Sarah Lightman is a graphic artist and co-founder of Laydeez do Comics, the first women’s led autobiographical comics forum in the UK. She co-curated the exhibition Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women which has just opened at The Oregon Jewish Museum in the US and her book Graphic Details: The Book, will be published by McFarland in 2013. Here she talks about the inspiration behind her comic masterpieces.
There is very little sequential art in the Jerwood Drawing Prize, why do you think that is?
Whilst there were no traditional comics there, there was more narrative art than I thought there would be, although these were pretty much limited to animations. I really enjoyed Karolina Glusiec’s winning animation, Velocity (2012) and Carl Randall’s Notes from Tokyo’s Underground (2011), the series of drawings was framed in panels like a comic, which I found very effective and beautiful. But I think narrative drawing just isn’t valued by many people, more from ignorance about the fine art qualities of comics, than anything else.
How do you think the art world perceive comics and graphic novels these days?`
I think comics are an undervalued an art form considering the care and attention involved in their creation. It often surprises an audience to come face to face with the original artwork and see skill, dexterity and innovation of the art of comics. Perhaps also comics have been dismissed because of their perceived emphasis on being stories for children – all super heroes and world saving, instead of being a form to tell adult experiences and the portrayal of the superpowers of just surviving our often difficult real lives.
What was the first comic you drew?
When I was younger I’d make comics for my family on their birthdays. I also often drew humorous comics about the family holidays we went on and all the mishaps and squabbles. My mum has kept them all, and likes to bring them out as impressive evidence of my precocious talent.
The first comic book I remember reading was a comic book version of the Old Testament. It was amazing to see biblical characters I heard about in my dull Sunday school classes in colour on the page. I’d stare at the images for ages, all those bearded men and brightly robed women. I recall how the printing had slipped somewhat so they all seems to bleed colour from their outlines giving an almost 3 dimensional effect.
You studied Fine Art at the Slade, what made you decide that comics were the medium in which to work?
I have always loved reading and literature as well as drawing; I did consider whether to study English or Art at University. It’s funny how I felt I had to decide and split myself into sections when I was young, like squeezing into an ill-fitting pair of shoes! I was letting the courses choose yet what really works for me is to combine both text and image. Making comics and a visual memoir was the natural fit I just didn’t know it then although I was introduced quite early on to Charlotte Salomon’s brilliant Life or Theatre? which made a huge impression on me.
I started drawing my visual narratives more seriously when I went to art school. I made a large one-page comic based on a poem by Sylvia Plath on my Foundation Course at Central/St Martins. Then, when I was an undergraduate at The Slade School of Art, I started drawing my life story. I decided to focus on making the simplest art I could think of which were pencil drawings. I didn’t enjoy having a communal art space, making art in public even today fills me with dread, so I went back to my parents house to draw, where I found some old family photos. The work I made on my own was always really powerful and true to me.
Since then I’ve always been thinking about how can my life story can be presented in words and images? My drawings can bring my life experiences to the public in a meaningful and powerful way. I am not embarrassed to show the bad as well as good times and I have always found making art about difficulties a way to make sense of my life so I agree with this text by Stephen Joseph in his new book, “The key to enabling […] growth is to take control of the stories that survivors tell themselves, [and] re-author these stories,” (What Doesn’t Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth Piatkus, 2011 p.148.) I want to take pain and unhappiness in my life and make something beautiful from them. The distillation of time and experience in the drawing process can produce beautiful and poignant art that, although based on my own personal experience, can also have universal appeal.
As a Jewish artist, and someone who cares about her culture and heritage my artwork also incorporates religious themes. I call my on going life-drawing The Book of Sarah. In the Bible it is really only the male characters that are written about, the women are just incidental to the narrative. In Genesis, Sarah, my namesake and Abraham’s wife gets her own chapter but it only includes a line about her death and then moves quickly on to other people and events. I’ve been creating The Book of Sarah in response to the silence of my biblical namesake, and also because my brother and sister are Esther and Daniel, and they both have their own Biblical literature; The Book of Daniel, and The Scroll of Esther. Since there is no Book of Sarah, I need to create one.
Do you approach making comics any differently to the way you made drawings in the past?
I want each of my drawings to be a stand alone art work as well as part of a series, but I like how I can play the text and the image against each other, like with my food diary drawings when I draw the anxious thoughts that prompt me to eat: “Two bananas when I thought my boyfriend no longer loved me”.
What is your PhD about?
I am researching my PhD on Hurting and Healing in Autobiographical Comics at the University of Glasgow. In my academic research I ask how does a comic draw out a traumatic story in words and images, and how far can the production of this comic heal the artist and reader? My methodology has included interviews with female comic artists as well as exploring theories of trauma and mourning, art therapy, and posttraumatic growth. The artists I interview include comic artists Diane Noomin, Sharon Rudahl, Nicola Streeten and Sarah Leavitt. These artists have all created art about traumatic events, including miscarriages, divorce, family illness and bereavement. I have also interviewed Bobby Baker, her Diary Drawings are beautiful and inspiring.
Finally, what is your favourite comic word?
My favourite moment is “oh” in Diane Noomin, Baby Talk: A Tale of 34 Miscarriages. The character, Glenda is telling her friend she is pregnant, and her friend suggests she wait till she is 3 months gone before she tells people. Suddenly all Glenda’s previous exuberance is crushed. Her “oh” is visualised silence a big speech bubble, with only a little text inside.
Only comics can make a silence a sound and a space. It’s a poignant moment.