Combining expertise gathered from being a cartoonist and an experienced massage therapist, Kriota Willberg, author of Draw Stronger: Self Care for Cartoonists & Visual Artists, has produced a timely book most artists probably don’t realize they need. Draw Stronger will be published by Uncivilized Books in April.
An artist and healthcare sciences and arts educator, as well as a therapist with expertise in orthopedic injuries, Willberg has produced a cheerfully irreverent but practical guide to accredited techniques designed to promote pain-free drawing. Willberg told PW that Draw Stronger is the book she was “born to make.” A Publishers Weekly review described the short, punning comics healthcare guide as a “worthy addition to many workplace bookshelves—preferably high up, requiring a standing stretch to reach it.”
Willberg is the first artist-in-residence at the New York Academy of Medicine Library. A longtime cartoonist, she has been a mainstay on the indie comics scene, best known for her evocative, sometimes hand-embroidered comics incorporating anatomical drawings. She is married to noted cartoonist R. Sikoryak, author of Masterpiece Comics and the recent Terms and Conditions.
PW Talked with Willberg about the urgent need to encourage better physical posture and orthopedic protocols in a community where artists push through pain—and often towards lasting injury—in response to demanding deadlines and stereotypes that glamorize the suffering of artists.
What is it about our culture that causes people to ignore pain?
In the US we have a number of familiar clichés: “No pain, no gain.” “You must suffer for your art.” “If it doesn’t hurt, it’s not working.” There’s a stereotype: artists suffer in literature and film—it’s sexy! Who wants to watch a movie about a genius artist who gets enough rest, meets their deadlines, never yells at their spouse or kids, makes incredible pain free art, and dies after a fulfilling happy career?
Wrist braces, calluses, poisoning from media (ink/paint), and lack of sleep are interpreted by many to mean that we are suffering in order to make great comics. That’s how it’s done! This is true for acting, dancing, sports, banking, science, everything. Our culture tells us that you love your discipline more (regardless of talent) if you prove through suffering that you are working harder than anyone else.
Obviously, deadlines, day jobs, and life get in the way of healthy work/rest schedules. However, the comics community is beginning to be supportive of injured artists and more aware of healthy drawing practices. Protecting a lifetime of drawing is becoming more important than the next deadline.
Why do you call pain a “frenemy”?
Frenemies support us in some ways and undermine us in others, just like pain. We can learn to cope with them or even use them to our advantage. We can remove some human frenemies completely from our lives. We can remove certain pains from our lives as well.
But Pain (with a big P) is a part of life, it is a part of us. It is tempting to try to be pain-free all the time, but in limited circumstances we need pain. Pain tells you when you are damaging you tissues—for the first time or the 15th time. Relief from pain is important when you are resting or going about your non-drawing, non-texting day. But if you have a tendinitis and decide to keep drawing, pain is an ally. Pain helps you decide how much harm you are willing to do to yourself.
When did you first make the connection between cartooning, stress injuries and working to “draw stronger?”
My husband [cartoonist R. Sikoryak] and I were guest teachers at the Center for Cartoon Studies. Many of the students had very poor (okay, horrible) posture while drawing. At the beginning of the fall semester, many of them weren’t physically ready to draw for hours and hours every day. Odds were good that many of them would develop repetitive stress injuries if they didn’t make some changes. With my background, I was the best person to help students reduce their chance of getting injured that year.
Happily, CCS had asked me if I would teach a weekly exercise class for the students. We did some cardio, general strengthening, stretching. I selected exercises and stretches to prepare their bodies for all the drawing they were doing, and did occasional massage work. I found very little in-depth and reliable online information about drawing injuries and their prevention. There I was, an artist with expertise in orthopedic injuries and fitness. One could say that Draw Stronger was the book I was “born to make.”
The book opens with a warning to also seek diagnosis from medical professionals—but with that caveat, what self-treatment advice do you offer?
Ideas and suggestions for pain reduction that are the standard of first aid care for mild musculoskeletal injuries: This includes ice or heat application and a discussion of over-the-counter and herbal remedies. I also look at what it means to rest. Rest doesn’t always mean putting your stylus down and not touching it until you’re better, but rather taking stress off an injured body part and a healing body. This more creative approach to resting an injured area is, I think, a unique strength in this book.
What is the best thing that someone who feels that “lightning bolt” warning of pain can do--especially if they’re on deadline?
Take Breaks! If you must push through and you feel an injury coming on the best thing you can do is to step away from your drawing practice for 5 minutes at a time every 30 minutes. Walk into another room, shake out your hands, stretch, play with you dog, take a pee. Set a timer to keep the breaks frequent and regular. If you insist on pushing through, breaks may not save you from getting injured but they might help prevent the injury from getting much worse.