Ryan Prout talks to artist Lucy Bergonzi
Our latest Q&A is with Lucy Bergonzi, creator of It’s All About Choice
How would you define your style, and how has it developed?
My style is very much drawing-based; characterised by clear hand-drawn lines, combined with flat clean digital colours. When I started using Photoshop I found it was a great match for the way I wanted to work.
Do you see a correspondence between the visual style of a comic and the story content?
Not necessarily – any style can be used to tell any story. Perhaps some styles are associated with some kinds of stories, but the medium of comics is so flexible, anything goes.
What are your feelings and impressions in general about the coverage of issues around care giving in the traditional media?
I think when it comes to portraying issues around care, the traditional media often focusses on older people’s care. There’s nothing wrong with that, but perhaps the media overlooks the lives of people with disabilities who receive care, and the huge spectrum of forms that this care can take. We hear about learning disability support when it is in crisis, rather than it being an ongoing, normalising, visible, part of our society.
How did you decide on the theme of ‘It’s All About Choice’?
I used to work in learning disability support, in day and community services. When I was approached to contribute a story to ‘All Is Not Well’, along the theme of giving and receiving care, I gave a lot of thought to the angle I could take. I then remembered the issue of food, and how emotive it could be, and how there were often tensions around it. These tensions usually revolved around the balance between on the one hand promoting choice, and on the other hand encouraging healthy living. Support workers would sometimes have their own personal issues around food, and this could have a bearing on the way they supported clients. I thought this was something interesting to explore as my initial starting point, and the story developed outwards from there.
What are the challenges for an artist and storyteller in representing learning disabilities?
I am an illustrator for Books Beyond Words, who publish books especially designed for people with learning disabilities – people who may not read words. The books tell stories through pictures, presenting characters who may or may not have learning disabilities, dealing with day-to-day situations and challenges. Often a character’s learning disability can be reflected in the story behaviourally, or in the effect of how other characters react. In ‘It’s All About Choice’ we gather that one character is gregarious but only uses a few words; while another is verbal, and is rather defensive and emotional. My background in learning disability support, and being committed to person-centredness, drives me to present a positive image in my illustrations.
The potential for comics to embody characters is often cited as something that makes the genre effective, particularly for telling stories about medicine and disability. Do you think this also applies to issues of care giving and learning disability?
I think comics have a huge scope to embody and portray people’s everyday experience, via the proxy of a character, or set of characters, no matter what the genre is.
‘It’s All About Choice’ touches on the friction between receiving care and being independent. How do you think this concern is felt, both at the level of policy, and for the individuals involved?
In the story, the minibus and the client / supporter relationship are indicative of a controlled situation, possibly managed by a local authority or voluntary organisation. The fact that one of the supporters keeps looking at her watch signifies the limitations of this relationship, and that it is all wrapped up in the boundaries of time, which comes across at the end of the story. In the current climate of local authority cuts, these boundaries and limitations are even more keenly felt, with fewer hours and fewer options available. The phrase ‘it’s all about choice’ is a mantra that is, rightly, often repeated; but sometimes there are barriers standing in the way of real choice being genuinely offered or honoured.
If a reader takes away only one important idea from ‘It’s All About Choice’, what would you want it to be?
I hope those who work in a supportive role will recognise aspects of the story, and will enjoy it. And for those who don’t, as with any story, it offers a window on a world. In terms of one important idea, perhaps it would be the idea that independence and visibility don’t just achieve themselves; they have to be nurtured and promoted. When the cafe server asks the support worker if Dean wants brown or white bread, this is sadly – and perhaps surprisingly – still quite a common attitude. Therefore there is always more work to do.
Do you think comics can play a role in shifting the perception of care giving?
Yes, definitely. Like any story-telling medium, if the story is told well, comics can shift the perception of anything.
Having worked on ‘It’s All About Choice’, are there any other stories around care that you’d like to work on in the future?
This story came out of my experience working in the learning disabilities sector. But in writing and illustrating the story, lots of other themes came up which are all about human experience, relationships and dynamics. From the woman who buys too many doughnuts just so she can share them, to the older man who has lost the ability to use his hands as he used to, there are care-giving and care-receiving stories all around us. It’s such a fruitful area.
You can visit Lucy’s site at https://www.lucybergonzi.co.uk
The books she’s worked on are available from Books Beyond WordsDecember 1, 2017