightly, she sings: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when I am sad...”
Barry's prolific tumblr account, The Near-Sighted Monkey, offers students extra-credit assignments. The Near-Sighted Monkey has a huge following beyond UW-Madison and Wisconsin.
Each intricately hand-drawn syllabus Barry gives her students on the first day of class inevitably gets passed around North America via the Internet. One syllabus without an inch of wasted creative space landed in an Atlantic magazine collection of famous authors' college syllabuses last year.
Barry is the author of 17 books. She adapted one of her graphic novels, “The Good Times are Killing Me,” into an off-Broadway play.
In October, Barry will publish a book based on her experiences at UW-Madison: “Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor.” She's also working on a documentary in comic book form about the industrial-scale wind farms in Wisconsin, which she despises.
Barry's writing workshops have involved everyone from prison inmates to postal workers, high school teachers and hairdressers.
Inmates at a medium-security prison were among her best students, she says.
“What put them in prison is what made them really good at this: no second thoughts.”