Life through the eyes of a New Yorker cartoonist

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STOCKBRIDGE — If anyone could pull laughs from the burden of caring for aging parents, it would be New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, who did just that in her award-winning graphic memoir "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant." Based on her own experience, it documents, in comic style, the idiosyncratic ways we and our loved ones avoid, confront, and ultimately accept the final accounting.

Her original drawings from that memoir, along with ones from her 37-year New Yorker career, her children's books and other interests, go on view in "Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs," opening at the Norman Rockwell Museum on Saturday. Organized by Chief Curator Stephanie Plunkett, it is on view through Oct. 26.

Roz Chast grew up in Brooklyn, the only child of George Chast, a high school language teacher she portrays as anxious and indecisive, and his wife, Elizabeth, a forceful elementary school vice principal who dominated the couple's otherwise devoted relationship.

As the Chasts entered their 90s and grew increasingly frail, it fell to their daughter to cajole them into assisted living, clear their apartment of accumulated possessions, field their complaints, oversee their finances, and ultimately get them into nursing homes where George died in 2007 and Elizabeth in 2009.

"It was something I'd never gone through before," Roz Chast said in a telephone interview from the Ridgefield, Conn. home she shares with her husband, humor writer Bill Franzen, and two talkative parrots. "It was very interesting and very sad in some ways and boring at other times, and frustrating, and occasionally very funny, and sometimes just totally weird."

Her decision to write about it came gradually, partly as a way to remember how her parents spoke and behaved with each other and partly because "it just seemed like an emotionally rich story."

Fortunately, she had a ready-made archive to draw upon — unpublished cartoons based on past visits with her parents; emails she'd sent to family and friends during their decline.

"It was definitely a hard subject to confront," she said, adding it helped to think of it simply as literary material. "I was really very focused on telling the story itself. I just wanted it to cohere."

The praiseful critical reaction has been "a constant shockeroo," she said. "It's absolutely amazing."

Chast was drawn to humor even as a child.

"I always liked cartoons — Charles Addams, Mad magazine, the Zap comics — anything that made me laugh," she said.

At the Rhode Island School of Design, where she earned her BFA degree in the 1977, she majored in painting because "any kind of art where you were trying to communicate with anybody was not appreciated."

In that era of Minimalism and Conceptualism, she said "the more obscure your art was, the more it would be appreciated. If you had something to say, or even worse, make jokes, you couldn't be more tacky."

She became a cartoonist anyway "because it was the only thing I really liked to do or could do. I didn't want to teach and I was a terrible painter."

At the New Yorker, she found a receptive editor and has been on staff ever since.

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Asked what sparks her storytelling, she replied whatever seems funny. "I pay attention to anything that gets my attention. There's no real rhyme or reason."

A procrastinator, she feels she works best under pressure.

"I have ideas I've jotted down through the week, but I don't sit down to do my batch of cartoons [for the New Yorker's Wednesday staff meetings] until Monday or Tuesday."

Each of the 40-some staff cartoonists submits a group of sketches and, "if you're lucky, they pick one from your group."

Every cartoonist has a signature "family of people" they draw, Chast explained, naming others she admires like William Hamilton, Chris Ware and Allison Bechdal.

"I'm not going to be drawing William Hamilton's people. Or if I did, they would still be my people — or my version of William Hamilton's people."

Her people are not modeled on actual individuals [other than her parents], she said, but on "bits and pieces of everything." They often come across as neurotic personality types or states of mind.

Curator Plunkett observed that Chast has a gift for recognizing the anxieties and instabilities of our contemporary culture and offering humor as a way to cope with them.

Chast said she prefers cartoons to illustrations because they allow for disconnects between the verbal and visual, rather than simply picturing what a text says.

"With a cartoon," she said, "it can be a lot more complicated, nuanced and fun."

ON EXHIBIT

What: Roz Chast — Cartoon Memoirs

Where: Norman Rockwell Museum, Route 183, Stockbridge.

When: Saturday through Oct. 26.

Hours and admission: (413) 298-4100; nrm.org.

Special: Pages from "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant" can be viewed at http://projects.newyorker.com/story/chast-parents/


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