Documenting Herstories: An Interview with Sarah Lightman

by  Michael Alessi

Sarah Lightman is an award-winning artist widely exhibited in the UK and abroad. She created a visual diary for over 15 years, The Book of Sarah, to be published as a graphic novel (Myriad Editions 2017). She has also made a series of animation films based on her drawings. With Michael Kaminer, she co-curated Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women, a critically acclaimed show of 18 internationally renowned artists that opened at The Cartoon Art Museum San Francisco in 2010, and toured to Toronto, New York, Oregon, Florida (2013), and Space Station 65, London (2014) and Ohio State University (2015). She was just awarded The Susan Koppelman Prize for her edited volume Graphic Details: Jewish Women’s Confessional Comics in Essays and Interviews (McFarland 2014). Lightman is co-director of Laydeez do Comics, the UK’s only women-led monthly comic forum with branches worldwide. She is pursuing a PhD in autobiography in comics at the University of Glasgow. You can explore galleries of her work here.

Michael Alessi: Have your experiences as a curator for both Diary Drawings and Graphic Details: Jewish Women’s Confessional Comicschanged the way that you read, study, and appreciate comics? Do exhibitions change how we read and experience comics?

Sarah Lightman: I think every project I have done is an eye-opener, and gives me greater insight into the worlds of comics and visual autobiography. I am constantly amazed and impressed by other artist’s ingenuity! As a creator you also learn so much just by looking at other comics, and breaking down how they are drawn and written – seeing how each page and even panel is constructed. I also find teaching comics has really helped me see new dimensions in each artwork. So I would say being immersed in activities related to comics has helped me develop as an artist a great deal!

MA: How did you and Michael Kaminer select the 18 artists included in Graphic Details?

SL: The exhibition originated from an article Michael wrote for The Jewish Daily Forward about some female comics artist he saw at a MoCCA event in NYC. So as well as including a number of the artist mentioned there, we pooled our knowledge and contacts. I think some of the artists also recommended each other as well. We could have included plenty more, and one of the delightful aspects of the touring nature of Graphic Details has been how artist constantly find me, to show me their work, and say how excited they are to discover so many other colleagues!

MA: In what ways do you hope to see the form of Graphic Detailschange as the project continues to grow? How has it already changed, either intentionally or unintentionally, since you began working on it in 2009?

SL: I had never curated an internationally touring show before, and I have really enjoyed seeing how the exhibit develops in each site. For example in The Cartoon Art Museum San Francisco, the work was exhibited in chronological sequence, but in New York, at Yeshiva University Museum, we had themes and titles of sections that engaged with Jewish notions of life, and community and experience, as best suited the site and audience.

MA: It seems as though The Book of Sarah and the Graphic Detailsexhibit are linked on a personal and cultural level by a desire to address the undocumented histories and methodologies of women in art (both in print and on the gallery wall). How has the task of illuminating the confessional histories of Graphic Details influenced your work and practices as an artist?

SL: Curating the show has helped me feel more and more confident about what I really want to draw, write and make. It has certainly helped me move forward with my own project, The Book of Sarah. I feel my talks begin to present a herstory of women’s comics and that I have a place in this. It was very hard to begin my autobiographical project as I did in my early twenties, as an undergraduate, and feel so isolated. Also as a woman artist I can’t help feeling somewhat dis-enfranchised by the majority of art history. Museums, and galleries still have an imbalance of male/female artist and artworks, and the same is true for a majority of art magazines. It is quite off-putting to see all these naked languishing nudes when you visit museums, and feel a whole version of life and experience is just not represented.

MA: In her book Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory, literary scholar Marianne Hirsch describes postmemory as a “powerful and very particular form of memory precisely because it connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and recreation” (22). Building off this concept, Pnina Rosenberg argues that The Book of Sarah can read as an artifact of postmemory. Do you consider your work an act of invention or revelation?

SL: I think all autobiography is fact and fiction, an invention and also a revelation of the truth. You can’t help but re-write your past as you write and draw it. I suppose my version of post-memory is that I have inherited a history as a Jewish woman, a history that includes the Holocaust even indirectly since my family was in the UK. But as a Jewish person you carry a communal history within you that is intertwined with your own.

MA: You’ve described elements of your work in terms of a scroll “partially unrolled, as life yet unread, undrawn and unwritten.” What role does scrolling play in the perspective and visual composition of your project? How does this fit into the work’s Biblical inspirations?

SL: In the Jewish year the reading of the Torah reading finishes and then it is begins again. It is the cyclical process. I think life can be like that sometimes, similar situations, similar but still different as time has moved on. You handle things differently.

MA: Your work includes a range of artistic forms – diary/confessional writing, film, and drawings – and you’ve mentioned that your work both belongs and doesn’t belong in comics. How and why did comics become the medium for the project?

SL: The most important role comics have played has been to give me a community. I love reading other comics and being part of this great surge by women to tell their life stories. I set up Laydeez do Comics with Nicola Streeten in 2009. We had no idea how many people would be interested in a comics forum that focused on autobiography. We are still constantly amazed by how our meetings in London have grown in size and the vigour with which new groups have sprouted up around the UK and the world. And at the same time I feel I am in the process of expanding both my own, and others, definition of comics. I find that very exciting as well.

MA: How do you edit The Book of Sarah?

SL: I don’t really edit my work much, but I do hold back until it reaches the public eye. I never show my work straight after I have made it. I need some time, could be weeks or months, where I just sit with it. The autobiographical nature of my subject matter means sometimes my feelings are still raw and it feels hard to show them, let alone present them in public. I find showing the work for the first few times quite stressful as I never know what people will make of my work, if they will “get it”. It’s always such a relief to get good feedback and comments that tell me others have been able to engage with the work.

MA: You’ve cited Charlotte Salomon’s Life? Or Theatre? as a primary influence on your work. What other visual art and confessional writing has had the most impact on the look and direction of The Book of Sarah?

SL: I really love the work of Tracey Emin. I find her inspiring, especially how she has made it acceptable to tell publicly through art, the most intimate and difficult life experiences in the form of something beautiful. There was a big show of her work in London a few years ago and I visited a number of times. It gave me a great deal of strength.

MA: Your drawings convey so much of their meaning through objects in the absence of figures, resulting in a visual system of symbols that transcends the reading of the text, but is also deeply dependent on it. How does this study of objects shape the confessional nature of the project? What is hidden, and what is gained?

SL: I love drawing objects. I feel I can make them hold so much time and feeling. And I can draw them in the silence of my studio and feel quite at peace even though I’ll be drawing about a subject that still fills me with anxiety, fear or sadness.

MA: What advice would you offer for the fledgling writer or artist looking to break into comics?

SL: Find a community. It could be online, or somewhere that takes a while to get to and that you only go occasionally, but it makes the biggest difference to be with like-minded people, who share similar struggles. And the friendships you make can be so important to your creative life.

I would also suggest embracing all your interests and all parts of your creative life. Your interest in sci-fi, or rock’n’roll or whatever, these aspects can all be integrated into your artwork or writings to make your work richer and multi-layered. I definitely think the truer your work is to you, the more powerful and universal, it becomes.

Also remember that, like with any creative endeavour, the moment of publication or exhibition, is not the point in time that all the work happens, but in the years and years of work beforehand, when you had no idea how, and if, things would develop. So it is really important to embrace the whole process, the long journey of creativity.

My final advice would always be brave. Take the chance to show yourself. And only make or write or draw what you really, really want.

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Michael Alessi is the managing editor of Barely South Review. His work has appeared in Mid-American Review, NANO Fiction, and New Delta Review.