“Simpsons” creator visits UW-Madison and longtime friend

March 9, 2012

by Susannah Brooks

“Hello, my beautiful audience!” crows Lynda Barry, striding onto the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art lecture stage with braids swinging.

“I am the University of Wisconsin Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence. I take every opportunity to remind people that I am. I actually tried wearing a banner for a while. But it’s a dream come true for me to have this job.”

Photo: Matt Groening

"The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening, right, stands next to artist in residence Lynda Barry as he teaches in Barry's class Thursday. (Photo: Angela Richardson)

Claiming that she forgot her notes, she darts backstage. Her “notes” turn out to be a man in a plastic Homer Simpson mask: her longtime friend Matt Groening.

“One thing about Matt is that he never tries to stop me from doing anything. When we go out in public, he’s not horrified,” says Barry.

“I think this says otherwise,” cracks Groening.

As part of Barry’s semester-long residency, she has supplemented her course “What It Is: Manually Shifting the Image” with public lectures on the nature of art, vision and collaboration. Though their lives have taken them to very different places, Barry and Groening continue to share a deep connection that has strengthened their lives and creations for more than 35 years.

Groening and Barry met in the 1970s at tiny Evergreen State College, a newly-formed college in Olympia, Washington known for its progressive curriculum.

Though the accounts of their meeting differ – Groening, for his part, says he wanted to meet Barry because she struck up a correspondence with author Joseph Heller by pretending to be Ingrid Bergman – they agree that their work on the college’s newspaper solidified their relationship.

Photo: Groening cartoons

Some of the images drawn by Barry's students in Groening's style are tacked on a bulletin board.(Photo: Angela Richardson)

Before Groening created “The Simpsons,” now past its 500th episode, he wrote for alternative publications and scrawled his comic “Life in Hell,” inspired by living in Los Angeles. With Barry still living in the Pacific Northwest, the two corresponded nearly every day. Postcards, meandering letters, comic strips for an audience of one revealed the styles that made both Barry and Groening critical darlings of the alternative publication world.

As Barry navigated life as a freelance cartoonist, she reflected back on a question asked by mentor Marilyn Frasca. Frasca, alongside Groening’s mentor Mark Levinsky, co-taught an Evergreen class on images that served as the basis for Barry’s class today.

“Her question to me was, ‘What is an image?’” says Barry. “I was 19 years old; I’m 56 now. I’m still trying to track it down.”

Frasca’s question (asked by a many-eyed creature holding a microphone) is prominently featured on Barry’s course website.  As she and Groening volley stories and reminiscences, they pepper their thoughts with the kinds of insights that Barry now shares with her own students.

“I learned how to draw the sun and clouds like that in the first grade,” says Groening, pointing to the simplistic style of “Life in Hell.”

“That’s the thing that we talk a lot about in my ‘What It Is’ class. Those early solutions are still good. They still work,” says Barry. “When you get older, you think, ‘I should have grown out of this.’ It’s like saying you should have grown out of liking bananas: you don’t.”

Photo: Matt Groening

 

Groening makes a point as he draws cartoons on a chalkboard.

(Photo: Angela Richardson)

This sense of honoring one’s instincts permeates Barry’s course.

“We have intentional discussions about what it means to use our hands, and how that connects to our minds – how you use lines to create drawings as well as, literally, writing words and stories,” says Cecilia Leon, an undergraduate art student who is also part of the First Wave spoken-word program. “I do performance art and printmaking. I’ve been using the mind and the body in two separate media, and somehow that’s really combined in this class.”

When Groening surprised Barry’s class on Thursday afternoon, he found a room filled with writers, student librarians and even physicists. Leon says that the friendly environment has encouraged a vibrant learning experience – something that came in handy when asking Groening about his work.

“I believe their friendship made it accessible to ask him questions,” says Leon. “We drew with him; it was a low-pressure way to see what it’s like to work with artists in their style.”           

As Groening describes his time at Evergreen, he recalls Levinsky’s words from those early days. “He said, ‘You do what you do tolerably well. Now you have to ask yourself: is it worth doing?’”

Barry closes out the night with her answer.

“I’m living it up, and living my dream, doing this.”