Art of Spiegelman
In the Quad Club lobby five students wait for
Art Spiegelman, the creative-writing program’s 2004 Kestnbaum
writer in residence. Fifteen minutes into the scheduled start of
their small workshop with the graphic novelist, third-year Iana
Dikidjieva passes around her surreal sketches and writing snippets.
First-year Sophie Hunter scans them and asks, “Have you ever
seen that book Insanely Twisted Rabbits? This reminds me
of it.” Dikidjieva claps her hands, smiles, and blows Hunter
kisses for the compliment.
Courtesy John Preus, As the Crow Flies
from MFA student John Preus’s short film.
Finally Spiegelman descends the staircase. “You
guys are down here?” he says apologetically. “I’ve
been waiting in my room.” Faded black from the gray strands
in his wispy hair to his worn Lee jeans, he leads them to his corner
suite. As writer in residence he is giving a lecture, sitting on
a panel, having lunch with 20 students, and holding three workshops—one
on graphics, one on writing, and this afternoon’s mix of both.
More than 30 students applied for the 15 workshop slots and the
chance to be critiqued by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author
of Maus, the graphic novel about his father’s Holocaust
Spiegelman takes a wooden chair by the desk and
fires up a Camel Light; the students sit on a couch, a chair, the
floor. Taking the top folder, he turns to first-year Ted Anderson,
who’s begun a graphic novel about a blind girl. He’s
included rough sketches, but Anderson doesn’t consider himself
an artist and wants someone else to illustrate the book.
Spiegelman tries to steer him away from that
idea. “Comics is one of the few places you can make a world
that’s yours.” Besides drawing, he says, a comic-strip
artist can use the size of each box, the size and style of the font,
to convey meaning. “Because of the subject matter,”
he continues, “which is about not seeing, I can see a series
of black boxes with balloons, a photograph now and then when you
switch from her point of view. That would be a way to make something
visible that’s not.”
The next folder in the pile belongs to Rich Wang,
a second-year who wrote a short story specifically for the workshop.
“Your writing,” Spiegelman notes, “has a transparency
that I was so grateful to find.” The ending, in which the
protagonist “thinks” he hears the other character whisper
“I love you,” needs help, the group decides. “It’s
a real ending, but it would be nice to have it not be so sentimental,”
Spiegelman says. “Since everything else is so relatively precise,
the end gets soft by having ambiguity.”
They move on to Dikidjieva, who sits on the floor
hugging her knees. “Are you from Eastern Europe?” asks
Spiegelman, who was born in Stockholm and raised in New York. “Yes,
from Bulgaria,” she answers. “Your popular culture is
so different than if you’d grown up in Chicago,” he
says. “It moves into surrealism and the fable.” Her
drawings—a platform shoe with a chimney head, sitting on books
and smoking a pipe; teeth with wings—have “a spark,”
he says, “but it doesn’t seem like you’re invested
in it.” “Right,” she admits. “It’s
all fragments.” He suggests she keep trying; eventually she
might connect the pieces or by sheer volume have a worthy collection.
Hunter’s CD images, meanwhile, have loaded
onto Spiegelman’s laptop: photos of her Los Angeles graffiti,
black-and-white photos from Mexico, sketches of drawing-class nudes.
“The graffiti is the most accomplished of your work,”
says Spiegelman. But the art is “all over the place—you’re
sending out little probes.” Recalling Anderson’s book,
he suggests, “You might be perfect for drawing blind people.”
It’s MFA student John Preus’s turn.
He’s made a five-minute animated film—using images he
drew with a mouse in Photoshop—that plays on Spiegelman’s
laptop. As the Crow Flies begins with a close-up of a hanging
cocoon—taken from a photo, he says, of the bodies of four
U.S. security guards murdered March 31 in Fallujah, Iraq. An animated
crow then flies out of a field and morphs into various scenes such
as a person whacking the crow with a sword or two Arab women whispering.
Besides suggesting Preus use an easier tool than
a mouse—a stylus and tablet might be quicker and less awkward—Spiegelman
offers nothing but praise. “The transformations felt so logical,”
he says, noting his own foray into 9/11-inspired art. Preus’s
film, he says, “seems so focused, like it has a motor.”
“That’s about the biggest compliment you could have
given me,” Preus says. “I struggled with that.”
The workshop over, Spiegelman has an hour before
his Court Theatre lecture. For the students in the Quad Club suite,
his personal attention has been the highlight of the day.—A.M.B.