Diario de Oaxaca by Peter Kuper

Now that I’ve signed up as a participant in the Sketchbook Project, I’ve managed to devise a clever distraction from actually sketching regularly, in the form of conducting “research” into the sketchbooks of other artists. It’s led to the realization that there is an important body of sketchbooks that have been reproduced and made commercially available by various publishers, documenting comic artists’ process in addition to finished works. Without exception, the most striking feature of all of these’ sketchbooks is the breadth of representation that these creators are capable of depicting; their artistry extends far beyond the medium of cartooning. Here is the first in a series of posts that I plan on writing on cartoonists’ published sketchbooks.

Diario de Oaxaca by Peter Kuper (PM Press, 2009)

Kuper’s “sketchbook journal of two years in Mexico” was an especially timely read for me, since when Kuper was in Oaxaca, teachers in the city were in the midst of an ongoing strike. Teachers in BC have spent the last eight months at the bargaining table, and they are engaged in a limited job action—with no signs of reaching an agreement any time soon. Though the BCTF’s circumstances are arguably very different, in these interesting times one cannot help to draw comparisons between the attitudes of Big Government worldwide and public servants’ demands for greater work equity.

But politics aside, Diario de Oaxaca was a pleasure if only for its lush language and illustrations that we as readers are invited to vicariously live through. Kuper reminds us at every turn that the world is bigger than us. His drawings are testament to a tremendous cross-section of life in Mexico, from tacky tourists to teachers’ strike occupants, local police, insects, vegetation, its vast array of wild dogs and Oaxaca’s indigenous peoples.

On many pages, a dynamic media fusion transpires, with pen and ink, coloured pencil, watercolour, photographs and bilingual captions conjoining in any number of combinations. Among the stunning pages included in this book are:

  • People blurred with movement, loosely sketched in coloured pencil over top of a static setting, seemingly some sort of a mall or metro station (84)
  • Kuper’s vivid description of the Monarch butterfly’s migration site (70-75)
  • Works from an exhibit curated by Kuper, with contributing artists providing self-portraits based on the theme of the Day of the Dead (78-79)
  • Photographs of local resistance art (134-139)
  • Heads designed entirely out of various dead insects and insect body parts (121, 123)
  • Sketches and photographs of a clash between protestors and riot police (35-41)
  • A lucid description of the many odours Kuper encounters on a walk, with visual representations of each sense impression follow immediately afterwards (162-163)
  • Wild dogs! (166-167)
  • Flying temples! (92-93, 172)

Some points of similarity that I found intriguing about Kuper, over and above what I already knew about him from Stop Forgetting to Remember–I also went through a very early fascination with insects, and used to “map out” their body parts on graph paper, using a Peterson Field Guide to Insects that I still own to this day. And our daughters were both born in the same year. Without knowing Kuper, reading his description and seeing a photograph of his daughter holding baby turtles, about to let them go into the sea (128), was a rapturous moment even for me.

I grew up reading Spy vs. Spy and was recently turned onto World War 3 Illustrated, in particular because the Graphic Radicals exhibit came to Victoria last year, with Seth Tobocman in attendance. Seeing such a wide variety of comic artists’ work up close isn’t an opportunity that I’ve had very often. I took full advantage of it, returning several times for another look.

Diario de Oaxaca is the work of a fully matured artist. Kuper’s snapshots of his time abroad demonstrate his versatility with brush, pen and coloured pencil. The colours in Kuper’s drawings are vibrant and full. One of the joys of artists’ sketchbooks being made public is the emphasis on process, and the free flowing collage of ideas displayed on the page. In between the covers of this sketchbook journal, we see the breadth of inquiry that Kuper brings to his work, and we recognize that for all his cartooning greatness, his genius extends even further beyond.

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