Rob Kirby Interviews Cara Bean

Meet Cara Bean. She's an ambitious, thirty-something artist, entranced enough with the comics medium and its possibilities that she managed to wrangle a year's sabbatical from her job as a high school art teacher in Massachusetts to journey to Gainesville, Florida to the Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW). There she will further her craft and learn, learn, learn until sometime next summer. Though Cara is a pal of mine and I may be prejudiced, I’ll state with confidence that she is going to become better known in the alt-comics scene in the months and years ahead, which she deserves. A few years ago I became an instant fan upon reading her first minicomic, Squeaky Noises, with its distinctive blend of surreal whimsy and melancholy (plus a dog and a squirrel as the main characters). Her subsequent minis, among them Ms. Bean's Art Class and the 2 issues to date of Gorilla Year confirmed her gift for crafting creative, warmly funny and humane stories. I emailed her questions over the course of several weeks this fall to find out about her progress at SAW, about her new book, and engage in a little bit of banter about this and that. I very much appreciate her willingness to take time out from her intensive studies to answer my insistent, nagging questions.  

Rob Kirby: Hey Cara! What's up? How are things going in Florida? Have you gotten
 into the swing of things yet?
Cara Bean: Hello, Rob! Florida is vastly different from my normal New England habitat. It has far more rainstorms and insects that I had anticipated.  I am currently living in a cottage on a cow farm by a lake.  It is right outside of Gainesville, where I'm studying comics at the Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW).  In the evenings my windows are filled with newts and frogs that are attracted to the light inside.  Last night I watched a small frog ingest a moth that was around the same size.  I couldn't help but be proud of him. 
I am currently three weeks into the program and learning so much.  We have four regular instructors that we meet with weekly and will have various guest teachers that visit for workshops.  I'm pleased to be doing assignments that are already helping me with creative story structure, world and character building, human anatomy, and comics history.  I'm still kind of amazed that I'm here and not in my usual role as a high school art teacher.  It feels really good to be focusing on my own work right now.
Kirby: That all sounds so cool. BTW, I love the project you put up on Festival Season this week (Cara drew comics in the style of other cartoonists who have inspired her) and look forward to seeing more. Do you have a largish project to complete during your residency there, or are you just going with the flow for now and doing whatever assignments are meted out?

Bean: Thanks! That was the very first project that we were assigned. The objective was to draw seven diary comics and utilize the techniques of other cartoonists. This gave me permission to steal freely and proved to be a helpful creative exercise. It seems like common sense that drawing from the work of other artists is educational.  But it’s challenging to be motivated to try this outside of a classroom environment.  It helps to have an experienced and encouraging mentor, as well as firm deadlines. Tom Hart is providing the perfect environment thus far.

I’m noticing that the classes at SAW are structured in a similar way to my classroom at the high school.  First we complete many small skill-building exercises, then later we’re given time to pursue more in-depth projects.  I hope to be very busy and complete higher quality comics this year.  Some of them will be a continuation of my series like Gorilla Year and Ms. Bean's Art Class.  Other projects will likely come out of the work that I’m doing with the teachers/cartoonists at SAW. (I recently created a caterpillar character that I’m having a lot of fun with in Kurt Wolfgang's class.)  In addition to this, I have some talented cartoonist pals who have expressed interest in collaborating with me.  I'm excited to find out how much I can accomplish in one uninterrupted year.

  Fun Fact: Barefoot Justine is a very cool teacher at SAW.  She is teaching our class how to draw human anatomy convincingly.  Her homework involves drawing the human figure over and over again in many different poses.  It can be tedious, but this discipline is clearly necessary to improve skills. Our recent homework assignment was to draw three different scenes that are inspired by 1950's pulp fiction magazines and novel covers.  For example, one of the prompts is to draw a scene involving Nazis, murderous crabs, and 1950's underwear – we’re encouraged to let our imaginations wander.  This is a naughty, playful task that allows students to practice dynamic, narrative anatomy.  Justine is holding our attention by encouraging an indulgence in lurid, cheesy, sleazy subject matter. She asks us to experiment with gender roles and power play in our sketches.

Kirby: I’m glad you mentioned Gorilla Year. You know, I recommend that comic (two issues to date) to people all the time, but it’s sort of hard to describe.  How do you describe it?

Bean: Gorilla Year is also difficult for me to describe!  I think this is because it has a meandering subconscious vibe to it.  I like how Rob Clough described it: "an amusing stream-of-consciousness series wherein the author gets involved in a series of gorilla-related situations."  My initial inspiration for the series is taken from my graduate school experience at the University of Washington in Seattle when I was in my early twenties.  During this time I would visit the gorilla exhibit at the Woodland Park Zoo to draw.  I have always been an animal freak, and become preoccupied with all furry creatures in my company.  However, after 2001, my sketchbooks show that gorilla imagery became the most dominant piece of my visual vocabulary.  Later when I fell madly in love with comics, I began absorbing any gorilla imagery in fiction that I could find. (I especially enjoy finding gorilla cover art from the Silver and Golden Age of comics.)
I look back on it now through the filter of having been through therapy, I can acknowledge that this series is an attempt to understand my younger, confused self.  This is the emotional spark that motivated me to draw this series. This time period was a tipping point for me in being overwhelmed with anxiety and depression.  As someone who works with young people in my current life, I am often reaching out and trying to empathize with their inner suffering.  I like working with troubled kids because I was pretty mixed up as a teen and especially during my twenties.  In some respects I guess that creating Gorilla Year is a way for me to reconnect with a time when I couldn't articulate my feelings.  I'm trying to give a voice to that awkward, angry girl. At the same time I'm having fun letting my imagination wander though my emotional memory in an experimental way.  (I am afraid this might sound stupid, writing about drawing is hard.)

