You can tell from her work that Roz Chast is interested in everything. It’s this curiosity about the world around her — and the world in her head — that has allowed Chast to continue to create funny, sharp, and singular cartoons in The New Yorker and in books for more than 45 years.
Chast’s cartoons and books develop from the things she’s thinking about, what’s interesting to her at that moment. Case in point is her latest book, “I Must Be Dreaming,” a graphic exploration of Chast’s dreams, from the mundane to the deeply bizarre. She describes recurring dreams, dreams with celebrities, body horror, and food, and dreams about everyday life, all with her characteristic visual style and delightfully bent perspective. Along with these, she includes dream theories from intellectuals, scientists, artists, and ancient cultures.
Chast was actually working on a different project, but she found herself doing cartoons based on her dreams and posting them on Instagram.
“I really enjoyed drawing up these very funny, to me, dreams that just seem to come from nowhere,” she said.
She also had a lot of questions about dreams: “What are these little stories that happen every single night to everybody? And how is it not more a part of life? Why do we assume that all of this is just nonsense?” Given her fascination with the topic, Chast decided to abandon the original project and devote her attention to a book on dreams.
Following her gut has worked well for Chast, who has been drawing since she was very young. “It probably had something to do with my parents being older,” she observed. “I was this only child and they would give me paper and a pencil, and I would go out with them to the Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood and it would keep me busy.” She began creating cartoons as early as 5 or 6, and always felt pulled to be a cartoonist.
Chast attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where she tried graphic design, and illustration, before settling on painting, since there was no cartooning major. After graduation, her goal was to get her work in The Village Voice, which was a good match for her narrative, idiosyncratic style. She had no expectation that her work would be published in The New Yorker.
But after some success with the Voice and the National Lampoon, she decided to give The New Yorker a shot, and submitted a portfolio of cartoons in April 1978. Not anticipating they’d really be interested in her work, she didn’t try to conform to their typical gag-style cartoons, and submitted drawings that were true to her style and humor.
Turns out, she was wrong. Art editor Lee Lorenz published one of that first batch of cartoons and asked her to start coming back weekly. “I would say it was one of the greatest shockaroos of my life that they bought something.”
Chast has regularly published with The New Yorker ever since. She has also produced more than a dozen books. They include collections of her cartoons, picture books about her bird Marco, collaborations with other humorists, and her graphic memoirs, “Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York” and “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” The latter, which recounts her experiences as an only child coping with the ends of her parents’ lives, won a National Book Critics Circle Award and was shortlisted for a National Book Award.
As she has developed her career in cartooning, Chast has also turned her eye for details and her penchant for the ridiculous to other media. She loves embroidery, which she described as “drawing with thread.” Her work, which she regularly posts on Instagram, is much like her cartoons, with the added richness of texture and color that the thread provides. True to her interest in the messy parts of life, she often includes photos of the backs of the pieces as well. These are almost negatives of the front, where you can make out the images through a wild Jackson Pollock–like crisscross of colorful threads.
Chast also draws with melted wax. On eggs. Long an admirer of the Ukrainian art of pysanky, she has taken it up herself. “I love that level of detail and color. And I love folk art,” she explained. But as with the embroidery, she decorates the eggs with the bright cartoon images she’s known for rather than traditional designs.
After 45 years, Chast still loves what she does. It’s that curiosity again. In addition to embracing media like wax and thread, she takes advantage of technology, exploring the kind of art she can make with digital tools like her iPad. Social media has become an outlet, not just for her cartoons, embroidery, and pysanky eggs, but also for the photos she takes of the same kind of delicious, quirky details of life in New York that you see in her drawings. Chast has more artistic challenges to conquer as well — like drawing trees, which she still finds really hard.
“It sounds very corny to say, but I feel like there’s just so much more to learn. Lots of room for improvement.”
Roz Chast will discuss her book “I Must Be Dreaming” at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 26, at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge. Tickets are sold out but seats may be available for those who choose to wait in a stand-by line at the event.
Megan Rubiner Zinn is a freelance writer and editor; her website is cherryandparsons.com.