Laura Ellyn, a visual storyteller raised in Cumberland but now residing in Montreal, is currently in Campbell River working on a unique project that she hopes will shed a new light on an important figure in the region’s history and share her story with a wider audience.
Last January, Ellyn published a graphic novel about Albert (Ginger) Goodwin, a Comox Valley labour leader in the early 1900s, and it went over so well with those in the arts and culture world here in Campbell River – who had already been considering how to increase the profile of local artist and educator Sybil Andrews – that they began discussing the possibility of doing something similar.
So a grant was applied for and received from the BC Arts Council to bring Ellyn in to work on Modernism in Two Worlds: The Sybil Andrews Story.
“I was always really into comic books as a kid,” Ellyn says, surrounded by the books and art of Sybil Andrews deep in the archives of the Museum at Campbell River, where she is conducting her primary research on the project. “My dad really encouraged that in me, even to the point of giving me comic books that maybe weren’t quite age appropriate,” she adds with a laugh.
She had a Tank Girl themed birthday party when she was eight, for example.
That love for visual storytelling turned her on, a bit later in life, to the works of people like Phoebe Gloeckner and Seth Tobocman, who make “underground, political, sometimes autobiographical” graphic novels, Ellyn says – showing her that there was another layer of possibility to this medium as a storytelling device.
War in the Neighbourhood, Tobocman’s graphic novel about the housing rights movement in New York in the 1980s, was probably the one that made the light go on for Ellyn.
“While I always really liked the science fiction, fantasy and superhero stories in comics, those weren’t really the stories that I was interested in telling,” Ellyn says. “I was always more interested in making little weird autobiographical things and profiling interesting people – documenting things from the real world.”
And then came her chance to do just that.
Five years ago in Montreal, she watched the development of the Maple Spring, where a series of demonstrations were launched in protest to a proposed province-wide tuition increase for post-secondary education, spurring the government to pass an emergency bill forbidding picketing or protesting on or near university grounds.
“After that wound down a bit, I got together with some people to produce a graphic novel that was a bit about the politics of the strike, but mainly about the emotional impact and struggle that sort of activism and participation in long-term, ongoing social movement can have on someone.”
That self-published effort caught the attention of Between The Lines, a publishing company based in Richmond who promotes the publication of books about social change and “ideas and analysis not ready found in the mainstream,” according to the company website.
Which led to the Ginger Goodwin book, which then led to the Sybil Andrews book and another she’s taking a break from in order to focus on Sybil’s, which will be focused on the history of reproductive rights organizing in Canada.
Okay, who in their right mind – which Ellyn clearly is – chooses to go into autobiographical, historically accurate, social issues-based comic book production to make a living?
“It just kind of happened organically,” Ellyn says. “It wasn’t really a decision I made all of a sudden or anything. When I started publishing, I was just glad to be making some nominal amount of money from it, and it has just kind of kept going, which I’m really very happy about.”
“I actually did a double-major in printmaking and women’s studies – two things that everyone is clamouring for more of,” she continues with a light-hearted laugh.
Her idea, at the time, was that she would maybe go from women’s studies into social work, “but after many long discussions with people in social work telling me, basically, ‘this might destroy your soul,’ I decided that it might not be for me. But I always had an interest in storytelling and history and social movements, so, yeah, I feel really, really, lucky to have been given the opportunity to tell the types of stories that really resonate and inspire me.”
And if these stories resonate with and inspire her, she says, there’s an audience for them.
“Maybe some of the things I do don’t necessarily have a huge audience, but they have an audience. I think the same can be said for non-graphic novels. I mean, you have to be practical and do it sustainably, but I think it’s more likely that you will find an audience if you do what you’re passionate about and tell the kinds of stories that are relevant to you. Even if people don’t realize it, they’re more interested in reading work done by someone who is passionate about the subject than someone who is just doing a ‘paint-by-numbers,’ or ‘art by committee’ work that’s made to appeal to the broadest number of people.”
Ellyn’s work on the Campbell River side of Andrews’ story will continue until mid-January, at which point she will head back to Montreal to work on the other half.
“The graphic novel is actually telling the history of European modernism, but it’s using Sybil as the figure through which that story is told,” says Ken Blackburn, executive director of the Campbell River Arts Council and program manager of the Museum at Campbell River, who first approached Ellyn about the possibility of the book. “So the first half will be the European history of modernism through the first half of the 20th Century, and the second half will be Campbell River’s history through the second half of the 20th Century. So it’s going to have a lot of applications, I think.”
One of those applications, Blackburn says, is increasing the “local-history” aspect of some of the arts council’s current literacy programming, such as the Reading in the Hospital initiative and various programs for youth.
“This graphic novel, we think, will have an appeal, especially to youth, that will be a resource for literacy groups in town and be used as an educational tool, as well,” Blackburn says, adding he is hopeful they can get the graphic novel integrated into some curriculum within the school system, as well.
Because Andrews, Blackburn says, is someone whose legacy needs to be recognized – and he’s worried it’s slipping away.
“As much as we try to raise the profile or talk about Sybil or do things with her name attached, it always just stays at a certain level, which is just sort of below the radar of the general public, for some reason,” Blackburn says. “So now we have a new tool – a new vehicle – to talk about Sybil that also has these wonderful social applications to it, as well.”
The book is targeted to be “about 100 pages,” Blackburn says, and has a tentative launch date of April 19 – Andrews’ birthday, which the community has commemorated as Sybil Andrews Day, which will, next year, also correspond with a new exhibition of Andrews’ work at the museum.
It’s a tight timeline, Ellyn says, but she’s working hard and is hopeful the book can be completed in time.
“We’d really like to have it ready to go in April, but if it’s not we’ll at least have it to the point where some of the art from the book is ready to display alongside the Sybil exhibition on her birthday.”