Kirby: No, no that all makes perfect sense! You know, I can’t help but notice that whenever you start to talk about your art and comics, you always incorporate teaching/learning into the mix. You are a born teacher!

Which brings us to your new book, 20 Ways to Draw a Mustache (Quarry Books, 2014). Can you tell us a little bit about how that came about, and the process of working on it?

Bean: This drawing book was my first time doing work for hire.  It was exciting, uncharted territory for me.  This project came to me by chance when the editor contacted me after noticing my artwork online. The publisher, Quarry Books, has a 20 Ways to Draw series and I’m one of several artists that filled a book with examples of how to render things in an assortment of ways. My book focuses on drawing characters, expressions, and accessories. This project was something I was doing last fall and winter while teaching full-time and drawing my own comics. I would meditate on one topic at a time and draw it as many ways as I could. Topics included mullets, eyes, mouths, hands, legs, braids, and even bums. I would send my work to the editor and she would usually encourage me simplify my drawing style. The project required me to work mostly with basic geometric shapes and lines.  It was good practice for my cartooning.  Hopefully my greatest enemies will see this book in stores and know that they have not defeated me!

Kirby: I have a hard time believing you could have any enemies, Cara. But you have just now revealed to an unsuspecting world one of the great motivators of all artists: being good enough and/or successful enough to make those we despise GREEN with envy - basically, to CRUSH THEM.

Moving on, I wanted to ask you about your friendships with other cartoonists. You and Jason Viola seem especially close. Did you stare at him at this year’s SPX? If that has not yet become a tradition I think that it should.

Bean: It is true that Jason Viola is indeed my very dear friend. We have tabled together at lots of comic book conventions over the past several years.  That requires traveling together, and sitting in tight quarters for many consecutive hours.  If it is a slow day and our conversations run out, I might find myself looking into the void of Jason's face as he gazes into a crowd of people uninterested in our comics.  I stare through Jason's being and into my own oblivion.  I contemplate how we have become frail ghosts of the cartoonists who created the comics on the table. (Keep in mind, this internal melodrama will end as soon as someone picks up my book Squeaky Noises and begins showing me pictures of their dog.)

In truth, friends are the riches within independent comics. Making and reading comics has introduced me to really cool friends that have changed my life. (You included, Rob!) There are compassionate, fun, and intelligent people in comics worth knowing. My experience has been that the independent comics community is a safe, welcoming place to dwell. Being open to new friends and supporting each other has lead to good things. I've found people who value my opinion and nurture my ideas when they are delicate and premature. I have also have cartoonist friends who volunteer to visit my classroom and mentor my students.  Comics people are generally good people, well... except for the few jerky people who might be reading this.  My enemies!  You know who you are.

Rob: This is good stuff, Cara. When you talk about the void of Jason’s face and your own oblivion I feel the strangest sense of camaraderie and déjà vu. I also recall the time I tabled with you and the woman to our right thought she was far too fabulous to, you know, talk to us or even try to be nice. I’d never encountered a snotty tabling neighbor before. Tabling is a funny business. It takes it out of me. But I always come back for more, you know?

At any rate, what was the inspiration for your new zine collaboration with Jason’s wife, Rebecca Viola (w/ Jason), Heart Farts?  It’s a charmer.

Bean: Heart Farts is a mini comic that is a collection of some of odds and ends of our sideline comics. Jason assembled it as a mix of his wife Rebecca's writing, his art, and my comics.  I've spent a lot of time with the talented Violas and consider myself fortunate that they have adopted me as a friend.  Heart Farts somewhat encapsulates the conversations of our friendship.  We like talking about psychology, dreams, mindfulness, teaching, and pets.  

Kirby: That’s all much classier than talking about other people! Being in Florida, do you miss your friends back home? Or are you just too busy and/or making new friends there?

Bean: Wouldn't it be horrible if I decided that my friends, students and family were all dead to me now for the sake of comics? What if I told everyone to burn this bridge of beans because I'm like a cartooning nun, monk, or uni-bomber?  Luckily I didn't have to do this because my loved ones have been generously supportive toward me in this pursuit.  I am really enamored with my friends and family and desperately hope that they don't forget about me. My school, friends, boyfriend, students, nieces and nephew have allowed me to disappear in order to do this even though we miss each other a lot. Like most cartoonists, I have powerful introverted tendencies and relish having big chunks of time to myself.  I am human though, I need love.  My new family at SAW does not replace my hometown folks, but these people are great. Everyone I've met connected to SAW has been friendly, open, and likable.

Kirby: Cara Bean, answer me this, the Totally Random Stupid Question™: Boxers or Briefs?

Bean: Boxers if we are talking about dogs, but briefs if we are talking about underwear.

Kirby: Is there anything left that you’d like to say to those reading this? Any advice? Dream interpretations, warnings?  Or even just a plug for upcoming projects?

Bean: Advice: Cartoonists should support each other and the younger generation. Keep the fire burning for yourself and others.
Dream Interpretation: When I go to bed hungry, sometimes I dream about eating a bowl full of chocolate frosting. No cake necessary.
Warning: If you are teaching a workshop, don't let kids use your own personal art supplies. They will break or steal the good stuff.

Plugs: Festival Season:
My Website:

 20 Ways To Draw a Mustache:

 Sequential Artists Workshop:
Images from up top: Ms. Cara Bean, holding up a drawing by Mr. Dan Moynihan; a drawing done at SAW; another drawing done at SAW; the cover of Gorilla World #1; cover of 20 Ways to Draw a Mustache; Cara stares at Jason Viola at SPX in 2013; excerpt from Cara’s story (in collaboration with Sally Carson) in TABLEGEDDON (2013). All images ©