Sarah Firth is one of my favorite creatives. She is a Melbourne based artist who studied visual arts at the Australian National University. In the last decade or so she has earned numerous awards, commissions, residencies and a fellowship. Firth is a creative entrepreneur running a creative services and consultation business offering graphic recording, illustration, animation, film and creative workshops. Her first graphic novel, Eventually Everything Connects, has a publisher, JOAN (Nakkiah Lui with Allen & Unwin), and will launch within a year. More details on that as we get closer to that date. In her new book, Firth explores, as she states, “personal narratives woven together with philosophy, psychology, theory, and criticism. It’s a humorous and idiosyncratic exploration of multiplicity, fragmentation and intertextual play that fits into the autotheory genre.” In this interview, Firth shares a little bit about that upcoming book, the world of graphic recording, and thoughts on the whole creative process, particularly the creation of comics. For one thing, we discuss the amazing Comic Art Workshop residency program. We also discuss the awesome Graphic Storytellers at Work research project. Firth says, “It’s really worth downloading and reading their report. If you want a printed poster contact Gabriel Clarke.”
Sarah Firth, the artist, the person.
So, now I’ve set up for you a little bit about who Sarah Firth is but let me go further in sharing with you about this remarkable talent. I find Firth to be a vibrant artist, unafraid to be silly and to experiment with various media. She mentions in our interview that she began as a sculptor and I’m not surprised. If you take a look at her videos, you get a strong tactile vibe. Firth uses her hands a lot: to mold shapes, to present, to sew, to draw, to perform. And I’m not surprised that such a lively and curious artist gravitated to graphic recording. That is a special discipline that, on the face of it, is essentially documenting some meeting, whether a conference or a workshop, and distilling the essentials from it in concise words and picture. Of course, it’s more than that–as if that wasn’t enough!
Graphic recording can be a vehicle for deep exploration. You can’t just be an artist to do it professionally. And you really can’t just be a writer either. You need both skill sets along with a strong analytical mind, and even sheer guts, to do this at an exceptional level! That said, anyone can do some form of sketchnoting and Firth offers up a free mini-course to help you discover the world of graphic recording.
Graphic recording is just like any other skill, you can do it at your own pace to meet your own needs. You’ll discover that, if you can take notes of any kind and even if you think you can’t, sketchnoting is useful at work and to help you problem-solve just about anything.
Sarah Firth books.
You get good at graphic recording over time as you develop your own style, your own way of problem-solving. I’ve reached a certain level with my own graphic recording and I know I’ll keep getting better at it. Everyone keeps getting better as long as they’re curious.
THINK ON THE PAGE by Sarah Firth
Finally, I’m not surprised that, after years of doing graphic recording, of getting down into the weeds of processing raw information, that Firth has found her way to creating a graphic novel, one that, in a sense, attempts to make sense of it all. Autotheory, as I understand, is using the self in order to understand the world. That’s a lot of what graphic novels are about and I know Sarah Firth is a natural at synthesizing data and explaining the world around her in whatever medium she chooses to use.
I hope you enjoy this video podcast. And, if you get chance, I’d really appreciate a like and even a comment on my YouTube channel. It’s totally free and it helps to keep this whole enterprise moving along. I will continue to provide more of this kind of content, as I juggle various other projects and assignments in the background. I reached a point some time ago where I can only post the content that engages me the most. As always, your support means a lot and is actually part of this whole process, whether you know it or not. It’s so true. Eventually, everything connects!
I direct your attention to a short film I made. My goal was to open things up and see what I might come up with in a day-in-life or a window into the creative’s mind. I had some hurdles to jump, namely creating some decent pieces of art on the fly while filming to actually show me being creative; and then it was touch and go as I worked my way up to a moment where I say something to pull it all together. YouTube provides the option to transcribe and create captions so I did that. Here are the words that I spoke, my grand soliloquy:
When we’re drawing, we create a sacred space. We do that because we need to do that. We need to allow ourselves that freedom, that security, to just do whatever. Just do whatever. That goes for just about any kind of activity that requires concentration and focus. We create a sacred space.
We as humans are constantly gathering information. And a lot of the information we’re gathering is just to confirm that we’re okay. Are we okay? Yeah, we’re okay. Is everything fine? Everything’s fine. That’s constantly going on.
So, we gather information. We process data. Ongoing thing. Ongoing activity. There’s a great demand for that. A great demand for collecting data and processing data. What does that have to do with drawing? Well, a lot. I think a lot because I think drawing, well, we know, drawing can simplify things, and highlight things, and bring the essential points into focus.
With clear spot on drawings and concise words combined together, yeah, the act of drawing, it’s there to help in so many ways. So many ways. It’s not just one thing. It’s a lot of things. It’s a form of self-expression and a form of making sense of the world.
