Roz Chast Delights, Moves Audience at Festival of the Arts

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(Photo credit: StoryWorkz Photography)

Boca Raton’s status as NYC’s “sixth borough” came into sharp relief Tuesday night at Festival of the Arts Boca. Under a pop-up tent at Mizner Park Amphitheater, Roz Chast, a four-decade New Yorker cartoonist and proud emissary of that city, discussed her craft and shared some of her most humorous and poignant work to an audience that skewed toward a similar demographic: ex-New Yorkers or present Big Apple snowbirds of a certain age, who audibly recognized both the geographic landmarks in Roz’s art as well as their observational, deeply relatable content.

Introduced, wittily and accurately as the “poet laureate of urban neurosis,” Chast took the stage and exuded warmth immediately. Anyone familiar with her New Yorker cartoons, with their signature rough-hewn, squiggly style, would recognize her from her many self-deprecating self-portraits. After discussing her oddball passion for absorbing dark medical manuals as a child, she presented an overview of some of her best and most representative cartoons from her archive, which tap hilariously into universal anxieties—“Self-Help Books for the Newly Dead,” “Insomnia Jeopardy, “Greeting Cards for Narcissists.” Cascades of hearty chuckles met each new entry, from an appreciative audience that was clearly surfing on Chast’s comedic wavelength.

(As an aside, though, I must gripe about the setting for this presentation, which undercut the material: Why host a cartoonist and allow her work to be shown on two small television screens so that nobody after the first couple of rows could actually read them? It goes without saying that the Mizner Park Cultural Center, with its ability to project giant images, would have been a better home for Chast.)

(Photo credit: StoryWorkz Photography)

She then shared details, many surprising, from her life as a New Yorker cartoonist. Even for a prizewinning author of Chast’s renown, for instance, she still works off spec like every other cartoonist, hoping one or two of the eight to 10 drawings she submits each week will be purchased and published, from a field of some 800 (!) total submissions.

She explored a bit of her glass-ceiling backstory as the only female cartoonist at the New Yorker circa 1978, when, at 23, she made a sale from her very first batch of submissions. And she offered a peek into her home-office filing cabinet of rejected cartoons, which has long exceeded its storage capacity.

She concluded her lecture with copious panels from her award-winning graphic-novel memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, which detailed her experiences managing the final years of her avoidant parents as they battled dementia, life in an ALF and hospice care while surviving into their 90s. Chast boldly found humor in the surreal scenarios she and her parents found themselves in, but even the comic elements had a piercing humanity to them.

And there was little to laugh about in her mother’s last days in hospice, which Chast drew as well, though not for publication. She documented, in the best way she knew how, every stage of her parents’ inexorable decline, and even her mother’s postmortem, with shocking bluntness. She even choked up a bit when sharing these private sketches, even though she’s likely presented this material many times. Such is the timeless, aching power of the image, which even the most perfect caption cannot do justice.