Kriota Willberg

2006 Hearst Fellow
Choreographer and Cartoonist
New York, NY

Research at AAS

I was a choreographer during my AAS fellowship, researching for the creation of an updated version of the 1866 Broadway production The Black Crook. Sometimes credited as being the first musical, The Black Crook ran for more than a year and was the first American stage production to gross over a million dollars.

The Black Crook was the most singular, spectacular commercial success of its author, Charles M. Barras. (Yes, that was really his name!) Through my research at the AAS, I read descriptions, reviews, the Black Crook libretto, sheet music, and more. The script was awful! Barras’ work was panned by critics, but the addition of song and dance transformed his play, making it phenomenally successful.

The richness of the historical materials I was able to access enabled me to look at Barras’ life as that of an artist of poor ability made famous and miserable by dance and music - two elements he was opposed to incorporating into his work. As a choreographer, I could not let go of the idea that my muse had ruined his life! At the AAS I was able to read his illustrated novelization of the play, learn of the tragic death of his wife, his inability to have even one more play commercially produced, and finally his tragic suicide. His New York Times obituary scathingly dismissed his talent, his one smash hit, and his death.

My research about the life and achingly frustrated career of a middle-aged playwright deeply resonated with my life and career as a middle-aged dancer/choreographer, 140 years later. After working with my dance company on a production inspired by C. M. Barras and The Black Crook I quit dance, film, and theater. But unlike Barras, I have managed new (personal and) professional achievements, albeit in a new medium.

I am now a cartoonist working in the area of graphic medicine and drawing. Thanks to the guidance I received on research processes from AAS staff, I became the inaugural artist in residence at the New York Academy of Medicine Library in 2017. Since my residency, I have been thinking a lot about the way I tend to be more interested or open to an intimidating subject if I have a connection to it though previous experience or knowledge. One thing that researching the histories of domestic sewing and of sutures and ligatures has taught me is that sewing was a universal skill for millennia. These days it may not be as common a skill, but practically everyone understands what it is and the basic techniques and equipment used.

My new comic, Silver Wire, explores the histories of surgery, unethical research, and slavery, by using embroidery as the medium for gaining a little more understanding of these very intimidating subjects. In the narrative, I go to the park with my doctor-friend Mollie for a lesson about surgery and suturing techniques. As we wound and sew up fruit, we explore the histories of medical sewing and decorative sewing, gossiping and joking about the great surgeons of history. But the same techniques that Mollie uses with her patients to relieve their suffering have a dark history that affects us all.

History is full of love, suffering, service, and cruelty, sometimes all coming from the same source. By weeding through the culture and politics of medicine of the past, we can understand and improve the state of public health today.

About the Fellow

Kriota Willberg makes comics and illustrations exploring narratives of the health, illness, medical history, and bioethics. Her book, Draw Stronger: Self-Care for Cartoonists and Visual Artists, is published by Uncivilized Books. Her comics have appeared in:, SubCultures, Comics For Choice, The Graphic Canon, and Intima: Journal of Narrative Medicine, among others. Her comic Silver Wire was nominated for a 2019 Ignatz Award and is currently on the American Library Association’s Black Lives Matter Adult Comics and Graphic Novels Reading List. She also writes a self-care column for The Comics Beat called “Get A Grip!” Willberg, a licensed massage therapist specializing in sports- and oncology massage, has a certificate in bioethics and medical humanities from Montefiore-Einstein College of Medicine and an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts. Past film/performance projects have received support from The American Antiquarian Society, the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), and Franklin Furnace. In 2017 Willberg was the inaugural Artist In Residence at the New York Academy of Medicine Library. She teaches graphic medicine and drawing in the Department of Humanistic Medicine at NYU.

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