Heather McAdams: Country Calendar in a Time Warp

Categories: Chicago Tribune

Cartoonist Heather McAdams pays tribute to old-time country stars and other notables past and present in her annual calendar

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Tribune

December 8, 2010

If you were a drawing in the world of comic artist Heather McAdams, you’d likely have rays emanating from your body, a few squiggle action lines racing around your elbows and knees, your eyelids would profess a cool, all-knowing attitude — and your teeth would be, well, sort of large.

“I like to draw teeth,” said McAdams, sitting in the living room of her West Rogers Park home on a recent Saturday afternoon, while a fire she just made crackled nearby. “Just like how someone might like to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? I like to draw teeth.”

McAdams’ penchant for toothy grins is readily apparent in her portrayal of country music stars who populate her annual calendar. The 2011 calendar will be released Saturday at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn, when McAdams and her husband, musician and songwriter Chris Ligon, put on their yearly variety show.

The calendar, McAdams’ 20th, features monthly pinups ranging from rockabilly veteran Wanda Jackson to trucker music songwriter Dave Dudley. It is also crammed with birth and death dates of McAdams’ favorite musicians and pop culture figures from history ( Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo, Alfred Hitchcock) to modern day (filmmaker Ken Burns, singer Neko Case) to arcane footnotes ( Vivian Vance, Confucius).

Interspersed with little notes recommending Web sites, providing trivia or issuing direct orders (“buy some candy now!”), the calendar highlights both the familiar and the lost people in American culture during the last century.

“I would never be pretentious enough to think that I could turn someone on to anyone or anything, but that’s what it’s kind of all about,” said McAdams, who is also a filmmaker. “If I’m really excited about somebody, I put them in the calendar. That’s how people learn about new people. That’s how I learn about new people. So it’s all pretty innocent.”

“Chris & Heather’s 2011 Country Calendar Show” is a live performance of each calendar month. It features 16 mm shorts of country stars performing on television shows from the 1950s and ’60s interspersed by live performances from Chicago roots music luminaries such as Robbie Fulks, Kelly Hogan, Jon Langford and others.

This year the show will feature a hula-hoop dancer and a stash of films McAdams and Ligon unearthed of a forgotten Canadian country show called “Star Route.” The black-and-white footage features George Jones perched in a hayloft crooning and a young Glen Campbell backing up Wanda Jackson as she sings her 1959 hit “Let’s Have a Party.”

“You won’t see this on YouTube,” McAdams promised.

She and Ligon produce the calendar out of their brick bungalow, which serves as ground zero for their shared interests, which include massive stacks of records, memorabilia, artwork, photographs, toys, film editing consoles, piles of film reel canisters and a band rehearsal space that doubles as a screening room.

A mutual friend introduced the pair to each other in 1991. Immediately they discovered they shared a passion for country music history even though, at the time, they didn’t know just how deep it went.

“I just really love the way old country music sounds,” said McAdams. “I prefer the instruments, the subject matter. Oh, God, there are so many great country artists and so many great songs.”

So together they chased their interest down the rabbit hole and made numerous excursions to the Grand Ole Opry and wherever else they could witness living links to the music. In the 1990s she and Ligon channeled their love of collecting and music into the Record Roundup, a store in Lincoln Square that was often the site of live performances and film screenings. The store now exists only online, where books, vintage movie star photos, playing cards, records and more are sold on eBay and other sites.

“Together we have so much fun because we’re interested in stuff together and it snowballs and it’s still snowballing today,” she said.

A longtime veteran of Chicago’s comics scene, with a strip that ran in the Chicago Reader for 20 years until recently and work that has been published in magazines such as Mademoiselle and The Village Voice, McAdams has documented her childhood and marriage in an irreverent yet sweet way that reveals personal foibles through daily adventure.

“I was really observant but I was taxing my memory too. I used every story in my childhood,” she said. “I drained it!”

Veteran Chicago filmmaker Tom Palazzolo, who taught McAdams at the School of the Art Institute, from which she graduated with a master’s degree in film production in 1980, considers her work “like a long autobiography in cartoon form.”

Her cartoon self — adorned in a tiny red cowboy hat, boots and Western shirt with fringe — is not unlike the real thing, he said.

“I think part of the allure of country and western singers (for McAdams), especially the older ones, is they are outsiders. They don’t have the popularity the new, more gorgeous ones have. There’s a nostalgia in that (that) she likes,” he said.

Michael Green, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, says McAdams’ obsessive documenting of musicians in her art is reminiscent of other comic minds who found it difficult to separate musical passions from their work. He pointed to Robert Crumb, the famed counterculture artist whose work is a combination of humorous autobiography and serious portraits of jazz and blues artists from early in the last century.

“(McAdams) really fits into this examination of the past,” Green said, adding that what makes her different from most comic book artists is that she doesn’t stick to pen and ink drawings. “She works with cross-media in that she’s not just a comic book artist, she produces experimental films, she does these performances and also the portraits,” he said.

Saturday’s show is connected to the couple’s ongoing re-entry into Chicago after spending six years in Milford, Del., where they helped care for McAdams’ ailing parents. Settling back three years ago, McAdams was eager to showcase work that expands far beyond her comics, such as her portraiture.

“I just love to draw, that’s the bottom line,” she said. “I never want to be one of those people who get older and you get a big pot belly and stop working.”

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