Lynda Barry, a creative force of nature with the Art Department, receives a ‘genius grant’ from the MacArthur Foundation

UW–Madison’s Lynda Barry, an award-winning author and cartoonist with the School of Education’s Art Department, received a prestigious 2019 MacArthur Fellowship in September.

The MacArthur Fellowships, often referred to as “genius grants,” include a stipend of $625,000 to the recipient, paid out in equal quarterly installments over five years. Fellows are selected by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for their exceptional creativity, future promise, and potential for the fellowship to advance their work.

Cartoonist and author Lynda Barry, now a member of UW-Madison’s faculty, is pictured in her Image Lab at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (WID) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Dec. 7, 2013. Barry, associate professor of interdisciplinary creativity and a Discovery Fellow, created the interdisciplinary Image Lab to explore the biological function of the arts. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

“Lynda is a creative force of nature,” says School of Education Dean Diana Hess. “Not only is the work she creates beyond excellent, but she is also a gifted teacher who ignites in all of her students a sense that they, too, can create to learn and learn through creating. She has made a remarkable impact on the Madison community, and on the students, staff, and faculty on our campus.”

Barry, who was on sabbatical in 2019 when she received the MacArthur Fellowship, is a professor of interdisciplinary creativity and holds the Chazen Family Distinguished Chair in Art. She is perhaps most widely known for her weekly comic strip that appeared in alternative newspapers, “Ernie Pook’s Comeek,” and her graphic novels such as “The Good Times Are Killing Me” and “The Greatest of Marlys.”

Barry joined the UW-Madison faculty in 2013 after serving as the spring 2012 artist in residence at the Arts Institute. Barry is recognized for her unique style and approachable books and comics.

Her graphic novel “What It Is” won the 2009 Eisner Award for Best Reality Based Graphic Novel. Her other books include “Picture This” and “Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor.” Her latest work, “Making Comics,” was released in November Barry’s work aims to understand and harness the creative process to help students and researchers advance their work in the arts, humanities, and sciences.

According to the MacArthur Foundation, Barry received the award for “inspiring creative engagement through original graphic works and a teaching practice centered on the role of image- making in communication.”

One example of this is the arts-based Drawbridge program she created at UW–Madison.

The program, in part, examined whether drawing can help graduate students think about their research in a new way. As an added twist, Drawbridge pairs these graduate students with 4-year-olds as co-researchers. The multi-generational research teams examine questions and solve problems through spontaneous drawing, collage, and writing.

“Drawbridge is a program I started at the university that’s based on the joy that 4-year-olds have about being alive in the world and the misery that graduate students have about being in university,” Barry says with a laugh. “And I had this idea that if I could bring those two together that something big might happen — that my university students might feel less miserable and my 4-year-olds might feel very excited about helping someone get their Ph.D.”

Barry says the MacArthur is “the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me in terms of being able to facilitate chasing this idea down of what images are, why they exist, and what happens when people finally have access to having them be part of their life again.”

Receiving the MacArthur Fellowship garnered Barry recognition from a range of media outlets around Wisconsin and the nation.

Perhaps Jeet Heer, a national affairs correspondent at The Nation, summed up the recognition and Barry’s remarkable career best.

Writes Heer: “The paradox is that Barry is undeniably a genius but her key brilliance is her ability to spark creativity in almost anyone. Genius implies hierarchy, but Barry’s most passionate conviction is that creativity is hardwired into all of us, although it often goes dormant after childhood.”

More MacArthur Fellows connections

Jeffrey Gibson, who is working as a visiting artist at UW–Madison’s Tandem Press in January 2020, also was recognized with a 2019 MacArthur Fellowship. He’s a multidisciplinary artist and craftsperson merging traditional Native American materials and forms with those of western contemporary art. This work by Gibson creates a new hybrid visual vocabulary and prompts a shift in how Native American art is perceived and historicized. Tandem Press is housed within the School of Education’s Art Department.

Andrea Dutton, a geologist and professor at UW–Madison, was also awarded a 2019 MacArthur Fellow- ship. Dutton recently joined the faculty of the Department of Geoscience after previously working at the University of Florida. Dutton is an international expert in sea level rise, and her research has worked to reconstruct the changes in sea level that occurred during past climate changes.

Pin It on Pinterest