Cartoonist and author Lynda Barry welcomes students to Willamette

by University Communications,

Lynda Barry will never forget the seemingly simple question that one of her Evergreen State College professors asked her 40 years ago: “What is an image?”

Barry, who went on to become a popular cartoonist, writer and college professor, says that question determined the path of her entire life. She left college with the passion to research the biological function of images and their impact on people’s thought and creativity. Today she is an associate professor of interdisciplinary creativity at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and runs the Image Lab at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery.

“It happened because I followed a question I was asked by a teacher when I was an 18-year-old,” she told the Willamette community Aug. 22 during the university’s opening convocation. “You can learn things from your friends, but your teachers teach you how to learn.”

The anecdote was a serious one, but Barry, creator of the widely syndicated alternative comic “Ernie Pook’s Comeek,” also brought plenty of humor — and song — as she addressed Willamette’s new students, their families and other campus community members during the university-wide convocation that launched the new year.

Noting that singing can help calm nerves, Barry opened her talk by performing her version of the Willamette motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born,” to the tune of the “Star Wars” theme (watch a video of her song). Throughout her speech, she offered light-hearted advice to the new students, urging them to get sleep, “use the original digital devices” (their fingers), doodle, and floss, because “the liberal arts can get you out of a lot of jams — but it can’t get you out of gingivitis.”

But Barry also set the tone for the liberal arts education the students will soon receive as she described her explorations of image and how students can apply many different disciplines to a single idea. “Through the liberal arts, you explore all these options that can give you original solutions to problems,” she said.

Images and the artistic activities that accompany them can provide both physical and mental benefits, Barry said, and she cited several examples from her research. In one, she described the idea of the child’s “blankie,” an object the child carries everywhere and injects with significant meaning. “It’s a piece of cloth, but it contains something that gives a child a sense of well-being in the world,” Barry said.

“We can use images to fix things in us or to settle ourselves down. … When we have our experience reflected back to us (through songs, films, pictures and other art forms), it helps to get rid of our pain.”

In the end, Barry reminded the students that they are beginning an educational and transformational journey that could take them well beyond what they imagine.

“Maybe in 40 years, in 2054, one of you will be giving a convocation speech,” she said. “And I would love that.”

About the New Classes

College of Liberal Arts

  • 560 students enrolled, from about 5,800 applicants
  • From 39 states and seven countries
  • 37% identify as multicultural
  • 49 valedictorians
  • Median SAT score is 1815
  • 24% first-generation college students

Atkinson Graduate School of Management

  • 106 new students, plus two exchange students, in the Early Career MBA and MBA for Career Change programs
  • From 13 states and 10 countries
  • The MBA for Professionals programs in Portland and Salem, which start Sept. 8, also have strong classes.

College of Law

  • 100 first-year JD students, plus 16 Master of Law and three Master of Legal Studies students
  • Represent 65 undergraduate institutions, both in the U.S. and abroad
  • Speak 12 languages
  • Prior to law school, students’ work positions included Naval aviator, pizza artist, police officer and Zamboni driver.

• The enrollment numbers are preliminary and subject to change