Artist John Callahan: His life is a work in progress
By Sharon Anderson
“Rude, shocking, depraved, tasteless – Callahan gets called all the adjectives that cartoonists crave to hear.” – Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons
John Callahan gets called a lot of things because he is a lot of things: a cartoonist, an artist, a musician, and a singer-songwriter. He is best known for his cartoons that have appeared in various publications across the country for the last 20 years. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking to this very funny and talented man.
You’ve written several books.
I’ve written one autobiography and one children’s book, and there are about 13 or 14 collections of my cartoons.
Tell me about your first autobiography. This is about your early life and the car accident that left you a quadriplegic.
The book is called Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot. It’s about my early life: Catholic school, alcoholism, paralysis, the usual thing. I was a passenger in the car – the
accident happened in 1972 in Long Beach, Calif. I write about it in
You write about topics like disability, homelessness, politics – controversial topics that stir up a strong reaction in people.
I never set out to be shocking; I’m always trying to be funny. Choosing to write about things that are controversial and going after what’s considered sacred is a release for me.
When do you think a cartoon goes too far?
I published cartoons for years in The Miami Herald. I drew a cartoon about Martin Luther King Jr. and they kicked me out. At the time I felt ambivalent about it, but I can see how some might view what I do as crossing the line.
You’ve also been working on portrait studies.
In the last couple of years I’ve drawn 50 to 100 nudes. I like drawing portraits, pictures of people in cafes – it’s like I’m searching for something and the more I draw, the more I’m chasing my tail.
What do you mean?
Well, it’s the whole thing of looking at something that’s inside you. Anything beautiful that you’re trying to capture is part of a spiritual journey. At the end, you realize what you’re looking for is inside you the whole time, but not until you go through this neurotic struggle, which results in all these cool drawings lying on the floor.
Tell me more about your music, about writing and performing songs. You have a CD that came out in 2006 called Purple Winos in the Rain.
I’ve been writing songs a lot longer than I’ve been drawing cartoons. It’s exciting to have the CD out. The group My Morning Jacket took an interest in my songs. I opened for them on Sept. 23rd in Portland and I was surprised when Jim James, the lead singer of the band, came out and sang a duet with me on two of my songs. He knew all the words, all the chords. It was a great experience. There were over 4,000 people in the audience, and it was the fifth time I’d performed live.
Tom Waits makes a cameo appearance on the CD.
Yes, he called me and sang one of my songs on my answering machine. Afterward he laughed and said, “Callahan! This is Tom Waits.” I put it on the CD. I’m interested in hearing other artists cover my songs. I’ve recorded more songs and they’ll be on a second CD at some point.
There was a recent Dutch documentary about your life.
That was by Simone DeVries; she filmed a documentary about me around the time my album came out, and it’s called Touch Me Someplace I Can Feel, after my song of the same name. It was the easiest documentary I’ve ever done. It was easy because I got along with them, and I was just doing my thing in the studio recording my songs. The doc was filmed for television in Europe, and it’s played film festivals all over the world.
You’ve created television shows.
I created two shows for Nickelodeon. One was called Pelswick and the other is called Quads. Quads is still playing in Australia and Canada. It’s a really sick South Park kind of take on the subject. I didn’t stay on as a writer or director.
You just gave them the template.
You mentioned writing a second biography?
Yes, this one will be about the last 20 years or so of my life and how I’ve come to terms with this disability. I’ve been through a process of surrender. Situations occur as a result of being paralyzed. You physically get trapped and stuck for long periods of time, and the training tells you to get angry, but instead I’ve learned to surrender to the present moment. Every second is perfect for the waking up process, if you’re looking to do that. This is grace, this is to free you. I’ve learned that circumstances are not happening to me so much as they are happening for me.
In our conversations over the last few days, you mentioned to me that you don’t make a very good cripple. What does that mean?
It means I just don’t relate to having a scotch plaid blanket on my lap, being placid on the deck of a ship – the stuff you see in movies.
A kind of disability cliche that you just don’t relate to.
Exactly. I’m more of a shut out than a shut in. I like to be out and about and not home. I see my reflection in a window and think, God, I’m in a wheelchair. I sometimes forget.
You have an amazing creative capacity and drive.
It’s like creatively the roof is leaking and you have to find a bucket, anything to put underneath
I’ll be looking forward to what’s next. It’s been a genuine pleasure talking to you.
We can relax. The leaks in his roof aren’t anywhere near being fixed. Stay tuned.
Sharon Anderson is a Los Angeles-based artist and a regular contributor to Northside San Francisco. Her paintings are currently on exhibit in Vienna and New York City.
She’s frequently mentioned in Art in America magazine.