Mimi Pond was a queen for the night at the Eisner Awards this year as she was the winner in the Short Story category for her take on menopause. Yes, folks, you heard it right, a cartoonist won a prestigious industry award on a subject that has gotten little recognition over the years outside of a Joan Rivers comedy act. What’s more, Mimi’s story is part of the book that also won an Eisner Award–in the Best Anthology category! We all need to get over ourselves on so many levels more than ever. The truth is that we all have bodies (who knew?) and they go through changes as we steadily make our way to our final stop. There is no denying that a woman’s body goes through hell. But it’s not left just to me to say that. This book says it in a variety of ways, both vivid and hilarious.
Running off with the circus!
There is so much politics, a lot of it quite toxic, attached to everything about us, including our bodies. What’s refreshing about this book, in that regard, is that it’s engaged in some primal truth. That is what is so compelling about Mimi Pond’s short story as the main character must confront who she is at the most basic level. She’s mad as hell and she’s not going to take it anymore! This comic is one of those in-your-face show stoppers that takes you out of the page, out of the book, all the way to the Eisner Awards. In the story, a mother and adult daughter are wandering around an old-fashioned carnival when a carnie lures them into a show about empowerment. On stage, there is a troupe of naked middle-aged women doing a spoken word act. The mom is overcome and joins the group on stage, strips off her clothes, and vows to run away with the circus. The mom sees her mad dash as her last chance to shine, to live her life. Psychological road blocks can be every bit as real as anything else standing in the way of fulfillment. One is left with a universal urge to push one’s way through no matter what. And, if dad’s hot casserole gets cold, so be it!
Menopause: A Comic Treatment
With Mimi’s raucous story leading the way, this collection boasts an array of significant work from 28 contributors, explaining, and expressing their views, on the many aspects of menopause, from the general to the more specific and personal. This book is another partnership with Graphic Medicine, co-founded by MK Czerwiec, this book’s editor, as well as a contributor under the pen name, “Comic Nurse.” Menopause: A Comic Treatment is the nineteenth book in the Graphic Medicine Series published by Penn State University Press. The following are some more examples from the book. As I say, it’s a great range of work: some are more medically-focused, created by medical professionals, with simple drawings; and some are from seasoned professional cartoonists more invested in a slice-of-life perspective.
“A Slow Intermittent Leak,” by Jennifer Camper
Jennifer Camper’s “A Slow Intermittent Leak” cuts to the chase with a long hard look at the menstrual cycle, from first period to last. For many men, the reality of blood alone makes periods a highly taboo subject. Of course, those men need to get a grip. Camper is a professional cartoonist and it clearly shows. This is a highly organized and masterfully composed work. The combination of the artwork and engaging prose is a pleasure to read and guides the reader through with humor and grace.
“Burning Up,” by Comic Nurse (MK Czerwiec)
MK Czerwiec’s “Burning Up” is both highly informative and entertaining and is a great example of the power of visual storytelling. For these type of educational comics, art is only part of it and can be pretty simple as it is here. What matters most to the cartoonist is finding just the right balance of words and pictures to best convey the information. Czerwiec’s pen name is “Comic Nurse,” and this piece demonstrates what she is great at: taking challenging subjects and making them relatable. In this case, we follow our main character on a journey of self-discovery and an appreciation of “hot flashes.”
“Surgical Menopause–In Ten Postures,” by Susan Merrill Squier and Shelley Wall
My final sample demonstrates how truly powerful and practical comics can be. “Surgical Menopause–In Ten Postures,” is unique in its specificity as it greatly benefits from two experts in their fields. It is written by Susan Merrill Squier, a professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Penn State. It is illustrated by Shelley Wall, a medical illustrator and assistant professor in the biomedical communications graduate program at the University of Toronto. The comics coming from the Graphic Medicine community, which this book is a prime example of, are said to provide insight to medical professionals that they typically do not get. It is through the combination of Squier’s eloquence and Wall’s precision that we get a window into the highly idiosyncratic individual. Too often it comes down to doctors vs. patients when, in fact, we’re all just humans. It takes a very sophisticated comic like this is prove a simple truth: we’re all vulnerable and we all need to be carefully listened to. Ironically, despite how articulate this comic is, it is speaking to how easy it is to not speak properly or to be listened to properly. The prime example in this comic: the doctor, in an all too matter-of-fact tone, asks the patient, “Do you want to keep your uterus if you’re having your ovaries removed?” The patient, in an all too defensive posture, replies, “I am not my uterus.” End of discussion. Uterus removed. Oh, but the patient didn’t really mean it, wishes the doctor had questioned her words and now regrets having her uterus removed.
About the Editor
MK Czerwiec, RN, MA, is the artist-in-residence at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and the cocurator of GraphicMedicine.org. She has served as a Senior Fellow of the George Washington School of Nursing Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement and as an Applied Cartooning Fellow of the Center for Cartoon Studies. She is the creator of the graphic memoir Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 and coauthor of Graphic Medicine Manifesto, both published by Penn State University Press.