Background Therapy: The story behind the Gap Year comics

June 30th, 2008 by Jim Gladstone  

In early 1996, artist Emily Steinberg went into a funk of no small magnitude. She quit her job as the coordinator of public art exhibitions in Philadelphia’s City Hall to focus on painting. Then she didn’t paint much. Her once prolific output of bold, brightly colored portraits, still-lifes, and landscapes dwindled with her new commitment to full-time creativity. Having granted herself the freedom she though she needed, then-31-year-old Steinberg suddenly found “no compelling reason to make art.” Oops. “I became obsessed about my weight. I became obsessed about being single. I had a bit of a breakdown,” she says.

em-2.jpgA journal-keeper from age 15, Steinberg now found herself free-writing at a frantic pace for two or more hours a day. For nearly two years. She scrawled pages about her anxious fixations on Nazis, O.J. Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey – “It was so much easier to think about those guys than to figure myself out.” She went into therapy. She scrawled pages about that. At some point, she started to think she was actually writing something that might be, well, art.

“I started thinking maybe it wasn’t just the ramblings of an unemployed societal malcontent, but a book.”

Somehow, in the way these things often happen, that thinking dissipated after a while, the scrawluscript found its way into a drawer, and Steinberg slowly found her way back into the world of mundane functionality. She took a job teaching art at a private Jewish middle school, a job she still holds today.

“In 2005, I gave my kids an assignment to do an autobiographical comic strip. No particular reason. I knew they liked comics and graphic novels were getting some attention, so I thought it would hold their interest.”

But as she sketched a day in the life of Miss Steinberg as an example for her students, she flashed back to Miscreant Steinberg of a decade prior and realized she had an assignment for herself as well. “I was going to turn all that stuff I wrote years ago into a series of illustrated vignettes.”

When the school year was over, Steinberg headed off to an artist’s retreat in Vermont to begin drawing the awkwardly expressive talking heads that would ultimately fill the panels of Graphic Therapy. The drawings added a veil of fictional distance to Steinberg’s anecdotes:

“I drew real people who were with me in Vermont, but then I assigned them to characters in my past when I started matching text to the drawings. So Victor, the therapist, is a real psychiatrist I had in 1997 – every episode I describe really happened – but he has the face of this writer, who was really cool, but who came from a very conservative Midwestern family and whom I can’t imagine telling the things I talked about in therapy.”

Steinberg, who cites Woody Allen, Leonard Cohen, and Maira Kalman as influences, resurfaced other characters with images drawn from magazines and photographs. Many a fashion model has been drafted to serve Steinberg’s neuroses. Sharp-eyed readers will even spot Rita Hayworth.

Time has placed its own veil of fiction over the angsty Emily portrayed in Steinberg’s illustrated narrative. “I have great empathy for her,” the artist notes, “But I get impatient with her, too, this anxious, depressed, immature version of myself. She couldn’t get out of her box.”

“I don’t paint much now,” says Steinberg, who married photographer Paul Rider two years ago, “I may get back to it, but I’m on hiatus from that from a while. I think that this project has really been more rewarding. I’m planning to do another. It pulled things all together for me.”

78 Responses

  1. New Webcomic: “My Name Is Emily and I’m a Recovering Artist.” | SMITH Team News

    [...] prouder. What Shooting War did for post-Bush war in Iraq and A.D. did for post-Katrina New Orleans, Emily Steinberg is doing for post-art school neurotics. Whether or not you’ve been there, you’ll find [...]

  2. Zhaf

    I’ve just read up thru session eight, and I can really relate: out of work, art-something, and an occasional lack of focus. A great story expertly told, I’m looking forward to more of it.

  3. Sigi Cohen

    Graphic Therapy is a wonderfully candid and laugh-out-loud artistic labor of love by Emily Steinberg . It is a work of depth and comic insight in which we get to share in Emily’s thoughts, perceptions and experiences as a single woman with an art-school degree and a irrepressible intellect.

    Many will be able to relate to Emily’s rapid-fire observations on the absurdities of life whether or not we’re Jewish, single or struggling artists. Emily’s voice is recognisable through her in-your-face intellect, her embacing of the absurd and her self-effacing honesty.

    In Graphic Therapy, she deconstructs her life and experiences through entertaining, often hilarious illustrations and with a pace and style that is quick, literate, witty, honest, poignant and irreverant.

    As an Australian male I could relate. I loved it, and in a way I saw Emily as a kindred spirit, which says something about Emily’s universal appeal (”univeral” a word I generally avoid using)

    Undoubtedly, there are parts of Emily in us (if we would care to acknowlege it). Emily Steinberg is smart enough to tap into our shared neuroses, insecurities and absurdities so that her Graphic Therapy avoids becoming esoteric or self-indulgent (as could easily have been the case). Steinbergs writing is too skillfull for that, her work stands alone but still within a genre (big city self-conscous, neurotic, articulate heroine) and her humor is too spot-on.

    I look forward to reading more of Emily Steinberg’s work. She is a truly original talent.

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    I want to get to know Emily — to contact. just from this description already. Can i contact her? I quit to do music; then the music didn’t come. I identify! thanks!

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