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Riva Lehrer's Blog

Animal Sketchblog

All drawings are done on site during the event. Most of the time, I'm pretty far from the speaker and drawing in the dark, so I apologize to all my subjects for the resultant wild inaccuracies.

Sherman Alexie

Of all the speakers I saw at this year's Festival, no one was more elemental than Sherman Alexie. I hesitate to say it that way, as it seems to go straight for the "Indians are More Authentically Natural than White People" idiocy that Alexie mocks so thoroughly. Yes, he's utterly hilarious, with a wry and cutting political acumen; his writing is full of unsparing observation and replete with quotable lines; and he's remarkably willing to connect with the audience. But it was the audience's yearning that stayed with me for days afterward. This became nearly physical palpable when Alexie spoke of his experience with bipolar disorder. Being in the presence of a gifted artist who is open in this way causes a kind of wild hunger, a hunger to be seen, be heard, that seemed to ripple across the sea of listeners.

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The Drawing: Sparks and aurora in a pinstripe suit.

How Should Humans Treat Animals? - Frans de Waal and Martha Nussbaum

I would say that the major theme of this year's Festival was caretaking. It's inseparable from the very topic of animals. How can we even speak of nature without slamming into the damage we've done to it at every level? De Waal and Nussbaum engage in caretaking with equal passion, but from different positions. Nussbaum, the philosopher, asks what are the rights of all cognizant life forms, while De Waal works directly with primates and other social beings. Together they pose question of ethics and social responsibility that are wider than simple human nature.

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The Drawing: Spare, delicately sharp academic. Seamed, rugged but kind primatologist. Our animal faces do sometimes give us away.

Donna Tartt

All around me I know that people had flashbacks when Donna Tartt said that she wants to write books like the ones we read as children, books that encompassed us in worlds that made everything else fade away. We remembered our beloved books, and mourned that we seldom felt that way any more. I have The Goldfinch on my shelf. There's another book that I must read first (Nicola Griffith's Hild) but it sits there shimmering like a mirror of my desire. Kidnap me, please, with words.

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The Drawing: Tartt's speech and appearance reminded me of how she writes—a dart-like precision, miniaturist's detail, and sly hints of an even more extreme story under the story in progress.

Atul Gawande

Ok, so. Ummm . . . I've been in the hospital about 300 times. My first TV crushes were on Marcus Welby, MD, Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey. Mythical doctors who never made mistakes. Atul Gawande brought back all those vulnerable fantasies. Like Hawkeye Pierce, Joe Gannon, and the entire cast of St. Elsewhere, he knows that health of the body and health of the health care system are inseparable. And just like when I was a ten-year-old inpatient, I just kept imagining showing up in his exam room, a handwritten RX printed with DR. GAWANDE, TAKE ME, I'M YOURS.

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The Drawing: He can hang his charismatic shingle next to all of the above. Even—yes, really—Dr. Gregory House. But man do I wish he'd stood still for more than thirty seconds . . . 

Maria Tatar: The Big Bad Wolf Reconsidered

Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty came to life somewhere between the Bible and the Bard. All of Grimm's characters vastly predate their residencies in Disney Land. Red Riding Hood, with her genital pocketed and peaked garment, seems ancient as Eve, walking out in darkness to meet her wolf at the base of the snake's tree, in the luscious forest between skin and blood. (Watch the video on YouTube.)

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The Drawing: Cheekbones and a name that makes it easy to imagine Maria Tatar telling these stories while a fire burns in the shadowed woods.

Zoobiquity - Barbara Natterson-Horowitz & Kathryn Bowers (with Gwen Macsai)

It strikes me that we imagine diseases as contemporary with their discovery—that is, ailments that first showed up in twentieth-century PDRs would not have plagued the human body a thousand years ago. We assume that illnesses were simpler when the local clinic was in the back of a cave. In much the same way, we have the rather stupid assumption that the systems we inherited and share with our fellow vertebrates lay on either side of a bright line. That our minds and bodies are not animal minds and bodies. There is something incredibly moving in hearing that none of this is remotely the case. Even as I felt sorrow for the complicated suffering of all creatures, I kept thinking of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We are not, and never have been, alone. (Watch the video on YouTube.)

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The Drawing: Brilliant, innovative women in conversation, building the story as an act of mutual admiration.

Mark Dion: Krypto-Zoologist

So often, when I see artists dealing with things through museum practice, anything they care about becomes obscured through scrims of irony and snark and distance from direct communication. Dion manages to show us the precarious fragility of animal bodies, even while using museum tropes of taxidermy and the colonial legacy of the Wondercabinet. We are able to consider what is being lost, without becoming so overwhelmed that we shut down. Dion's work shows us how museums construct what is natural, what it means to own nature, and how that leads to our endless, unthinking decisions.

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The Drawing: Thank You, Mr. Dion, for being the only person who actually sat still. My only peaceful drawing.

Riva Lehrer is an activist and multimedia portrait artist. A past presenter at the Chicago Humanities Festival, Riva currently teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Medical Humanities program at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. Learn more at

Tags: sketches, animal

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