When They Make You Smile: An Interview with Dana Walrath

View Dana Walrath’s art on the Featured Feminist Artist Page

Always interested in edges, margins, and connections, Dana Walrath weaves many distinct threads through her work. She spent 2012-2013 as a Fulbright Scholar in Armenia working on a project that builds on Aliceheimer’s (Harvest 2013) an award winning  graphic memoir series about life with her mother, Alice, before and during Alzheimer’s disease. Her first novel, Like Water on Stone, set during the Armenian genocide, is forthcoming with Delacorte Press in the fall of 2014. She believes in the transformative power of art.

Family, Trees
Family, Trees

Sheila: Does feminism play a direct role in your creative process? Meaning, do you make art with feminist intentions? If so, how do you define those feminist intentions? If not, where down the road do you think your pieces are being considered “feminist”? (maybe this last piece is more a question for me to answer, but I think the thought of “when a text becomes feminist” is interesting to talk about.

Dana: Feminism has given me tools to understand and shape who I am, how I think, how I interpret the world, the choices I make, and the issues that interest me. Still, I am not deliberately setting out to create art with feminist themes. Instead it finds its way in organically, just as you pose in the next question.

I was raised in the 1960s before the first wave of feminism, and received patriarchal Middle Eastern values both at home and in Yemen and Egypt where I lived as a teenager. I was already a wife and the mother of three sons before I discovered feminist and medical anthropological literature as a graduate student in the 1990s. This literature was liberating. It described things I knew in my bones but never had the vocabulary to articulate. It gave me the courage to trust my voice and my perspectives on the world.

Working across a variety of disciplines and media is a fundamentally feminist act as is the willingness to consider the authority of personal lived experience. While I still value the ways that the scientific method can uncover mechanisms about the world, science must be contextualized politically economically and historically in order to see how it too is shaped by social process. The divisions between disciplines themselves as well as the hierarchies by which they are ordered are socially generated. Being a part of all these worlds allows me to do work that draws on the richness that each has to offer as well as new possibilities through the cross pollination and translation.

S: You are a woman who wears many hats: A Professor of family medicine, medical anthropologist, writer, artist, world traveler, Fulbright scholar, TEDx speaker, among many other beautiful accomplishments. To acknowledge our inner-diversities and flexibility, I believe, is inherently feminist. What is appealing to you about working in so many fields? Are these interests ever in service of/inspiration for one another? Do you ever have to confront cross-genre challenges–ever feeling like you have to “justify” what you do because you are never just one uncomplicated thing?

D: When I was younger, I feared that people could accuse me of being a dilettante instead of serious because I was involved in so many things. As I’ve progressed in each of the disciplines, many have advised to stop blending, to just focus on one thing at a time, to make separate websites so as not to confuse my audience about who I am. The art and creative writing are now inseparable for me, though. I have many projects that use just one of these such as my forthcoming verse novel. The different creative processes feed one another. I thought of dropping the anthropology. I was in fact running from it and academia when I started Aliceheimer’s. But when some of my heroes from feminist anthropology embraced my creative work as anthropology, I felt integrated. I will keep engaging with anthropological themes though I am going to stick with creative forms of sharing the ideas. I am now very comfortable with the notion that this non traditional approach that blends disciplines is who I am and the heart of the contributions that I can make.

S: In the summer of 2013 at the Graphic Medicine Conference, you displayed pieces of Aliceheimers: Through the Looking Glass and presented on comics. Why comics? Why visual art integrating text? How does the melding of form help you craft your story?

D: This is one of my favorite things to talk about! Graphic story telling is a perfect medium for multi-layered, nonlinear storytelling which is just the kind of story telling we need to capture the complexity of sickness and health and of life and death. We take in visual information synchronically/all at once. Words, whether written or read, are linear, diachronic, and unfold through time. By combining both we are getting the strengths of the diachronic and the synchronic. In our evolutionary history and in the course of our individual development most humans (the blind being the exceptions) had our visual capacities long before we had command of language. Our ability to see precedes our capacity for conscious thought. At birth, a baby’s eyes can focus in only about 15-20 cm, the distance between the faces of a baby and a mother. We gather images in our subconscious minds as we learn to speak and learn to organize our thoughts. When telling a story using words and pictures, the pictures tap into these subconscious processes and create a bit of magic as I described with the haloes that appeared on that first drawing of my mother. Pictures add an element of subconscious magic to storytelling, but there is also an inherent conscious magic in storytelling. Humans connect through story, and think through story, and remember through story.

Comics as a form of “low” art also have a rule breaking tradition. If you see and know how medicine works as a form of social control, regulating the socially acceptable bodies and behavior, then comics with their rule breaking are the perfect medium for those who are sick. By definition the sick are not in the acceptable social state. The sick make all of us uncomfortable and we try to make them well. Within biomedicine, a healing system focused on repairing and curing sick bodies, permanent terminal conditions of sickness are stigmatized and met with silence. Comics can give people living with stigmatized conditions voice and a physical presence. It is much harder to deny someone’s humanity when you see them on a page, when they make you smile.

We also subconsciously associate comics with laughter. Finding the funny, the absurd, the joy in the pain and getting a good belly laugh gives respite to those who are sick and to those caring for them. We understand one another’s pain when we laugh together. Healing is a social process that involves finding some kind of cognitive peace and understanding one another’s fate. Healing is not the same as curing a disease. When we share stories we heal even if we are sick or hurt or dying.

S: How do you hope people will interact with your work?

I hope people will be open to laughing, crying (tears of connection not just loss) and to reframing things. All of this can be liberating. I hope it says with them.

D: What words of encouragement or lessons learned do you have for artists trying to share their artwork with a larger audience?

Follow the spirit of the Melanesian gift economies. Know that the whole purpose of creative work is simply to do it and get it out there and share it. Don’t get stuck thinking that the works’ value is determined by galleries, museums, grants, the critic’s review, the publishing deal, and so on. Sure this is part of the pragmatic equation of making a living off of art, but it works against the creative process. The real value of creative work comes from it being in motion, from making it and then passing around and sharing with others. This happens without those financial structures. You honor your own gifts by making the work and then when you pass the work to others and it touches them, the energy comes back to you from this motion. Poet Lewis Henry Hyde has written beautifully about this and it was especially fun for me as an anthropologist to see him drawing on Mauss!

S: Who are some other awesome artists we should check out?

D: Janet Van Fleet from Cabot Vermont. She is on the board of Studio Place Arts a wonderful community arts space in Barre, Vermont.
Adrineh Gregorian, painter, photographer, and filmmaker from Yerevan, Armenia.
Patty Hudak the artist working in Beijing with whom I made the pact to do a drawing a day.

Avian Reptile (1999) Enamel on bone
Avian Reptile (1999)
Enamel on bone

On Avian ReptileAs soon as I finished my PhD, I returned to painting working outside on our back porch. My subconscious processed some parts of my education with a series of painted objects: bones, lamps, dressers, paper, and metal all using this palette of ancient ceramics covered with these kinds of primordial forms.  This particular bone was/is the breast bone of a large bird, found on a walk along the beach in Cape May, New Jersey.  I wrote much of my dissertation in the Cape May City Library while my kids were otherwise entertained.

One Comment on “When They Make You Smile: An Interview with Dana Walrath

  1. “Know that the whole purpose of creative work is simply to do it and get it out there and share it.” – Never a truer word spoken, Dana!

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