I was about to write "I can't believe it has been 3 weeks since I returned from my residency at Ragdale," but on this pale-gray Friday afternoon with snow floating in circles in front of bare tree branches, the autumnal glory of Ragdale feels so far away.
Ragdale exists in a parallel dimension where time goes slower. I don't know what alchemy created that feeling, but—especially the first week—I would feel like I had accomplished quite an impressive amount of work for a day and then realize it wasn't quite lunch time. I think that feeling was partly inspired by the preciousness of the time at the residency ("You only have 3 weeks, make every minute count!"), but also being secluded from daily routine opened up a surprising amount of energy that is usually taken up by daily & domestic tasks. For instance, food: every weeknight at 6:30, Chef Linda presented a consistently magnificent dinner she prepared for the group. Not having to worry about grocery shopping or meal planning or even negotiating when to interrupt work to stop and eat freed up so much more mental space than I would have imagined.
My studio was a big live-work space with skylights and a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows right next to the kitchen, with a back door that opened to a small semi-private patio that was a straight shot to the meadow and forest. Weather permitting, I walked in the prairie and through the forest every day. It was a completely different kind of flat and wild landscape than what I grew up with in Texas, but there is a kindred charm to it; wildflowers and crickets and deer, I felt at home.
The three weeks of the residency covered that most autumnal of transitions: the first day was an autumn full of life and warmth, where the sun seemed to live in the orange and yellow leaves. By the last day the season turned more quiet and somber, leaves damp on the ground or crispy on the branch.
I shared my time at the residency with an amazing group of folks: writers of fiction and nonfiction, a musician, an installation artist, and another cartoonist (the talented Sam Sharpe). I went in with an "I'm not here to make friends, I'm here to work" mentality (Ragdale isn't free, I was paying for the precious secluded time to focus) but damn it if I didn't adore everyone there. It is hard to stay strangers with folks you share dinner with every night for three weeks, after all! As the last week wrapped up, I wished I had been less stingy with my solitude and opened up my studio and my self to everyone earlier in my stay. Luckily about half of the group is from the Chicago area, so I have time to make amends.
I prepared two tasks for my time at Ragdale, with a rough schedule for my three weeks there: the first week I would read and sketch and open up, and for the rest of my stay I would work on developing a new project, a big book to work on when I wrap up the final volume of "In the Sounds and Seas." Both were goals well met. The first week I read 9 books (!) (collections of poetry, some critical theory, two novels) and kept a daily sketchbook, which was a free-form luxury I sacrificed from my schedule years ago for the sake of mounting deadlines and obligations. I hadn't realized how much I missed drawing for the sake of drawing rather than drawing for a project; it was totally, totally joyful. The final two weeks, in contrast, were HARD. I am not a writer; I can draw for hours on end and feel energized at the end of it, but writing cracks me open and leaves me raw and drained and disoriented. I fought to not look away from that feeling, to stay in it and be uncomfortable; some days were more successful than others, but I ended up with about a page-long summary of a new book plot. ("In the Sounds and Seas" also started as a page-long summary.) I still have mountains of development work to do on it before I will feel comfortable beginning to put ink on paper, but I have a direction. Hallelujah.
In those three weeks, I woke up at 4:30 to watch a lunar eclipse with other cold, sleepy residents. I walked through the prairie to a bench under a thorn tree at midnight and watched the stars glide, enclosed by the sound of dry tallgrass leaning in the wind. I sang old hymns and folk music from my childhood with a chorus of other artists, with a banjo and guitar accompaniment in front of a fire. I sat on my little patio under a blanket after dinner, protected from cold pouring rain, sipping whiskey and reading Alice Notley and feeling gigantic in my Self. I went on long walks and had ferocious, invigorating conversations about comics and fiction and art and writing with Sam. I told and laughed at remarkably stupid jokes at dinner, fueled by gregariously emptying wine bottles. I am so, so grateful for the time and space and people and work and every last little thing about my experience at Ragdale. Three cheers!
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Less than a week after returning home was a full-day comics adventure. I joined comics scholar & friend Brian Cremins, art professor & gallery runner Jason Peot, former CAKE colleague & comics hero Edie Fake, and needs-no-introduction the King-Cat himself John Porcellino for a panel discussion at Harper College in the early afternoon. Brian taught John's King-Cat, Edie's Gaylord Phoenix, and In the Sounds and Seas in his English class (which still feels completely surreal to me), and Brian and Jason curated and installed the exhibition "Like Comics Without Panels" as a kind of extension of that coursework.
