Roz Chast works in the studio of her Connecticut home.  Jeremy Clowe/Norman Rockwell Collections
Roz Chast works in the studio of her Connecticut home.  (Jeremy Clowe/Norman Rockwell Collections)

Roz Chast's 'Cartoon Memoirs' Finds Comic Relief in a Neurotic World

Roz Chast's 'Cartoon Memoirs' Finds Comic Relief in a Neurotic World

Even as a child, Roz Chast was not a happy-go-lucky kid. She saw the world as a scary and unsettling place. She still does. But she's turned her fears and neuroses into almost four decades of art, including more than 1,200 cartoons for the New Yorker and other magazines.

Some of that work -- along with a great deal of her psyche -- is now on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

"With cartoons, the words and the pictures are equally important. They're interconnected, like Siamese twins," said Chast during a conversation with chief curator Renny Pritikin at last week's preview of the exhibition, organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts.

"Of course, people think Norman Rockwell and me, we're practically synonymous," joked Chast, a 62-year-old Brooklyn native.

'Summer Psychology Session' by Roz Chast appeared on the cover of the New Yorker on Aug. 7, 2006.
'Summer Psychology Session' by Roz Chast, which appeared on the cover of the New Yorker on Aug. 7, 2006. (© Roz Chast/Image courtesy Danese/Corey, New York)

Pritikin described Chast as a "serious writer of social satire," with a "New York Jewish sense of humor" rooted in complaint, nostalgia and a keen awareness of social foibles. New Yorker editor David Remnick has called her the magazine's "only certifiable genius." Yet despite all the acclaim she gets, her insecurities remain.

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"Sometimes I think, boy oh boy, I'll never have another funny idea," said Chast in a video shot in her Connecticut studio that's part of the exhibition. She added that she has writer's block all the time, but that "you do it anyway."

She discovered the word "anxiety" at age 4. "I knew what it was because I knew I had a lot of it," Chast said.

That state of mind suffuses the show, which consists of about 250 objects that include cartoons from the New Yorker and other publications, art from books she's created or worked on, original drawings from Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? -- her 2014 visual memoir about her parents' decline and demise -- and personal artifacts, such as The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, which fueled her family's hypochondria when she was growing up.

'Wheel of Doom' is one of the illustrations for the 2014 visual memoir by Roz Chast about her aging parents, 'Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?'
'Wheel of Doom,' one of the illustrations for the 2014 visual memoir by Roz Chast about her aging parents, 'Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?' (© Roz Chast)

Subway Sofa, an enormous print of transit riders on a couch bound for destination "Unknown," is the first thing visitors see, followed by a large time-lapse video of how the original mural was made. After that, things get smaller, but her eye for the absurd and incongruous is a constant.

Chast's work makes you get inside her head. But it doesn't take long before it seems like she's inside yours. She channels our day-to-day emotions, and her idiosyncratic characters have a universal appeal.

Catherine and Bill Ott took in the exhibition the day after it opened. They're Protestants from San Diego who'd never heard of Roz Chast.

"I was completely drawn in and captured by the whole experience," said Bill Ott, a retired engineer. "She turns life into relatable humor."

"We're from different parts of the country than she is, but it doesn't matter," added Catherine Ott, a retired school administrator who especially enjoyed The Holy Trinity -- salt, butter and sugar -- and Chast's propensity to get lost.

The cartoonist learned to drive in her mid-30s, when she and her husband moved to Connecticut with their two children. It's not something she enjoys, as one of her cartoons makes clear: The highway is divided into three lanes, for control freaks, clueless numbskulls and passive aggressives.

Illustrations from Chast's 2011 book, What I Hate from A to Z, reveal other aversions, including carnivals, tunnels, spontaneous human combustion and elevators -- the perfect storm of "claustrophobia, acrophobia and agoraphobia."

This is the cover illustration for a 2011 book by Roz Chast: 'What I Hate from A to Z'
Cover illustration for the 2011 book by Roz Chast, 'What I Hate from A to Z.' (© Roz Chast)

She discovered cartoons as a little girl in a library at Cornell University. Her parents, both educators, parked her there during summer visits. Charles Addams' creations were her favorite. "They were just revelatory," she said. "They were so dark and so funny, and I loved them to pieces."

Pritikin asked if she'd ever met her idol. It turns out they overlapped briefly at the New Yorker in the 1980s. True to form, "It was extremely awkward," Chast said. "I was tongue-tied."

'Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs' is on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through Sept. 3. For more information, click here.

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