Chris Ware talks about higher education, creating art as a Chicagoan, and making peace with self-doubt | Art Feature | Chicago Reader

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Chris Ware talks about higher education, creating art as a Chicagoan, and making peace with self-doubt

In Monograph, the artist looks back on his life in comics.


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Chris Ware's Monograph (Rizzoli) is part autobiography, part art manifesto, part greatest hits, all contained in a 13 x 18-inch hardcover. Throughout his 30 years of writing and drawing comics, Ware has always pushed the medium forward through his inventive layout and compositional schemes, his questioning of the relationship between word and image, and his deep examination of how memory and imagination shape the way we tell our stories. Monograph touches on many of his career highlights with Ware himself as our often caustic, self-deprecating, but ever-insightful guide.

Ware generously took the time to answer a few questions about his life and work over e-mail.

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How did you settle on the size of this book? My personal experience in carrying, handling, and reading this book was the surprising but delightful one of being transformed from a 6'1" nearly 50-year-old man into a six- or seven-year-old boy first falling in love with reading. Was that your intent or am I totally out of my mind?

Not out of your mind at all; I greatly appreciate your very kind words. I only wanted to find a size and format that would suit both the reproduction of the printed strips and the original art itself, which is considerably larger. I'd hoped to make something dense, textured, and hopefully sort of fun to look at, though by its ungainliness it might seem an overcompensation for some deep-seated inadequacy. Comics are still in their infancy of appreciation, and I aimed for a book that presented them (mine, unfortunately) as a direct, worthy, and freeingly valueless artwork of reproduction. In a lot of ways, the book has young cartoonists most in mind as its audience, so I tried to include every dumb, weird thought about the difficulties of cartooning I could, as well as highlight the oddities, obstacles, and peculiarities of trying to tell stories in printed pictures.

Ultimately, however, it's just a standard coffee-table art book made in answer to the generous invitation of Rizzoli, but with the usual art criticism replaced by personal recollections of what I was thinking and going through when making the stuff pictured. Not for everyone, needless to say.

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How do you look back at your time at the School of the Art Institute? I personally can't ever decide whether it was a waste of time or not. What are your thoughts on higher education in this country?

I don't think it was a waste of time—nothing ever is—but it maybe wasn't what I initially expected coming from undergraduate art school in Austin and its "anything goes" attitude. In the early 1990s SAIC was more of a "why are you doing that?" sort of place. Then again, it was good to have something to work against, and at the time I was pretty much the only student drawing comics regularly and seriously, and there were no classes in it at all; now there are lots of instructors teaching cartooning. I did sometimes find it difficult to get my painting and printmaking professors to actually read my stuff rather than critique the way it was printed or visually composed. (Comics, while they seem like a visual art, are really only semivisual; they're an art of reading, and one of reading pictures rather one of just looking at them.) Not that I'm complaining, since I had some wonderful teachers like Richard Keane, Bob Loescher, and Jeanine Coupe-Ryding who took what I did seriously-the most valuable thing any student can experience-as well as provided useful life advice. Plus I got to take two classes with Jim Nutt and meet Karl Wirsum, both two of the greatest Chicago artists there are and longtime heroes of mine. Chicago has always been a city of approachable pictures and stories; it's an unpretentious place with no glamour or glitz to rub off on its inhabitants. Being an artist here puts you in touch with humanity and the means, if not the meaning, of everyday life. It frees one up to do whatever one wants.

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As for higher education, your guess is as good as mine. Really, you get out of it what you put into it. A couple of years back I taught a short class at SAIC at their kind invitation (my wife, a CPS high school teacher whose life and work are much more valuable than mine, shamed me into it), and all the students were industrious, smart, and congenial, so I tried to return the favor. They didn't make or talk nonsense. They focused on making serious comics that communicated directly and warmly with their own voices and approaches. I found the whole experience very inspiring and reassuring. At the same time, the possibility for supporting oneself as an artist or cartoonist is very uncertain; I think it's very important for anyone who wants to be an artist to never expect anything beyond the satisfaction of making the art itself. In a way, to have the freedom to work a regular job and make art "on the side," as it were, is really ideal, since then one's survival doesn't depend on the success of the artist in a gallery or wherever. Success in art should always be only about the art itself, not how it's received. Of course, paying off one's student loans is another matter.

You write that you work improvisationally and that oftentimes the developing drawings suggest the narrative and the accompanying words. Do words ever suggest the next drawing or are images always first?

It goes both ways; sometimes I even start with a feeling or a sense of a place and I go from there. And despite my regular, crushing fears, it always ends up going somewhere, because art is a language through which one thinks, not a skill one learns. Coming up with an idea and then "executing" it is about as fun as it sounds—that's like trying to predict a marriage or the personality of one's child. Starting from somewhere is fine, but knowing how one is going to end seems crazy to me. The moment an artist draws or makes something, all bets are off. Previous ideas vanish and new ones suddenly come to the surface, and those are the ones the artist should probably pay attention to. Besides, these ideas all more or less come from the same place that the original impulse did, and it's the responsibility of the artist to find a shape that accommodates them rather than the other way around. It's the same with writing: we're told as teens to know what we want to say before we start, but nothing crushes the creative spirit more than that; otherwise, why write at all? No wonder so many people go into business administration or recreational drinking. Fortunately, kids know better: writing and art are about finding, not telling. Anyone reading this interview, whether they consider themselves an artist or not, could draw a series of squares on a piece of paper, start in the first with a memory of some random object or place of their childhood, and have a story they wouldn't have otherwise remembered by the end of the page.

You write movingly about your many artistic heroes, from George Herriman to Scott Joplin to Lynda Barry, et al. How do you deal with younger artists and writers considering you one of their heroes?

I try not to think about it, but I won't lie that it buoys me immeasurably whenever someone without wrinkles passes along a compliment or says something kind to me. It's one function of art to "give permission" to other artists to do certain things that they otherwise might be too afraid to try. We're not solitary artists; we're all part of a larger continuum. Weirdly, though, that continuum isn't universal but specific and unique to each of us; every one of us creates our own personal art history, trying out parts and pieces of consciousnesses with which we sympathize until our own comes into focus. Needless to say, if I'm a small part of someone else's art history, I'm flattered and grateful, just as I am to those whom you mention above, along with about 100 seemingly unrelated others. Along these lines, one of my favorite local painters is Andy Paczos, who captures the hidden corners and edges of the city—the trash, the mud, the dirty snow—in careful canvasses of great clarity and beauty; he seems to blend both the feeling of Chicago and the sense of being a Chicagoan into one. I think about his stuff a lot, as I do my friend Ivan Brunetti's, and Frank King's, who died decades ago.

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Do you think your self-doubt/self-loathing will ever go away? Is there anything someone else could do or say to make it disappear? Would you be able to make art if it were gone?

Wow, I never thought about that last question. I wonder. Probably not, because then I wouldn't ask if what I was doing was any good or not. I used to think as a younger artist that my doubts would disappear as I got older and more "confident," but they're all still here, always waiting to jump me. Some artists don't have this problem at all. I think it's simply a matter of how one is manufactured, like a car with heated seats: either you've got them or you don't. I don't, and I won't ever, and I've just gotten used to it. One sort of makes peace with self-doubt and sets aside a little spot for it to sit, like a weird pet. In short, if you're crushed by self-doubt, it's best to stop trying to force confidence and simply take solace in the fact that you are not alone. Reading interviews with other artists sometimes helps, but not for very long.  v

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