It’s another rainy morning here in Mahwah, NJ. But no matter because I have been looking forward to sharing this week’s “why people draw” interview with you for a while—even before it was done, in fact!
Today, we have the lucky fortune of having cartoonist Liza Donnelly—best known for her work for The New Yorker magazine! Liza was super gracious from the moment I sent her an email asking her if she would be interested in being part of this series. I knew of Liza’s work, and funny coincidence that after I had asked her for the interview, I happened to be sitting at my computer and looked up at my bulletin board to notice that one of the things I have posted on there is one of Liza’s cartoons! A very funny one where a little girl is getting pushed on a swing and her mom is saying to her: “You can say anything you want, or you can say nothing. But most people say ‘Wheeeeee!!!’” So funny! That reminds me of a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon where a group of Kangaroos are hopping across the frame and one is annoyed as he tells the one with a “doughnut-shaped” mouth: “You don’t have to go ‘Boing! Boing!’!” Different message, but another favorite!
More recently, I had received a TEDTalks link from my husband Thom with Liza’s “Drawing Upon Humor for Change” from December 2010. I loved hearing about how she became interested in cartooning as a child, and her idea that “Women + Humor = CHANGE.” That really resonated with me. Humor has always been a big part of who I am–how I relate to people, and when I add drawing to that mix…I know I have been able to make people’s days a tad bit better (or is it that my day is better after getting a cheap laugh!?). During Liza’s talk, I loved the audience’s reactions to her cartoons as she was talking, for her images and words truly communicate her notion that we can fit in without always having to follow these rules we’re “supposed” to follow (even while on a swing, or while hopping across the Australian Outback!)—in particular those rules set up for girls and women. Make sure you watch that TEDTalk…it’s a good one!
So imagine my delight when Liza accepted my invitation, and then we set up a time to talk on the phone. I can’t remember the last time I did a phone interview—one in which I was asking the questions and I wasn’t trying to hire a college-age summer intern! But once I got past a few technical difficulties, Liza made it easy to have a conversation with her. Thank you so much Liza for your time and inspiration!!
LIZA DONNELLY (tah-dah!)
Without much more rambling from me, (drum, drum, drum), here is Liza Donnelly…as my good friend Prof. Steve Robb at Purdue University used to say: “I give this to you at no extra cost!” It sure is a treat! Thanks again Liza!
HW: What’s your earliest memory of drawing (or of being able to draw)?
LD: I’m told that I was drawing at a very young age, but I don’t remember when that started and what age it was. I do remember I was home sick from school. I think I was probably in 1st or 2nd grade and my mother, to keep me happy and busy, gave me some paper and a book of cartoons by James Thurber. So I started tracing those cartoons. I had already been drawing, I guess, for years, but this was something new—to trace, and I just fell in love with his drawing. I didn’t understand the cartoons, of course, but his drawings are so accessible to people, to children, because they are so simple. I just remember drawing, and I think that is where my cartoon career began—was tracing his, and I also traced Charles Schulz cartoons, so tracing was a big part. Even though I do my own drawings, this is how I sort of opened the door to cartooning. And eventually, soon thereafter, I started doing my own characters, and I got my mother to laugh. That’s my first memory.
HW: Did your mom draw too?
LD: My mother drew too, in college. I have some of her drawings here, and they’re not cartoons. They are very nice; she was very skilled. She was a homemaker—a very good homemaker at that.
HW: I find it interesting that your mother chose to give you the cartooning book, which is great. Can you think why that was?
LD: Well, my parents got The New Yorker and they were fans of the magazine. I don’t know. My mother is no longer alive, but it would be interesting to ask her why she though I’d like it…maybe because I liked Peanuts so much as a kid, she thought maybe I’d like this.
HW: What does being able to draw mean to you?
LD: It’s a way to speak without having to actually open my mouth. I was a very shy kid and as a young adult I was also quiet. It was a way, I felt, to express myself and to say things that I wanted to say. I’ve always loved politics, so it was a way to comment on culture and politics, through drawing, because I didn’t have the self-confidence to verbalize it.
