Avid treasure hunter, Cesario Lavery, discovered what may be his best find yet on a cold winter walk in Montreal. Passing by a Little Free Library, he opened it’s tiny door to grab a first-edition of early literary criticism on Franz Kafka’s work. Inside the book, he found the previous owner’s name and notes adorning the pages: they belonged to Dr. Chaim Fischel Shatan. Shatan, who, as Lavery would soon find out, was a prominent psychoanalyst whose work led to the recognition and codification of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Lavery, an illustrator, comics-maker, and educator, became inspired to create Der Eydes—The Witness. The work is a serialized autobiographical comic following his discovery and research. As the journey progresses so too does the relationship the artist has to Shatan. If anything, one could say their worlds become intertwined.
On March 23, 2021, as part of the Museum of Jewish Montreal’s Microgrant Program for Creative and Cultural Exploration series, Lavery hosted Finding Treasure, Getting the Dirt: Comic Launch and DIY Research Workshop, to mark the release of Der Eydes. At the event, Lavery provided insight into his process, and how to embrace stories, either imagined or real, that can come from objects we find.
I sat down with Lavery (virtually) to gain further insight into his process as an artist, and treasure hunter. Journey into this interview to find treasure with Lavery and reexamine the concept of the indefinable definition of what makes objects treasured.
Interspersed throughout the interview are additional notes, unexpected stories, and illustrations from Lavery that when they do appear are treasured resources that open up another window into his world.
Have you made any comics before about treasure and your love for finding treasure?
Probably indirectly. I have a big love of drawing little objects. When I found the book I knew pretty fast that I wanted to do a project with it. I was in the middle of working on another project and I was having a really hard time working on it. When I found the book I thought to myself, this was going to be my reward for having finished this other project. But I didn’t start working on it for I think a full year after I found it. I have a day job, it’s hard to find opportunities to really just drop everything and work on something.
A friend had passed along the information about the Museum of Jewish Montreal’s microgrant program. I’ve bitten off more than I can chew in the past, so I proposed making a short single comic book. By giving myself permission to work on something shorter I ended up being able to work on it as a longer project and have the mental and emotional space to prioritize that.
It doesn’t seem as daunting
For my creative process, the first step to anything getting done is breaking things into small manageable tasks and chunks. Otherwise the enormity of a project can be so overwhelming and it can be a lot of pressure you put on yourself. It can be a lot of pressure that you sort of inadvertently call in from other people. Having it [the comic] be serialized as I plan to do it has been a big help. And a burden off my shoulders in a lot of ways.
Was this the first time you incorporated your Jewishness in your work?
This is the first thing that is so explicitly Jewish, where it’s so front and centre.
What pulls you visually in a certain direction, what helps inform how you illustrate a character’s identity?
One useful thing is to have certain little visual shorthands so you know if a character’s face isn’t showing there are other cues so people can tell exactly who this is. Before I really did any of the drawing of the comic, I spent a few days drawing my main characters, the people I knew who were going to recur, in a number of ways, in a number of styles. I try to figure out how to translate people’s images into all the same language while finding ways for it [the piece] to all be visually tied together and still have everybody look pretty unique and distinct.
Drawing somebody you’ve never met, like Chaim Shatan, is difficult because you don’t have a sense of what they look like when they moved, or what their mannerisms were like. But Chaim Shatan’s family has been so wonderful and helpful in sharing resources with me. And right now, one of his daughters is digging around trying to find some cassette tapes he made for them when they were kids. So I can hear his voice and sort of get a little bit more of an idea. Even something disembodied like a voice can really help clarify how you want to draw someone. Reading a lot of Chaim Shatan’s work was instrumental in that, looking at the kinds of clothes that people wore in Montreal, in the 50s and the 60s too. There’s a lot of drafting I do beforehand, or just even if I’m not consciously working on it but I’m watching TV. I usually have scrap paper in front of me so I can kind of work out ideas and draw and practice different expressions and movements.
Your autobiographical comic is in the same vein as the comics I most admire: the story takes place alongside the comic exploring the process of writing said work. Did you know you were going to shape Der Eydes in this way from the beginning?
No, it took me a while and it’s still taking me a while to figure out exactly how I want to frame this story, but I knew I wanted to show the work. I want to be transparent and show people how I came to it, how I started it, how I did it. And that’s mostly because that’s what I like. I want to have an idea of the sort of questions artists ask themselves as they’re creating work. People connect with our work when they sense a genuine excitement and interest, and also a certain degree of honesty mixed of course with some confabulation and fun. I also assume that if I’m interested in this, if this is what’s important to me, there’s going to be at least a handful of other people who take something from that too.
What idea didn’t work out the way you expected?
