Oakland artist Kristen Caven on bullying, pollution, and Mills College.
Kristen Caven knew from the time she was a child that she wanted to be an artist. But she didn’t want to just create art; she wanted to have fun doing it.
“My goal is to play for a living,” says Caven, 49.
A graphic designer who lives in Oakland with her husband and teenage son, she’s made a name for herself as one of the Bay Area’s foremost cartoonists, with seven books to her name, from the cartooning memoir, Perfectly Revolting: My ‘Glamorous’ Cartooning Career to her philosophy-explained-through-cartoons book The Reason She Left. Many still remember her work best from the book that launched her cartooning career, her firsthand account of the 1990 student uprising at Caven’s alma mater, Mills College in Oakland, but Caven’s creative energies aren’t limited to drawing.
Currently, she’s involved in two new projects that team her with co-authors: She’s writing a modern fairy-tale musical with composer Michael O’Dell, and she’s joined forces with her mother, Oakland community psychologist Louise Hart, to pen a parents’ guide against bullying.
It’s not easy to keep such a busy schedule, but it helps that writing and drawing are what she would do for fun.
“Cartooning is actually theater that hasn’t happened on stage yet,” says Caven. “I love the written word and language. Cartoons are like little idea containers.”
Caven naturally sees the little dramas that make simple pictures into a compelling story. She draws squiggly-lined doodles that exude a natural charm, even when tackling weighty subjects like philosophy or revolution. Although she finished college with a degree in philosophy, it wasn’t her philosophy insights that got noticed—but rather the way she expressed them. When professors handed out writing assignments, Caven completed them as comics. Her senior project was a graphic novel.
“I was very fortunate to have some professors who were very supportive,” says Caven. “But they never knew what to do with me. They thought of me as something of an oddity.”
Caven’s family moved frequently when she was a child due to her father’s service in the Peace Corps. (She spent her third birthday in Guatemala; she vividly recalls the smell of the local tortilla factory.) Eventually the family settled in Boulder, Colo., where Caven lived until leaving to attend college.
Her cartooning career took off when she covered the 1990 Mills protests with her comics. Caven, who had graduated two years earlier, knew she had to get back to the campus when she heard news of the strike.
Faced with mounting financial pressure, the Mills College Board of Trustees thought that the traditionally all-women college could boost enrollment if it went co-ed; the board voted to allow male students to start attending its undergrad program. (Graduate classes had always been co-ed.) This decision led to a 15-day student and staff strike. At one point, nearly 300 students boycotted classes and blockaded the administration building and the school president’s home.
“I had been the campus cartoonist [at the student newspaper] during my semesters at Mills, and I fell back into that persona. I did what came naturally: I drew,” Caven says. “I visited blockades, listened to stories, and put all the funniest bits together in one place.”
Her characteristic doodles capture the mood of the time, about everything from a hypothetical look behind the scenes of the trustees’ original meeting to the tent city that striking students set up on the campus green.
Early media coverage of the protests focused on the sensational, reporting that hysterical students disrupted classes by honking car horns or chased school President Mary Metz from her home in the early morning with shouts of “We will not accept this!” But the reality that Caven observed on campus was much less dramatic.
“The remarkable thing about the student strike was a mutual respect on both sides,” Caven says. “The trustees never called the police or criminalized the students. On the students’ part, there was a notable lack of name-calling.”
In contrast to some exaggerated news coverage, Caven’s cartoons focused on the positive, showing how organized students worked together to achieve their goal through nonviolent protest. Even her depictions of the administration leaned more toward playful teasing than harsh satire—her caricature ribbed Metz for her perfectly coiffed hair.
“I had to pick some arbitrary trait to really exaggerate,” Caven says. “I’m more of a facilitator than a finger-pointer.”
Her gentle whimsy struck a chord with readers—such as one cartoon where a university official, faced with a throng of protesters, quips, “Looks like we empowered a few too many women a little too quickly.” But Caven was also privy to the behind-the-scenes drama, observing how the campus functioned with a skeleton staff during the height of the demonstrations. In a cartoon entitled “Backstage,” a perplexed woman arrives for an 11 a.m. appointment in the university press room. “You’re early,” says a cheerful assistant. “That would be noon, strike time.”
