In Picture This, Lynda Barry sums up humanity’s infinite affair with art in two succinct sentences: “It is good to move your hand. It is good to leave some marks during a hard time.” Barry asks questions about what it means to make art, to want to make art, and the meaning of being good at it. Here, the work is both the question and the answer. With yellow legal paper, old magazines and whatever other materials are handy, she paints and draws and glues as she shows the reader “how to art”.
Throughout the book, Barry’s recurring characters, Marlys and Arna, embody the book’s themes in the form of their own struggles with making art. As young teenagers, they straddle the world between childish inhibition and pubescent insecurity, and the joy once found in coloring books has been replaced by the thrill of discovering Beat poets and the ease of watching television. Marlys and Arna provide a framework for the book, but this isn’t the story of how Marlys and Arna overcame their teenage insecurity and learned to make things again.
Much of Picture This is about shape; the physical forms and emotional experiences which make our world. The Near-Sighted Monkey is a shape Barry began drawing, she says, after the death of a close friend. The Monkey appears throughout the book drawing, painting and smoking cigarettes. Other repeated shapes include a cephalopod, rabbits and bats. “Does experience have a shape?” Barry asks. “Why do we talk about things that shape character?” Using the malleability of language, she opens philosophical holes in the mind through which everyday shapes find their way out of the ordinary and into the profound.
In their beds at night Marlys and Arna watch a water stain spread on the ceiling and the shapes they see are awful monsters hovering above them. Barry recreates this experience with water color and brushes on notebook paper, lifting familiar shapes out of otherwise formless blobs, just as ancient fishermen imagined the shapes of the constellations. This is “how to art”: creating the familiar out of the unfamiliar, the strange or, as with the water stain on the ceiling, the unwelcome. Barry asks, “Why do shapes appear in shadows and stains? Is there a power that makes them show themselves? Can we choose what we see?”
This is a metaphor for the entire book, if not art as a whole. Barry puts this idea in motion with series after series of drawings and collages where bits of shredded paper or puffs of cotton become portraits of animals or endless, curving lines become pathways that lead to the next great idea.
Barry notes that, since she started drawing, people have told her she wasn’t any good at it. That she made a career of it is beside the point. Of course her drawings are good. They’re plain and uncluttered, filling each panel with only the necessary information, but where those drawings take her is truly inspirational. That’s where she bests makes her mark.
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