HW: What part of your day is spent sketching and drawing, and what part is spent infusing your brain with what’s going on in the world so you can draw about it?
LD: (laughter) That is well put. When I was younger, a lot more of the day was spent drawing. When I was first starting out my cartoons would usually develop through sketching, and I was always doodling and drawing. Now it’s less so. Now it’s more like drawing is the tool I use to get the idea out. It also depends on the day, because some days I don’t draw at all. I do a lot of writing and I do illustration for people. I guess for a cartoon day, for cartoon-generating time maybe 1/3 is actual drawing and the rest is thinking and writing words down, and reading and thinking, and other “stuff” that goes into making a cartoon.
HW: So you also do illustrations jobs?
LD: Whenever somebody asks, if I’m not backed up with work, I usually say ‘yes’ to most things…the pay is reasonable. I’ve been working with one magazine in New York City called Habitat for 30 years. Every month I do a drawing. It’s an illustration for these really dry articles. Usually the illustrations I do are not cartoons, because they don’t have a caption, but they have an idea behind them. I play with the imagery to try to make a comment on what I’m illustrating.
HW: Do you keep a sketchbook? If so, do you find that you write or draw more in it, and what is it’s purpose?
LD: I do. It’s a big black book, maybe it’s 8.5 x 11 inches or so. I use it each week and fill the spread of the pages with things I’ve collected over the week—usually words and phrases and Ideas. Sometimes the pages will have drawings in them, doodles, but mostly it’s for ideas–it’s an idea book. When I was younger, I used to just spend time doodling in sketchbooks. There have been gaps when I didn’t do it this way. For many years, on my desk I would have this huge piece of paper like 20 x 25 inches or something. It would just be cheap paper on my desk, and on that piece of paper I’d gather the words and the phrases and the drawings and sketches or doodles. It’s just a way to have these things collected, so when you’re coming up with an idea, when you try to go with an idea, you sit with that paper right in front of you, and all these different words and phrases and doodles interact with each other. Sometimes you can come up with an idea just by having them in front of you. They’ll just gather over the week.
HW: When you do your cartoons, what comes first the images or the captions?
LD: It’s both, but usually the idea comes first—the idea for the caption. But sometimes I’ll do a drawing and try to create the words that go with it. More often than not, the idea comes first. Sometimes there’s a whole new step to the process now since I email my cartoons into The New Yorker. I just realized that I was doing this. I come up with the idea, and then I draw the image in pencil. Then I ink it using a lightbox. All the while I either have the completed caption, or it has something that I think is close to what I want it to say. So then I’ll scan it and I put it into my computer. I’ll open it up again in my computer before I have to type the caption on. It’s another stage of editing. I’ll look at the drawing one more time and go “Oh! It should go like this.” I can fuss with the arrangement of words or how strong the words work, or how well they work. Again, at that point, there’s another step added, which is probably good…a good idea.
HW: Who are 2 current illustrator whose work you enjoy? Why?
LD: I didn’t know if you meant cartoonists or illustrators. I don’t want to say which cartoonists I like because most of them are my friends. James Thurber was a big influence and William Steig. There are tons. A woman from the early years of The New Yorker magazine called Barbara Shermund wasn’t an influence, but she’s one of my favorites. I was thinking if you were asking me to pick illustrators. I don’t notice (it’s terrible to say), but I feel like there’s not that much illustration out there anymore. Or maybe I’m not looking at the paper products that much anymore, like magazines. I was extremely focused on illustration in my early career, and when I saw this question I thought maybe I’d talk about the illustrators of The New York Times back in the 70s and 80s on the Op-Ed page. They were incredible illustrators on the Op-Ed page at that time, and I was just passionate about these people. People like Brad Holland and Ronald Searle, and of course JJ Sempé. Those where these people, these illustrators, who would do illustrations and they always had a point, a message or an idea behind them. They weren’t just illustrating articles flatly. When I see that kind of illustration my eyes perk up!
