Artist Roz Chast tells stories through cartoons

The New Yorker cartoonist lit up Hendricks Chapel Wednesday night with her humor as part of the University Lectures series.

Syracuse University community members filed into Hendricks Chapel Wednesday night to hear the words of Roz Chast, a cartoonist for The New Yorker.

The second guest of the University Lectures series this semester, Chast talked about the “Theories of Everything, and Much, Much More.” The event was in collaboration with the Visual and Performing Arts program.

Chast, a Brooklyn native, is best known for her work in The New Yorker magazine, where her humorous cartoons have and continue to grace many of its covers. She began her speech by describing that as a child, she had a unique fascination with diseases, especially lock jaw. She believed this to be the scariest of nightmares for any kid, giving a nod to the quirky child that she was.

Chast had the entire audience in laughter as she showed some of her work, including “When Moms Dance,” “The Last Thanksgiving” and “The Fountain of Puberty.” The first cartoon to be picked up by the weekly magazine was called “Little Things,” which published in 1978. Surprised, Chast said, “I didn’t think I was fit to work for The New Yorker. I thought I probably better belonged working for an alternative paper.” Out of the 60 drawings that she dropped off, they chose what she thought to be the most “random” piece in her collection.

Chast is not only an accomplished artist, but also a humorous commentator about everyday things. Her talent has placed her as a contracted weekly contributor among forty other cartoonists. This, however, does not guarantee they will buy any of her pieces.

“The process,” as she described, requires all artists to provide five to 15 different sketches every week. Of that batch, maybe one is selected, but often none of them are. The piece is then combined with the other 400 cartoons that had been selected to move to the next round. The number is then weeded down to 100, before they are sent to the editors who then pick about 20 drawings. Although this may seem like the ultimate job, Chast said that is a stressful one. “I am in a panic every week because I don’t think I am going to come up with another idea again, but somehow I do it,” she said.

Chast was always a drawer. She said that when she was younger, she hated to go outside, wondering, “What was the point?” Instead, she would try to convince her friends to stay inside and come up with “stupid ideas” that would make them laugh.

She was first inspired by Charles Addams and it was through his work that she fell in love with cartooning. At the age eight or nine, Chast would collect his books, saying that she “loved his sense of humor because it was dark and funny.” She also loved to read Mad Magazine, which fueled her imagination.

Chast’s latest work is in her novel, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant. This memoir follows the relationship she had with her parents as they were living their last few years and recounts all of the things they went through. As an only child, it was during this time that caused her to have some realizations of her own. She shared a few pages with the audience, reading with enthusiasm. The pages were filled with classic Chast humor and drawings.

Ultimately, Chast loves the relationship that cartooning has between image and word. Cartoons are the happy medium where they not only come together, but are also intertwined.
In addition to her paper to pen method, Chast fills her time with DIY projects. For a time, she would use colored wax to draw images on eggs. Although this may seem like a random hobby, she made it all her own, allowing the eggs to be the canvas for her unique drawings and storytelling. A sketched image of her masterpieces was on the April 4, 2004 issue of The New Yorker.

As far as showing her work to her family, Chast claims that not all of her work is based on real life events or experiences. Life is merely an “inspiration” to her, but in reality, images can hit her anywhere, at any time, and often without a warning. However, a lot of her work comes to her when she is in the mood and under the pressure of a deadline. Admittedly, she said that it must be difficult to live with an artist or writer because “you have to trust that they won’t reveal anything too personal.”

Chast concluded by saying that next on her to-do list is to try animation, and maybe attempt to drive in New York City.

Roz Chast at Syracuse University

Photo by Fiona O'Connor

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