“Am I Paying Attention To Anything Useful At All?”: A Conversation With Keiler Roberts

Keiler Roberts is the cartoonist behind the series Powdered Milk and the books Sunburning, Chlorine Gardens, and Rat Time and she currently teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. We’ve spoken and met in the past and given everything happening the world, I reached out to see how she’s doing. So much of Keiler’s work is this very empathetic documentation and consideration of the quotidian, at how we navigate ordinary life and ordinary time, small moments that find larger meaning through accumulation. Much like life itself. We talked recently about how we’re doing, and what we’ve been doing.

To start with the hardest question, how are you doing? 

I don’t know! I can’t stop over-thinking that question. What’s my mood? What condition is my body in? Have I gotten any work done? Are my relationships intact? If I have to remember something for fifteen minutes, will I be able to? Is it safe for me to stand on a ladder? Do I need to change my goals, my expectations, my habits, or the way I measure things? Am I paying attention to anything useful at all? If I say I’m doing well, will that make the people who read this feel better or worse? If I say I’m not doing well, does that add to cultural stress and negativity or will people feel relieved because they can relate? How are you? 

I am…about the same. Unable to accomplish much of anything, telling other people to kind and patient towards themselves and unable to apply that to myself, all while feeling more isolated and alone than ever. And trying not to think about it.

I think along with therapists, maybe we all need to hire someone to text us highly specific compliments and statements of affection, along with friendship coaching. It’s very hard to maintain relationships when 2/3 of the conversation is negotiating mask, distance, touching, and air flow rules, not to mention political opinions.

I know you were teaching online for the end of the spring semester. As youre about to start the fall semester, what did you learn from those weeks? How are things changing for the fall? How has it forced you to think about teaching differently? 

I’m going to teach all online this semester, but many of the classes at SAIC plan to be in person. I’ve started recording some lectures for my students. I’m posting them publicly on Youtube, so anyone can watch them.  

Here’s one of the videos: 

Teaching online is hard and such an adjustment. Its almost like you’re now teaching a low residency program, in some ways. 

I’m sure you’re right, but I don’t have any experience with that. I think one of the problems is that we can’t help but compare online teaching with in-person. People who teach and take low-residency courses are making that choice deliberately. They may be happy about that type of course working around their schedule or eliminating commuting time. But most students right now are comparing online teaching with what they’ve always had, and in that way it can look very disappointing. Happiness is so much based on our expectations and what we’ve had previously. What we like and dislike has little to do with how it’s going at the moment, and so much to do with the patterns and associations we’ve created. Nobody is nostalgic about online learning – not yet anyway! 

That’s a good point. It’s hard for teachers to completely rethink how you work and how to deal with students. Students aren’t used to it.

You also have a daughter. Is she going back to school? 

Her school district will be all online for the first month, then they plan to have some students remain remote while some start in-person learning with masks and less density. I’m incapable of thinking farther into the future than dinner time. 

So much of your work is about observation and taking notice of small things, and in the face of all this, does it require a different way to work or think?

Yes, I’m working in the same way, but less. There is nothing inherently important or unimportant about my subjects, but it’s what I see and love about the world. Rather than any particular topic or event, it’s the quality of experience that I’m trying to portray. Artists aren’t essential workers, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t the most essential work that I can do. I also know that the reason I make art is because it makes me feel better. It’s never been about addressing a need in the world. It makes me feel better, which makes me calmer and more helpful as a teacher and in all of my relationships. I don’t feel inspired, or as if I have to express some meaning. There’s no magical idea inside my head that’s waiting to be manifested. It’s much more like taking a walk. Too much thinking will ruin it, it’s enjoyable until I’m tired, and I feel better afterward.

Right now conventions are canceled until further notice. How does this change the economics of indie comics? Or at least yours?

I know that people who were about to tour and go to shows are immediately facing the loss of income. My own comics income has come from Koyama Press for the last several years, and from Annie Koyama’s personal support. I don’t know the details of how individual publishers are faring, but it seems like a great time to order some books if you can afford it! Many indie publishers and distributors are taking orders and shipping directly, as well as local bookstores. Some of them drop off books locally, like take-out.

Over the course of the past few months, how has your routine changed? How have you been spending your days? 

My daughter and I take a walk every morning after breakfast. I love talking to friends on the phone. The work I do is mostly grocery shopping, food prep, cleaning, and emailing. There’s always some oddball task that comes up. I found evidence of a mouse in our basement, so I set a trap with peanut butter. When I checked the trap there was no mouse, but about 300 ants. Every day there’s at least one thing that’s just like that. 

How productive have you been the past six months? 

I’ve been working on myself. Something happened yesterday that I’m going to call a victory. I was having a very hard health day (fatigue, headache, MS stuff) and was just at the edge of being able to hold it together. My daughter spilled a pint of blueberry smoothie onto our stainable counter. I’d been lying down for hours and finally mustered the will-power and energy to make a snack for her, and now there was this time-sensitive mess to clean up, along with the waste of ingredients. I’m already a total freak about wasting certain foods – which include berries and dairy, so in this context this struck me as a very big deal. But – there was a tiny moment before my explosive reaction when I was able to calmly say to my daughter, “Get out of this room for a bit, right now.” And she did! She ran upstairs and I was able to have my big reaction without the guilt of having a witness. I haven’t made any comics in a few weeks. There have always been phases of my life where I just have to work more on myself before I can go back to doing more visible work. I guess it’s routine maintenance. Anyway, I feel like I’m being productive, but I don’t have a list of accomplishments right now.