HW: What do you find is the easiest thing about seeing the world through humor and funny images? What do you find is the toughest?
LD: I do try to do at least one political-type cartoon a week, or a cultural commentary-type cartoon. It’s not always easy, for one thing, with The New Yorker. I’ve also been working for some sites online. So, for The New Yorker you have to find an idea that will last. Editorial cartoonists will comment on something that happened that day because they know that cartoon is going to run the next day. Whereas with The New Yorker, I send it one week, then they buy it at the end of that week, and then maybe, if it’s really topical, sometimes they’ll run it quickly, but that’s already 10 days we’re talking about. You have to find a way to look at things in our culture or in the world that have lasting power; they are not immediate or if it is an immediate idea, then it has to be something that you think will resonate with people in two weeks or so. The best way is to come up with a cartoon that responds to something in the news that will last forever. And that’s the hardest kind to do. It’s not always easy to find those ideas.
The news cycle is so fast, but there are some ideas that last, and are more about a general sign of our times. I don’t know how some of these editorial cartoonists do it, like doing a cartoon about the tragedy in Japan. It’s not funny. So you don’t do one that’s funny in that case. After 9/11 I had a lot of trouble drawing cartoons, I was really blocked and depressed. I did come up with one idea that The New Yorker bought that I was very proud of and that one was not funny. I don’t even live in New York, but it sort of jarred everybody to rethink what they were doing with their life.
HW: What is the most rewarding aspect of your active connection to cartoonists from around the world?
LD: I just enjoy meeting people from other countries, and getting their perspective on world events. I’ve been overseas a number of times, and in fact when I was in 10th grade I lived in Rome with my family. I think that was a formative time in my life. I was really developing my cartooning. So I feel like I’ve had this connection with European cartoonists since I was young. I didn’t meet any back then, but I was influenced by the work I saw. I like seeing and hearing them talk about how they see us, how they see world events; I think it’s an important way to look at what’s going on—through art. It’s a viable and missing element in our culture. Over there they love cartoons, particularly in France. And cartoonists have festivals all over the place—lots of different countries have cartoon festivals, and there’s a real comradery and a real appreciation amongst themselves for this type of art. I’m not talking about comics, so much as editorial illustration/cartoons that are more graphically oriented than verbal. A lot of times these cartoons have to be non-verbal, because they want them to cross boundaries. If you do your cartoon in French, somebody in Turkey is not going to be able to read it as easily. It’s interesting.
HW: What gets your Hamster wheel running? (what gets you itching to draw or create?)
LD: Politics. I think that for me the real motivator right now is being able to create a cartoon that is making some kind of comment on something in the news. If you see my work you know I like to do cartoons about Women’s Rights…that gets me going. And American politics, although I don’t do caricature or anything like that, and how politics affects our daily lives–people talking about it.
Thank you Liza!
I hope you enjoyed today’s “why people draw” interview and that you’ll visit all the links I’ve included here for you to see more of Liza’s work. See you on Friday!
When Do They Serve the Wine? The Folly, Flexibility and Fun of Being a Woman
Funny Ladies: The New Yorker’s Greatest Women Cartoonists And Their Cartoons
Sex and Sensibility: Ten Women Examine the Lunacy of Modern Love…in 200 Cartoons
Cartoon Marriage: Adventures in Love and Matrimony by The New Yorker’s Cartooning Couple, with Michael Maslin
Husbands and Wives
Mothers and Daughters: Women cartoonists explore that very special relationship
Fathers and Sons: It’s a funny relationship!
Call Me When You Reach Nirvana, with Michael Maslin
Want to read other “why people draw” interviews? Well, here they are:
Please remember that any use of materials on this website, including reproduction, modification, distribution or republication, without the prior written consent of wacky shorts creations, is strictly prohibited. Thanks!