This has been quite the journey.
After my cartoon "Alas, poor farmer" hit the opinion page on Sept. 4, 2019, and appeared on social media just four days later, it was not entirely well received by the public in northwest Iowa. There were some who enjoyed it of course (in fact the Facebook post got 19 likes, five angry faces and one heart) but the comment section got a little angrier. My talent, professionalism and general character were called into question, and at least one online user diagnosed me with TDS – Trump Derangement Syndrome – within the day. All this civil discourse was lavished upon me simply for visually commenting on the plight of the midwestern farmer in light of trade tariffs and unfulfilled ethanol production.
So, I created this.
It's not only a direct, and in all honesty backhanded, response to the comments sent my way, but it's a reminder of who I am and how I've come to be what I am. It's a display of my "artistic pedigree" – a term I first heard from Iowa State University Design Professor John Cunnally during my undergrad studies. This work contains several talismans and touchstones of my artistic upbringing and study, as well as artifacts of my current position.
Obviously, the work takes its composition from Norman Rockwell's "Triple Self-Portrait." Rockwell was perhaps one of the earliest fine art names I knew as a child. My grandmother admired his work, and I've always found "Triple Self Portrait" fascinating. In some ways, there exists a sort of kinship between Rockwell's work and many in the Midwest, perhaps since he shared the spotlight in the Regionalism school of painting with Iowan painter Grant Wood – who consequently created several large murals in Iowa State University's Parks Library.
But, in studying Rockwell's process and composition, I learned the story which many of the elements in the painting were meant to tell – a cluster of self portraits created by past masters Rockwell himself chose to study, a French fireman's helmet for which he was likely swindled into purchasing for more than it was worth, a thin wisp of smoke rising from a bucket of oil-paint-laden rags which at one point truly did light on fire.
So, my first step was identifying a number of artistic works which embodied this work's purpose. Rockwell himself was of course the starting point. His version of "Rosie the Riveter" is the uppermost sketch in the corner of the canvas. I chose that particular piece as a conceptual reference more than a visual one. Rockwell's Rosie itself actually takes its composition from Michelangelo's depiction of the prophet Isaiah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (fun fact: the last question on my final in Prof. Cunnally's Renaissance art history course was "Sketch the Sistine Chapel"). Rockwell built upon a pose from a past artist in much the same way I am building upon his. The second reference is a simple depiction of the concept of closure as illustrated by comics artist Scott McCloud. McCloud's most famous book "Understanding Comics" had a great influence on me in the last two years of my college work, and I continue to gain (at least intellectually) ground each time I reread his work. Even though much of my current art would be considered cartoons rather than comics in McCloud's book, many of the concepts he touches on still apply to single-frame work. The third reference portrait is a later work by artist Chuck Close. Many a college art student attempts a master study of Close's famous black and white, hyper-realistic work simply titled "Big Self-Portrait." It's pretty common to do, and I watched a fair share of my fellow undergrads wax pretentious in their efforts to mimic Close's hyper-realism. But many of them neglected to learn, or chose to ignore examples of Close's later work, which dropped the hyper-realism for a more innovative depiction of the same subject matter – finding artistic value in something more than strict depiction of reality. A serendipitous reference of sorts, my reworked portrait in the mirror held shades of Close's "Big Self-Portrait." In fact, I nearly added a pen to my portrait's mouth to reference both Close and Rockwell's work, but the addition didn't feel natural.
Two vintage cartoons are pinned on either side of my BFA diploma on the canvas. The upper being a Harper's Weekly cartoon which appeared Oct. 17, 1872, in the former Spirit Lake Beacon – one of the four papers which merged to become the DCN. The cartoon was likely the first political cartoon to run in the paper, and my work is a continuation of that tradition. Opposite the Harper's Weekly cartoon is Ben Franklin's famous "Join or Die," which is largely regarded as the first political cartoon.
Aside from the art historic references, I've also included a stack of the DCN (topped with the Sept. 11, 2019, edition which was current when I began this work). Below the stack are two reporter's notebooks and my five plaques from the Iowa Newspaper Association. To the far left on the non-existent ground plane is my pocket recorder, and a trio of my press badges are hung atop the easel, below a fedora with an actual press pass stuffed in the band – hearkening back to the days of journalism past (though the hat is styled after an actual fedora I own). Rather than a mirror topped with an eagle, like in Rockwell's original, I've approximated the mirror which hung above the piano in our house growing up. It sits sideways on my desk chair in the portrait, because I have to admit I do things differently than my references did and do. I also squared up the edges of its frame, although they are actually slightly curved, because it seemed to take away from the composition's angles, making it harder for the viewer's eye to move about the composition. Rather than a painter's palette, I'm holding a Wacom Intuos 3 (my method of choice these days), and as an added joke, the cord is plugged directly into the canvas.
Of course, the most direct comedic element is the sign taped to my back reading, "Kick me. I've got Trump Derangement Syndrome." It's that element which I feel truly pushes this work into the realm of parody, where my other political cartoons have dwelt. A "Kick me" sign is not something one puts on their own back. It is a label applied quite literally by others for the purpose of shame. Ironically, in creating the work, I'm applying it to myself and in some ways defusing its power. At its core, that's why I felt compelled to create this piece over the course of a month-and-a-half. I was willing to take the time to show I was not a so-called artist, but an artist who had earned his degree, and a journalist who has never blurred the line between front page and opinion page. In short every element of this piece says, "I'm qualified to do what I'm doing."
To that end, you'll notice all three portraits were scrapped after I applied my signature. That much I owe to the echoes of the particularly painful and often personal criticisms I received during my junior year in ISU's College of Design – "You're work has no gravity," "It looks like he's holding a walnut in his cheek," "It looks like you have worms growing out of your face," "This looks like a video-game character...a bad video-game character." (And that's just from my figure drawing professor). In wanting to prove myself to myself, I had to begin again. Up until that point, I had worked strictly from memory and imagination on this piece. After erasing the three faces (and eventually the right hand) I worked from photo references. The former third portrait was actually shrunken to become part of the page of sketches on the upper left corner of the canvas.
Photo references are not cheating. Many artists, including Rockwell and Close used them. And while I also used photo references for portrait work in my figure drawing coursework, it seems the lessons I failed to grasp then are now sinking in somewhat. All in all, I'm quite proud of this piece, and I hope to continue improving along this path. So, one of the final touches was to add the words, "After Mr. Rockwell" underneath my signature, to recognize that particular artistic influence and, in many ways, all the others.
Thanks for reading.