‘Telling stories, putting them out there’ Artist finds freedom in her comics

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

There was a moment in time when Tupelo artist William Heard thought he was going to become a super hero.
He was extremely close to getting machine guns attached to his wheelchair.
“So I could fight evildoers,” the 37-year-old said.
But it was not to be.
Instead, comic book artist Mary Katherine Spencer decided to take Heard’s story in a more honest, though still imaginative, direction.
“We decided to do it as a documentary,” Heard said. “I thought it was cool for someone to want to write about me like that.”
Spencer moved to Northeast Mississippi in 2006, and she’s slowly merged into the region’s art scene. For her, comics are a passion and a release. They’re also important.
“People need to have their stories told,” she said. “People need to hear other people’s stories, and people need to have access to them.”
Spencer, 42, grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Md. She was making a life for herself in Arizona when she had a strange conversation with her parents.
“They did this thing,” she said. “I called them and they said, ‘Guess what we did?’ I said, ‘You went on a cruise?’ They said, ‘We moved to Mississippi.’”
When her dad ended up in North Mississippi Medical Center, Spencer did some serious thinking. She sold her place in Arizona, and bought a relatively isolated house near Geeville.
“Technically, it’s a Booneville address,” she said, “but when my friends ask where I live, I love saying, ‘Geeville, Mississippi.’”
‘Get it out’
Initially, she worked at the Boys & Girls Club of North Mississippi, Inc., and later joined the staff at S.A.F.E., Inc., where she regularly dealt with abused women in crisis situations.
It was deep stuff, and Spencer needed a way to process it. She’d quit drinking and smoking before her children, Cian, 12, and Millie, 4, were born, so those vices couldn’t help (or hurt, as the case may be).
Comics flew to the rescue.
“That’s always been my pressure release,” she said. “I would draw little comics, just to get it out.”
She encouraged others to “get it out” with a project called “Jeans for Justice.” She asked people to write their stories of abuse on blue jeans. Some also added artistic flourishes, and Spencer took the results on the road for different displays.
“I’m here to discuss and talk about subjects that people put away and don’t talk about normally,” she said.
Spencer no longer works with S.A.F.E., but she made strong connections with other artists during the Jeans for Justice project.
“She came to Our Artworks,” Heard said. “Some of us worked on the jeans project with her.”
Heard discovered his artistic talent after a car accident left him paralyzed. He later started Our Artworks to get other people with disabilities interested in art.
His story captivated Spencer, and Heard almost got a flying wheelchair with machine guns. The pair met at coffee shops, and exchanged emails and Facebook messages to discuss the project.
Spencer came up with the idea of using Heard’s own paintings as backdrops for her comics. She’s working toward a May deadline to get the book and other work ready for an exhibit in Arizona.
“She has a very active imagination,” Heard said. “She comes up with different stuff, tries it and it works.”
Spencer also is collaborating with Terae, a 56-year-old Tupelo-based writer who prefers to use her pen name. The story is about two girls who face different types of prejudice.
“I looked at some sketches she did and I asked if she could do some illustrations. She started doing them and it was perfect,” Terae said. “If I had done them, they wouldn’t have looked right to me.”
Adult themes
Spencer regularly explores tough topics with her comics. One of her stories is based on a friend’s sexual addiction. She said she turned the lead character into a fish, so it “wouldn’t be gross and disgusting. A fish can do these things and it’s OK.”
A question from her kids led Spencer to consider how bullying has impacted her life, and she used printer’s ink to turn those thoughts into pages.
Another long-running project was inspired by her dog, Henry Miller, who was rescued from the Tupelo-Lee Humane Society. She illustrated the story of how she met Henry. Friends liked the resulting comic panel, so she started soliciting pet stories from other people and drawing those.
“Everybody has a pet story,” Spencer said. “How they got their cat and how they got their dog – it gives them something good to think about.”
Spencer’s art is a busy “pressure release.” The comics pile up on the big desk in her living room. You can see some of her creations at www.horseradishhen.com and www.fingerproofpress.com.
“When you do this kind of work, it’s like, ‘Whoa, yeah. It’s 3 in the morning,’” she said. “If you can do something that makes someone feel better and makes them love it, that’s great, right? It’s telling stories and putting them out there.”

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