Robert Ariail is a well-known fixture in Columbia, having cartooned for more than 33 years in South Carolina and having served as the professional editorial cartoonist for The State newspaper for more than 27 years. Every day, he communicates a story through his cartoons, one that will appeal to the masses, and it’s rarely simple — nor would he want it to be. “I don’t want to be so subtle that the main message doesn’t come across in my cartoons,” says Robert. “If I’m not getting my point across clearly to the greatest number of readers, then I have failed that day. At the same time, there will always be people who don’t get it. But that’s generally because they haven’t kept up with the news.”
When creating his cartoons, Robert has to go on the assumption that his readers are indeed somewhat well-versed on current events. He will provide a few hints that might help the less astute, but generally the short piece should clearly speak for itself.
This practice of using cartoons to communicate an important message goes back to 1754, when Benjamin Franklin published the “Join or Die” cartoon, depicting a snake cut into eight segments labeled with the names of the colonies, in the Pennsylvania Gazette to stress the importance of the colonies joining together. The art of the cartoon grew from there. “I would argue that cartooning is an American art form,” says Robert. “Although some forms have existed in Europe, cartooning really flourished in America. I would liken it to jazz music. This is where it took roots and grew.”
While the impact of the cartoon has not weakened, the number of cartoons appearing in papers throughout the United States has dwindled. As newspapers came upon financial difficulties, the political cartoon was the first to go in many cases, reducing what was hundreds of editorial cartoons in their heyday of the 1980s, to about 50 or so today. Thus, Robert’s cartoons are even more important to embrace — like them or not.
The art of telling a story through pictures is certainly not limited to cartoons. Maria Fabrizio is a nationally recognized illustrator living in Columbia. Her thought-provoking work can be found on the NPR website, in publications for the University of South Carolina, the National Journal, in gallery shows throughout the state and on her blog, WordlessNews.Com.
For Maria, her challenge is to be neither too cartoonish nor too realistic. On a daily basis, she is charged with creating an editorial illustration for a selected headline. She sketches, then digitizes the piece, brilliantly combining the analog with the digital. Without question, her illustrations evoke a response, a tilt of the head, an uncomfortable chuckle or even a tear.
“Essentially, my goal is to make the reporting accessible and draw visual interest in a line of news,” says Maria. “When I first started working with NPR on assignments, they handed me a few very heavy, emotional pieces, and I quickly became the person they would call on for a piece about death or something heartbreaking.”
For those pieces, Maria strives to conjure an emotion. For stories that are more science or research-based, she aims to show the process of the research or create an overall story with a piece that pulls fact and fiction together, which she finds is so often the mystery of scientific findings to the layperson. “I’ve grown to love illustrating science stories,” says Maria. “I was never great at math and never took any advanced science courses in school because I was too focused on doodling, but I have always been fascinated with nature and discovery. Reporting focused around science and research gives me a big opportunity to learn and come up with something useful and, sometimes, the image feels magical.” Maria is the embodiment of taking something she loves and cultivating it into a profession that combines not one but multiple aspects of interest and enjoyment.
Regardless of the subject of the piece on which Maria is working, she has to keep her personal preference out of the imagery she creates; instead, she looks to the reporting or the journalist for the source material. From there, she tries to derive visuals — sometimes obvious, sometimes not — and create metaphors. “All the visual decisions in an illustration revolve around the concept for me; that is always the starting place,” she adds. “I believe what makes beautiful and strong work is the smart nature of that concept.”
For Marius Valdes, his concepts all began with Snoopy and copying the Sunday comics. His dad would bring home pads of work forms, and Marius would flip them over to draw on the back. His parents were very supportive of his love of drawing because it kept him quiet! To this day, Marius still refers back to the books on cartooning that his mother bought him. And while he doesn’t see the work he creates as pure cartoons in the sense of telling jokes with words and pictures, the spirit of the humor and image is very much influenced by those good, old-fashioned Sunday comics of the 1970s.
Marius’ focus is on creating character-based art with animals and creatures as his subject matter. Using bold lines, flat colors and simple shapes, his unique characters seemingly jump off the canvas. And in this case, the canvases are many — from pillows and phone cases to framed prints and tote bags. With names including Disgusted Monster and Mr. Happy Cloud Floats, Marius’ works of art bring an added whimsy (although Marius hates that word) and joy to those who bring it into their homes or businesses.
Marius has seen the good — and maybe not so good — reactions to his work first hand. “I have had art exhibitions where I have been able to observe people looking at my work without them knowing I am the artist,” he says. “That is the best way to see people’s pure and honest reaction. I have heard positive and negative comments, but all of them were honest, and I enjoy that the most. Many people tell me my work makes them laugh, and that is a great compliment to me.” Some people see Marius’ work and think that it was created by kids, and, while counter to how some may feel, this also makes him very happy.
Marius is proud of all of his work, but a series of cartoon posters and paintings he created in 2001 for the Music Farm in Charleston is one he finds most memorable. The series helped him to define his style and find his voice as an artist. What started as a 30-piece collection for a wall-sized calendar ended up being close to a 300-piece collection when all was completed. Marius made many important connections throughout that experience and earned his first major awards from design and art publications.
Marius believes in the power of cartoons, as they are used not only for entertainment, but also in branding, advertising and education. “Cartoons are considered ‘low art’ by art critics, but they are a very important part of our visual language,” he says. “They communicate ideas very quickly and have a rich history of making social commentary on big issues. But the most important thing about cartooning is that it is accessible. It’s an art form that is appreciated by people of every age.” And it’s one that never loses its effectiveness — whether in communicating comedy or commentating on difficult issues, like the illustrations that Maria creates.
While all of Maria’s work is special to her, the illustrations that she has designed for more challenging subjects have had an indelible impact on her. “Many of these illustrations have to do with a death or a struggle. They’ve stuck with me because they were difficult to work through, and I wasn’t sure I had found the best solution in the end,” she says.
For Robert, whether it’s a difficult subject, a light-hearted matter –– or a University of South Carolina National Championship win in women’s basketball, his work must be relevant. Being able to look at an issue in a way that no one else has seen is critical to his process — some days it may be a gag, other days, a witty cartoon with a twist.
“I’m not trying to convince people to see something my way,” says Robert. “I’m creating something that can be easily consumed, where you don’t have to sit down and read a long editorial. People react more viscerally to drawings. It’s just a fact — you could say something in an editorial, but create a cartoon saying the same thing, and you could create an uproar. I don’t sit down to create something that will tick people off. I’m just telling it like I see it.”
For Robert, there are seemingly endless subjects to focus on in today’s political climate. Still, he has to know the best way to comment on what could be seen as a controversial topic, either through a joke, a simple, bold statement or a serious image. In the end, his goal is to create something that’s both pithy and thought-provoking.
The pull that these images — whether through illustrations, cartoons or drawings — have on the beholder (including the artists!) proves that the strongest messages can be communicated with few or no spoken words. These three extremely talented artists have found unique ways to evoke feelings from their audiences through satire, comedy, crises or political issues. It’s not an easy task, but they are doing it. Right here in Columbia — one piece at a time.