Brian and his partner Allison are true mensches; they packed their car with snacks and water, and drove me and Edie out to Harper. After getting to see the exhibition in person for the first time, John, Jason and some delightfully engaged students joined Team Carpool for lunch right before the discussion started in a black box theater on campus. The theater was packed! Brian's students had all read our books, and it seems like a lot of the rest of the attendees were familiar with our work from the gallery show. I have participated in a few panel discussions at comic shows, where more than half of the audience are other comic artists and the rest are deeply engaged fans of alt comics, so talking in front of a group of folks who are new to alternative comics was unexpectedly invigorating. The questions were thoughtful and open, and I really enjoyed hearing what John and Edie had to say about their work. There was an audio recording made of the event, and I'll share if it gets uploaded or transcribed.
After the Q&A, Team Carpool reconvened drove down to Hyde Park for the opening of "Embodiment," a comics show at the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Chicago where Edie gave his keynote artist talk and Jessica Campbell performed the (hilarious) comic "That's So Mavis Beacon." I had never seen Edie's artist talk before; the grace with which he connects the public and private, the built and the intimate, is as inspiring in lecture-form as it is in his work. It was great to run in to & chat with friends (my old dear pal Joe Leach! Chad Sell! Laura Park! Oscar Arriola! Lilli Carre!) and meet new people whose work I have admired for a long time, especially comics scholar Hillary Chute, who organized the show. After a group dinner & a long drive home, I felt that happy mix of exhausted and energized, and insanely humbled to have spent the day surrounded by folks I admire and respect and straight up like as people-out-in-the-world just so much.
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One week later, last Friday, was the closing of the Superheroines gallery show! (Chicago = HQ for comics gallery shows in 2014.) The excellent Jen Thomas of Werkspace graciously let me piggy-back the much-belated book launch celebration of In the Sounds and Seas: Volume II to the closing, which was so much fun. Thanks so much to everyone who came out, including my mom! My mom joined me on the long bus ride down Western to get to the gallery, and chatted with my friends for the full three hours of the opening after a long day of travel. She's the best! Jen is going to be selling comics from the show at a pop-up shop at Werkspace in December (details forthcoming), so if you want to get comics as gifts for friends this season, you couldn't be supporting a nicer artist-friendly, artist-run institution.
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And now what?
Early this spring and since, I have joked with friends that leaving my job wouldn't really hit me until after Ragdale and the Harper Q&A, and that has proven true. I left my office design day-job in March and launched in to one of the busiest, most heavily-travelled, most densely-scheduled 7 months of my working life, and now I face an empty calendar for the first time since...college? Emptiness is relative: CAKE work could grow to fill any gap, freelance gigs bounce through, holiday travel & festivities approach. But when I wake up every day, I don't have an obvious, pressing, "DO THIS THING ABOVE ALL ELSE SO I HAVE TIME TOMORROW TO DO THOSE THREE THINGS" task.
I've known for years that the pace I was working myself was unsustainable, but even through the stress-tears I loved it. I love feeling busy, I love the work that I get to do, I love thinking hard and trying to get better at my craft and taking each new gig, no matter how far from my big-vision projects, as a way to improve. I'm also competitive with myself: "I did X things last year, I'd better do X+5 things this year!" I don't think those are necessarily bad traits, but I lost things in the shuffle that I want to reclaim. It felt shocking working at my sketchbook at Ragdale to realize how long it had been since I let myself play at drawing. Or read for fun. Or exercise with any feeling other than frustrated, increasingly out-of-shape, begrudging obligation. Just three years ago, those were the Big Three identifiers for who I am (big lifting! big drawing! big reading!) and they were slowly edged out of my life, and my experiment moving forward into this Great Unscheduled Beyond is to figure out how to sustainably bring them back in while also working on Big Vision projects. (Up next: continuing research & mapping out the next big book.)
It has been a disorienting and difficult past two weeks, and I'm writing from the middle of it. I don't have an answer for how to do this, but I know it will never be easier than now to figure out; life has a way of getting more complicated rather than less. This seems like a good challenge. Wish me luck.