A cat who buys Giant Robot magazine, a cigarette-smoking snowman, a dog adept with a chef’s knife, a raccoon who visits a pawnbroker: the characters created by comic-book artist Sara Varon live in an adult world but have a childlike appeal. They’re “whimsical, yet avoid being nauseatingly cute,” says one reviewer. Like her illustrated colleagues, Varon seems to walk a fine line between being an adult kid and a kid-like adult. At 35 years of age, she manages projects of a decidedly grown-up scale, from a two-book deal with youth publisher Scholastic (see her first one here) to her work with the Walker–the creation of an illustrated identity for family programs as well as a custom comic book, stationery, T-shirt, and collectible buttons sold at the Walker Shop. Yet, shy and prone to calling her work “stuff,” she seems to approach art (and life) with perpetual fascination. “I always feel like I’m 12 years old,” she says.
In her clever comics, collected in the book Sweaterweather, Varon’s quirky imagination converges with a keen eye for the details of her Brooklyn neighborhood and memories of that 12-year-old self. In one strip, a Q-Bert video game makes an appearance along with an unlikely adjective– zaftig–and a magazine rack packed with hip titles like Paper, Bust, and Bitch. But it’s the animals that hearken back to Varon’s childhood in suburban Chicago where as a “totally geeky, quiet kid” she dreamt of being a zookeeper or veterinarian. Ever since, her art career has involved all kinds of furry, scaly, or barking companions. Even her recent Walker project, a magnet she created to commemorate the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in 2004, included a family of bunnies and a pink-shelled turtle standing beside Spoonbridge and Cherry.
What’s so appealing about these animals is how they keep finding themselves playfully solving problems. In one scenario, a turtle and bunny take refuge from winter’s bluster by crawling inside the turtle’s shell, where they knit hats and scarves. In another, a cat enviously watches birds and planes flying by her window. She invites a trio of pigeons over for dinner and receives a gift of feathers in thanks. Once the plumes are planted in a flower pot and grow to cat-size dimensions, she harvests them to make strap-on wings, then soars in the sky with her new friends. This persistent inquisitiveness makes Varon’s creatures perfect stars for a Walker-themed comic, says Ashley Duffalo, Family Programs manager. “Snowman, rabbit, turtle, and Sara’s entire cast of adorable animals possess a lovable curiosity toward life and learning, which we find true of all of our audiences, but especially families. It’s with this spirit in mind that we’d like to encourage their explorations of contemporary art at the Walker.”
Creating such endearing characters was a concerted choice. During her time as an MFA candidate at the School of Visual Arts in New York, popular illustrators such as painter Mark Ryden, underground comic artist Kaz, and makers of “cute, gross” Japanese animé and the South Park series were placing sugary-sweet creatures in frightening situations. “People in my illustration class were saying, ‘More violence! More violence!’” she says. “I couldn’t do it because I didn’t want bad things to happen to them. I would’ve felt so bad. I do feel like they’re my friends, like I need to protect them.”