Initially I pictured the comic being about three people: Franz Kafka, Shatan, and me. I followed the connection and in the end the real feeling and the connection is mostly with Shatan. I thought, maybe we’re gonna leave poor Kafka alone and not drag his personal life through the streets too much on this one. I still want him to be very present in the narrative, but it’s not a book about Kafka, he’s just in it.
Just makes an appearance, doesn’t say much.
He’s the catalyst.
For once in his life, he’s just like sitting in the back, quiet.
Maybe that’s what he wants. Maybe he just wants some quiet time out of the limelight.
Your approach to treasure can make people rethink what treasure could be, or even feel better about their own stuff that they love to pick up off the street and keep.
In my family and probably in a lot of families we like to build up a certain kind of folklore around certain family origin stories. And I’ve always loved how, especially my mom’s family, they buy into this building of mythology. And I wanted to sort of contribute to that somehow or continue it or show how those roots were how I got here.
Usually you’ll never find out who previously owned your found objects, and then the item(s) are now part of your story, but here, with Shatan’s work, it’s a combination of the two happening all at once.
In the first moments of finding this book I almost had this little warning voice in my head saying don’t expect too much out of this. It’s always the moments where you’re thinking this is probably nothing that it turns out to be the best treasure. I saw these pages and I thought maybe they’re just loose pages, maybe it’s just somebody’s boring grocery list, no, it’s actually good and then maybe he left his name, he did. It all seemed very magical, lucky, and fortunate. Of course I’m still, I’m still projecting and stitching my story onto it.
I was lucky Shatan left such a trail and his family has been so willing to fill in the gaps. I can’t believe the generosity and the time they’ve shown me. It’s an honour to be trusted with these stories, and also, it feels so comfortable and good to talk to people who are as excited about the work as I am. You know, it could have gone a lot of ways, but it turned out they were interested and they wanted to help tell the story. It’s a collaborative effort, I’m not just pouring my own ideas about this person into this story, but kind of gathering the impressions and ideas and stories of other people to make a sort of composite sketch.
The line “objects made precious by their having been lost” beautifully touches on a part of the human condition that a lot of us deal with: having been lost ourselves, having experienced loss, having not felt treasured or valuable at times. Did you do that consciously, have you ever thought about treasure as it relates to people and life?
For a lot of people when a treasure, a physical object has been lost, we tend to imbue that item and that loss with something sort of metaphysical, like a part of ourselves that’s been lost or a moment in time that’s been lost, something that can’t be returned to. We all lose things, and if we feel a part of ourselves has been lost in that losing then what does it mean when somebody finds it, and can they return that part of you to yourself or do they return that part of yourself just by witnessing it. In Shatan’s case, he’s deceased but there was a part of him out there to me that seemed very much alive. We think of losing a part of ourselves as deeply sad, or a cause for mourning, and sometimes it is, but it can also be a treasure to somebody else, something that somebody finds and sees and helps them to see you.
How was it working with the Museum of Jewish Montreal and having the support of your cohort?
I loved how community focused and driven this granting program was. Often these things ramp up one’s imposter syndrome but at the museum there’s a notable lack of pretence. It was great to be part of this buffet of different Jewish projects, and get to see and encourage each other. It felt personal, working with larger institutions, often you end up feeling the opposite. We were being brought in because of who we were and what our different histories were and what our different practices were. I hope post-pandemic, there’s a chance for us to all hang out in person.
And what was it like having Georgia Webber be your editor and someone you can ask for advice?
It always surprises me when somebody is so talented and so committed to making sure other people’s voices are heard. Georgia was like that from the moment I first met her which was 11 or 12 years ago. She’s such a collaborative person who has great insights into process and creativity, who knows how to ask the right questions to get you to find your answers.
What treasures have you found that have been the most surprising?
When I was about 18. It was a snowy day, around the Christmas holidays (because I was in Saskatoon, and everybody was home, it was like the day before I was going back to Toronto).
I was walking in the snow and I saw a paper napkin facedown. I said to myself, that is almost certainly just a napkin, why would this be anything extraordinary. But something in my mind told me to pick it up and take a look to see what it is. I picked it up, and on the other side of the napkin, the side that was facing the snow, somebody had written “permission to fail”. And I needed that message. I kept it in my pocket for a long time. Some months later, I met somebody and was having this sort of exciting crush whirlwind romance; we were talking about the greatest things we’d ever found and I said one time I found this amazing napkin to which they responded, I wrote that, that was mine.
It was one of my first significant relationships. I don’t still have that napkin and it destroys me, I don’t know where it is. I ripped apart all of my stuff; five years ago I gave up but I hope that somebody else found it and is living their truth with their “permission to fail” napkin.
Header and feature images designed by Cesario Levy.