The partnership of Homer artists Skywalker and Brian Payne sounds like a romance novel tease. Can a storyteller-poet-dancer raised in a military family find true love, bliss, creative support and happiness with a Midwestern comic book writer? And can they thrive as artists in a small town at the end of the road?
On the basis of work they’ve both published recently, the Paynes have forged a creative lifestyle that supports each other’s visions. This spring, Brian Payne, 54, published “Zinc Comics Section,” a free tabloid-size comic paper about Red Mosquito and the people who live in Cosmic Hamlet. Skywalker Payne, 65, has come out with a creative nonfiction book that tells through prose and poetry her search for mindfulness and how to incorporate it into one’s personal life.
The Paynes first met in Grant Park, Chicago, when Skywalker was at Columbia College and Brian studied art at the American Academy of Art. Brian used to see her in the park and finally worked up the courage to talk to her.
“She may not have known how smitten I was, but I knew,” Brian said.
That first meeting didn’t work out so well and they drifted apart. Brian was in Arizona and Skywalker was in Orlando, Fla. They reconnected through a mutual friend. Brian sent her some comics he’d drawn and written and she sent a fan letter back. He later used parts of that letter in a comic, and when she saw it, she wrote him back. That lead to a long-distance correspondence. Finally they remet in person in 1994. They married in 1998.
“She came for a visit and never went home,” Brian said.
Skywalker Payne grew up in an Air Force family, with her step-father’s duty taking him all over the U.S. She never went to more than two years at the same school.
“That makes me really socially handicapped,” Skywalker said.
She didn’t meet her biological father, Tommy Walker, until she was in her 20s. She grew up with the last name Alexander, but when she converted to Islam, changed her name to Damali Bashira. Later, after she became a Buddhist, she found out that according to the Mayan calendar her name was “Sky Walker.”
“I liked that, the whole concept of sky,” she said. “I started calling myself ‘Sky.’”
Tagging on her father’s name, she became Sky Walker. When she and Brian married, she became Skywalker Payne.
Her life is as varied as her name. In her 20s Skywalker had a book of poetry published. In New York City she joined Potential Unlimited Poetry Theatre, where she’d do things like sell poems on the D train. She performed in clubs and churches. In Chicago, Skywalker studied film making at Stevens College, did a semester of dance and drama, dropped out and went back to writing.
Her travels took her to Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Greenville, S.C., where she worked on an African-American weekly newspaper.
She finished college at Metro State College, Denver, a program that allowed her to design her degree. There she saw a flyer about a black woman who was a storyteller.
“I said, ‘I’m going to get a degree in storytelling.’ That’s what I did,” Skywalker said, graduating with a bachelor of arts in storytelling.
Brian grew up on Ottumwa, Iowa, known as the town where the fictional character Radar O’Reilly of M*A*S*H* lived. He also lived in Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago. He had to drop out of the American Academy of Art when his father lost his job. Brian got into a Comprehensive Education Training Act, or CETA, job training program and learned to become a sign painter. It was while he worked as a sign painter he got into comics.
“Someone said, ‘I need a comic lettered.’ I said, ‘I’ll do that,’” he said.
Brian played in a band, Zinc Alloy and the Element of Surprise, and when the band broke up, he started a comic about a band. Zinc was the main character.
“That was where Zinc Comics came from,” he said.
The Chicago Free Fest used to do a festival publication and had a comics section. In 1993, Brian published his first comic in that section, “Lost Toys.” That was the comic that connected Brian with Skywalker.
Over the years, Brian Payne has worked as a sign painter, printer and graphic artist.
“I’ve been replaced by a computer more often than I know,” he said.
Since being together, they’ve lived in Austin, Texas, Des Moines, Iowa, and on Navajo and Hopi reservations. In Des Moines they bought an old building, Sharon’s Hair Salon, and turned it into Darshan Studio, the name of their publishing company. “Darshan” came from the letters in the salon’s name. Brian figured he could repurpose the letters in a new sign. Skywalker also started doing storytelling performances based on tales of the Underground Railroad in Iowa, the 19th century network of safe houses and abolitionists that spirited slaves out of bondage and to freedom.
In Des Moines, Skywalker went back to school and got her registered nursing certificate. She wanted a trade with some job security.
Once she got her RN, she found she could get her student loan paid off by working on Native American reservations. She did that for 5 years, living with the Navajo and Hopi. The Paynes moved to Homer in July 2013 when South Peninsula Hospital recruited her to work as a nurse. She worked at SPH six months and now is a case manager at SVT Health and Wellness Center.
Sometimes the Paynes’ art work comes together. For his 52nd birthday, Skywalker gave Brian 52 haikus. He decided to do one comic a week using the haikus and posting it on his blog. He then decided to draw a pin-up girl a week, the 52-girl project.
“That really caught online. I don’t know why. I became the pin-up guy,” he said.
The Cosmic Hamlet Zinc comic came about after Brian learned about the late Brother Asaiah, who coined the phrase “The Cosmic Hamlet By the Sea” to describe Homer. He also was inspired by listening to bush lines on KBBI. It’s a roman-a-clef, fictionalized Homer with recognizable faces.
“It stands as a Homer tone poem, all my first impressions of moving here,” Brian said.
Another collaboration they’re looking at Mindfulness Comics, where Brian draws and Skywalker writes about Buddhist practice.
Skywalker is working on 360 haikus about death, but not in a morose way. She also has an e-book coming out in May, “Breathing Through the Eye of the Novel,” that she plans to promote with storytelling performances. Her 3-minute storytelling pieces can be see on her YouTube channel, Skywalker Payne Storyteller.
Through disparate paths the Paynes have come together in art and life, living in an Old Town walk-up condo — intimate and connected.
“Like goldfish we kind of grew to our bowl,” Brian said.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.