Lynda Barry at NASA: Drawing to Infinity and Beyond

Image credit: NASA/Goddard/Rebecca Roth

In April, cartoonist and assistant professor of interdisciplinary research at Wisconsin Institute for Discovery Lynda Barry brought a heavy dose of creativity - and her unique perspective on storytelling - to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Lynda Barry notices things. She notices the way your face changes when you are remembering your first crush or first car, she notices what your hands are doing when you think, and she notices the barriers that come between people and the creative expression of their ideas.

In April, when Barry arrived at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center just down the road from the University of Maryland, she noticed a lot: the intact 1959-style architecture and decor, beautiful images of nebulae taken by the Hubble Space Telescope (later she noticed the purple Crab Nebula image posted online by NASA in honor of Prince), and even how one employee had replaced her nameplate image with a photo of her dog, complete with a dog treat taped to the wall below.

Barry, clad in her best Star Wars tee-shirt and with dozens of drawings in tow, also noticed that the community of scientists and communicators at NASA was eager to hear her perspectives on creativity and to participate in her workshop, “Writing the Unthinkable”.

As many of her audiences have discovered, Barry is an enchanting speaker and teacher. A few hours spent with her will find you weaving between art, memories, humor, science, reflection, invention, and awe. “I like to incorporate drawing and writing, especially for people who have completely given up on drawing and are totally freaked out,” says Barry. “So I show them pretty quickly that there’s another kind of drawing that isn’t representational drawing, it’s cartooning – it’s comics.”

Barry’s impact on the assembled Goddard employees was immediate; from the moment she arrived, she insisted on abandoning all electronic devices. “They were really flipped out about it,” says Barry. “The phone gives us a lot but it takes away three key elements of discovery: loneliness, uncertainty and boredom. Those have always been where creative ideas come from.”

Free from distractions, imagination flowed freely throughout the workshop. “When everyone was finally ready to write, they were able to write these complete, really strong stories in just a few minutes,” says Barry. “I loved listening to them – they were really good writers, and their stories and drawings were warmly received by their colleagues. The delete button [on the computer] makes it so that anything you’re unsure of you can get rid of, so nothing new has a chance. Writing by hand is a revelation for people. Maybe that’s why they asked me to NASA – I still know how to use my hands.”

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Comment by Brigitte Martin on June 21, 2016 at 7:00pm
I feel exactly like you, Liana! I loved her comment about being able to work with her hands. That, to me, is why I am not worried about craft. There's always going to be people who know how to actually get stuff done by hand. Let the Zombie Apocalypse come, the traditional trades and the crafts will get polite society running again afterwards. Undoubtedly.
Comment by Liana Tomchesson on June 21, 2016 at 5:50pm

She is like fresh air, rejuvenation. 

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