25 November 2018

The Unthinkable Mind

Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor
Lynda Barry
Drawn & Quarterly, 2014
200 pages

It's going to take me a while to digest this book. On my first try, it stymied me. What WAS it? A comic book? A graphic novel? It had colorful but messy, seemingly unrelated pages and sentences, some handwritten, some typed, in many different colors and styles. Confusing sensory overload. I returned it to the library.


Second try. Well, this is about or from a course Lynda Barry taught at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (my alma mater), so it must make some kind of sense. I'll just try reading it page-by-page, word-by-word, image-by-image and see how it goes.

Got it! I think. Maybe thinking too much was the problem. Apparently this is the syllabus from the interdisciplinary course, The Unthinkable Mind, that Barry taught at Madison in spring 2012, when she was named an Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence. She soon became a fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, and then an associate professor of interdisciplinary creativity -- thought to be the only joint faculty position in interdisciplinary creativity in the country. Her courses are cross-listed in the departments of Art, Science, and English!

From the Syllabus alone, I can't quite envision this course, but I have found the original description published by UW Madison when it was offered in Spring 2012.

Course Description

Open to both graduate and undergraduate students from all academic disciplines, the focus of this class will be the relationship between the hand, the brain, and spontaneous images, both written and visual. No artistic talent is required to be part of this class, but students should have an active interest in spontaneous memory and ideas, how pictures and stories work, how the brain works, and what the biological function of the thing we call ‘the arts’ may be.

Class time will be used for active studio work, creating projects entirely by hand, evenly divided between writing stories and making pictures. Students will be required to complete a handmade book by the end of the semester and to teach at least one off-campus writing or picture making workshop using the techniques developed in this class.

The book's review in the London (Canada) Free Press by Dan Brown says:
It is not a graphic novel per se, but the cartoon equivalent of free-form jazz; there is a structure, but that structure is just something on which to hang big philosophical questions, such as "If the thing we call 'the arts' has a biological function, what is it?"

Lynda Barry - Self Portrait

Plain words cannot convey the reality of this book or the course. Once I spent time decoding it, absorbing it, immersing myself in it, I was hooked. It's an intense experience, this blending of writing, drawing, and listening, one I want to repeat. My copy of "Syllabus" should arrive soon! This time through I plan on taking the course, or duplicating what I can on my own. I want to do a lot of writing and crafting in the coming months, now that I have closed my online shop. Barry's way of experiencing the world and interacting with colors, pencils, images, and sounds might just help me become more creative and productive. It will certainly be a lot of fun.

Below I am listing quite a few resources that relate to Barry and her books - she has published a lot of them. Do check out the sample "Syllabus" pages posted online by the publisher to get a better idea of what is contained within this amazing book! I highly recommend jumping into Barry's wild and colorful world!

Further Reading

A 9-page PDF excerpt from "Syllabus" provided by the publisher:

The Tumbler account for her classes:

Her author page at her publisher, with links to many podcasts and videos with Lynda

Brain Pickings article with lots of page images and good analysis:
"Lynda Barry’s Illustrated Field Guide to Keeping a Visual Diary and Cultivating a Capacity for Creative Observation"

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