Graphic Details: Interview with co-curator Sarah Lightman
Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women is the first museum exhibit to explore this unique niche of autobiographical storytelling by Jewish women. The touring exhibit, sponsored by The Forward, features the work of 18 Jewish women artists. The Jewish Women's Archive is interviewing each of the artists about their work and their experience as a female, Jewish graphic artist. Today we spoke with Sarah Lightman who co-curated the exhibit with Michael Kaminer. Her “Dumped before Valentine’s” series is featured in the exhibit.
Q: How did you get into cartooning?
Sarah Lightman: Well, firstly I have to admit; I’m not what everyone would consider a ‘Cartoonist’. I make a visual diary of my life that fits more into comics than any other art form and I have found myself very welcome and comfortable in the world of comics.
As a child I always loved telling stories with my drawings. I used to draw funny cards and poems with drawings for my parents' birthdays, and the tooth fairy, which my mum still keeps in the top drawer of her desk.
When I was at The Slade School of Art (University College London) for my BA in 1995, I felt very lost. I am sure it is like this for many students. So much was new and I didn’t know who I was. So I started to go back to what I did know, and where I came from and decided to draw my own autobiography: “The Book of Sarah.” I was quite religious at the time and my sister and brother, Esther and Daniel, had their own books in the Bible, (the Book of Esther and The Book of Daniel, respectively) but I did not. So to rectify this oversight and also to engage Judaism with the visual, and not just the textual, I committed to completing my own book over my lifetime. The Book of Sarah is an on-going project, full of narrative self-portraits, and studies of family photographs and diary drawings.
Q: How does your Jewish identity influence your work?
SL: I am finding my relationship to being Jewish is constantly evolving as I get older. I found at some points the texts and writings were most important, and now I am finding greatest joy from finding communities of Jewish artists who make similar art to me. I have felt for a number for years that my contribution to Jewish life and history will be a cultural one. For example, when I curated shows for The Ben Uri Gallery, London Jewish Museum of Art, I was committed to creating opportunities for contemporary artists. One pleasing result was giving Jewish artists an opportunity to display work that expressed their identity and their lives, and ensuring a supportive audience for this work. I felt most excited by the creative ways the artists engaged with Judaism and their Jewish experience.
Q: Do you think the experience of being a cartoon artist is different for men and women?
SL: This is a really difficult question to answer. I know in the past that it was harder for women to “make it” in the comic world, and there was sexism and misogyny. But now I think things are different. Through curating Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women I am struck by how many brilliant women comic artists there are out there, and how much work they are doing. As Michael Kaminer, my co-curator has said, it’s a: “Golden Age for women comic artists.”
Q: Tell me about your work in the Graphic Details exhibit. What's its story?
SL: “Dumped before Valentine’s” is a triptych, where I am being, as the title of the series described, “Dumped before Valentine’s.” I remember the moment well, sitting out on a bench just in front of The Tate Gallery in London. Since the work takes about the same time to view as the phone call lasted, I bracket the drawings with a drawing of the phone on either end of the first and third drawings. In “Dumped before Valentine’s” I don’t actually feature, I chose to make the moment, time and place take priority. I wanted to record the feeling of shock and moment of disappointment, as an almost out-of-body experience.
In the first image I am waiting for the phone call. In the second drawing I am receiving the phone call and then realising what is meant by the phone call – accepting that whom I was with is no longer going to be with me. I tried to describe a process of my world slowly dissipating from entire to partial. I went from feeling part of a relationship to being alone and isolated. So the bench is initially seen in context of the view, but by the third drawing it is just on its own, paralleling my changed emotional world.
The funny thing about autobiographical art is that you can memorialize, immortalize and publicize a moment and situation, even though the situation might feel a bit embarrassing and shameful and make you want to hide. By making “Dumped,” I am always somehow sitting on this bench, waiting for the call that from the guy who never turns up and letting everyone know about it. But somehow, (and this is the amazing and transformational nature of art), I come out in control, an artificer and not a victim.
Q: What's next?
SL: I am working to publish The Book of Sarah. I have so far done two chapters Genesis (my birth and growing up) and Exodus (leaving home, looking for boyfriends, being dumped and setting up in my own flat.) It’s really exciting to bring together all these drawings have done over 15 years.
I am also working on my PhD in “Autobiography in Comics” at the University of Glasgow. I chair the annual “Women in Comics” Conference, which is place where women’s contributions to comics are acknowledged celebrated and explored. I also co-direct Laydeez do Comics, with Nicola Streeten, a London-based monthly comics forum that focuses on domestic drama and the everyday (www.laydeezdocomics.com)
And of course there is curating Graphic Details and editing the book with Michael. So lots to do!
Graphic Details will finish its run at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco on Sunday, January 30. It will open in Toronto on February 17, presented by The Koffler Centre of the Arts at the Gladstone Hotel galleries on the West Queen West arts strip, and run through April 17, 2011. In January 2012, Graphic Details will open at New York’s prestigious Yeshiva University Museum and University of Michigan’s School of Art & Design will host Graphic Details at its renowned Slusser Gallery in fall, 2012.