The public began to sympathize with the protesters after several students appeared on The Phil Donahue Show to tell their side of the story, explaining that women-only education was important because professors often subconsciously favored male students in co-ed classrooms.
Eventually, the trustees relented and the undergraduate college remained women-only—the only time in U.S. history that student protests have successfully thwarted an attempt to go co-ed.
Caven’s quirky look at the protest attracted immediate attention when her cartoons appeared in The San Francisco Bay Guardian, where they won first place in that publication’s 1990 cartoons contest. One of Caven’s Mills cartoons now hangs in the permanent collection of the Women’s Museum in Dallas, Texas. Within a month of her Mills cartoons’ initial publication, Caven collected them to make her first book, Inside the Mills Revolution. A Mills public relations representative originally told Caven that the school bookstore wouldn’t carry the book because it contained caricatures of campus officials, but the school has since embraced the book as a piece of campus history. (The cartoons have now been reprinted in Caven’s 2010 memoir Perfectly Revolting and are available for free online.)
“[The book] is a fun little document from what it’s like inside a revolution, but it also shows how the protesters organized in ways that would be good for any revolution,” Caven says, explaining the cartoons’ continuing resonance with people. “My cartoons may feature plenty of female characters and concerns, but they appeal to anyone with a funny bone.”
Writing is something of a family business for the Caven household; Caven’s husband, David, a public elementary school teacher in Oakland, maintains a regular blog called Entropical Paradise and her son writes movie scripts. But Caven gets most of her writing inspiration from her mother, Louise Hart, a community psychologist who’s written extensively on positive parenting and kids’ self-esteem. Caven often does editing and graphic design work for her mother’s books, but on Hart’s latest endeavor, The Bullying Antidote, published by Hazelden, she asked her daughter to co-author.
“Being in the family business is still a challenge and I’ve gone through periods where I want to get a real job instead,” Caven says. “It’s hard separating mom from co-author, but it’s really important when we get in a tight spot that we realize whether it’s a genuine disagreement or an ego battle. In some ways, it’s easy because we know each other so well that I can almost read her mind.”
For Caven, writing has been a natural extension of cartooning—she just thinks of the two as different ways of communicating ideas. For her self-help books, Caven did extensive research into the latest studies of youth behavior problems and school violence in Europe, to find information and advice that would help parents in need.
The experience inspired Caven in her other writing. In April, she completed her latest ebook, The Souls of Her Feet, a modern take on Cinderella. The subject is a natural fit after her work on The Bullying Antidote, because she realized after working on that book that Cinderella is a story about bullying. Caven’s version follows a teenage girl who’s overworked and bullied by her stepmother after her parents die. With some help from a drag queen fairy godfather, the girl transcends a dysfunctional family life.
“Cinderella’s stepmother is the best example of bad parenting in literature,” Caven says. “It’s really about parenting and sibling rivalry and stepfamilies. I reached out to friends who were stepmothers and I realized—that’s the hardest job in the world, parenting someone else’s kids. She just doesn’t get it but you can understand where she’s coming from.”
Together with composer O’Dell, Caven launched a successful campaign to raise money to turn “The Souls of Their Feet” into a musical. With funding guaranteed, the two are now hard at work completing the music in anticipation of a stage debut.
Like her writing and drawing, Caven’s outside interests are equally eclectic. She teaches zumba classes, and has danced Busby Berkeley dance numbers with the Art Deco Society’s Deco Belles dance troupe, and volunteered as membership chair of the California Writers Club. She also serves as president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Oakland Technical High School. And she started Idle-Free Oakland, a project to raise awareness about the damage to Oakland air caused by drivers letting their cars idle.
“I follow my interests,” Caven says. It’s a philosophy she follows in life as well as art. “My theory is that there’s the right medium for the highest expression of any idea. I want to do something in every medium. One thing leads to another.”
Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay writer and a frequent contributor to The Monthly.
Margaretta K. Mitchell is a nationally known artist and professional photographer, author, and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. To explore the possibility of Mitchell shooting a portrait for the web or print, an environmental portrait like the Bay Area Boomer cover, or a creative portrait of your fantasy persona: (510) 655-4920 or margarettamitchell.com