Robert Ariail gets paid to get straight to the point. He takes a multifaceted political issue, with ingredients that include all of the history and human ego behind it, and boils down all of the dross. The result: a “simple” cartoon. “The idea behind what I do is, to take a complex issue and, succinctly, say something, hopefully witty, about the issue. I want to be tough, but accurate. Truth is the foundation of all I do.”
Robert has used everything from crayons to pens to bring his ideas to life, and these ideas have won him both compliments and accolades. As he remembers, “I’ve always loved to draw, and my mother and elementary school teachers noticed that I had some talent early and encouraged me. My first award came when I drew something for a children’s program hosted by Mackie Quave on WIS-TV, ‘The Cactus Quave Show.’ I can’t recall what I drew, but I got a giant Tootsie Roll container filled with candy for the prize.”
While a sophomore at Palmetto High School in southern Florida, Robert’s English teacher brought The Miami Herald to the classroom every day. The class used the editorial cartoons as springboards for discussions of current events, and Robert was hooked. He soon was recruited to sketch editorial cartoons for the school’s newspaper, and his first cartoon depicted such controversial subject matter that it demanded censorship: it was an editorial illustration about the school principal.
From that point on, with only slightly less inflammatory topics, Robert continued to work in journalistic endeavors as he attended the University of Florida then the University of South Carolina. During his stint at USC’s student newspaper, The Gamecock, he says, “I realized that maybe I could draw cartoons for a living.”
From 1984 to 2009, Robert was the full-time editorial cartoonist at The State newspaper, only the second who had ever worked there. During that time, he garnered many awards, including the 2007 South Carolina Press Association award for cartooning (which he received again in 2010), and twice he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He also received the Society of Professional Journalists’ Green Eyeshade Award five times, the United Nations Ranan Lurie Political Cartoon Award, the Overseas Press Club’s Thomas Nast Award, The National Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award, The National Headliner Award and a South Carolina Gold Addy Award. He garnered quite a fan base, and three collections of his work have been printed with a fourth potential compilation on the horizon.
After 25 years with The State, Robert was laid off due to budget cuts pervading the industry. After such a long stretch with one company, one might wonder how to make a fresh start in a new career. But not Robert, who says, “I wasn’t going to give up what I love doing. I am just stubborn, I guess.”
Since July 2010, Robert has provided the Spartanburg Herald-Journal with an overflow of editorial cartoons, and United Features Syndicate has been running his compositions in more than 600 publications across the country since the 1990s.
“You cannot be a cynic and do this job,” notes Robert. “I strike at both sides of the aisle … I find it almost my duty to point out those who are doing stupid things. If you are a cynic, you’ve already made up your mind that something is terrible, and you lose perspective and balance. I do not think that all that Barack Obama does is evil and terrible, nor do I think that everything George Bush did was great. The best cartoons are critical cartoons, but at times I do seek to throw a bone to a politician who is doing something right. And I don’t always jump on the bandwagon of criticizing.
“There are different styles of editorial cartoons and some of them are not even meant to be funny. You ask, ‘How can I best comment on this?’ Not unlike the events of 9/11, where there was nothing humorous … I just wanted to say something poignant and without humor, and I think I successfully did.”
Keeping up with the news is not like work, Robert affirms, observing that South Carolina politics routinely furnish him with more than enough topics for discussion. “I am blessed living in South Carolina with all of the craziness,” he laughs.
He refers to a favorite quote from South Carolina politician James L. Petigru, who stated in 1860, “South Carolina is too small to be a republic but too large to be an insane asylum.” Robert smiles, “It is still true today. South Carolina just hasn’t changed – we still have politicians who continue to secede from the Union.”
Following the daily news as both a vocation and occupation, Robert listens to National Public Radio, Fox News, CNN and talk radio, and he also follows media like the New York Times website and The Wall Street Journal. “When it’s bad for America, it’s good for cartooning. When craziness happens I look for a silver lining. I am never bereft of ideas. It’s a fun job to have.”
Silver does indeed coat the linings of the clouds in Robert’s own life as well. “I am doing better work now than I have ever done. By relying on my own instincts, I have learned to trust those instincts, which has made me a better cartoonist.”
Does he ever feel stumped for ways to develop a concept? “Not often, since there is just so much out there, but if I find myself in a ditch in one area, I will move on to the next topic, and that gives me another 24 hours to ruminate. I keep my ideas jotted down on lists. The artistic pursuit is like that: the first draft is not always what you want. You have to let it sit and percolate, and the way to present it will come to you,” he says.
While Robert observes that his profession is passing on with the increased usage of online media, it is easy to see from visiting his website that there are still plenty of readers touched by his work. “Cartoons can stir the soul. They affect people in a way the written word does not.”
In fact, when asked if he ever receives hate mail, Robert emphatically replies, “YES! I have gotten stuff where the comments are written in the margins in very small print, obviously written by a demented person. I‘ve gotten a lot of those, with things whited-out and my name scribbled all over.”
But he also notes that, many times, people write to request copies of his work, including the local and national politicians who serve as his subjects. “Some people think it’s great to have a cartoon of themselves, whether it’s flattering or not.”
And if Robert could make a cartoon that concisely summarizes his own life? Here’s a guess as to how it would look: Robert is outfitted in a judogi, his hands up and body in a ready-pose, prepared to take the ninja star thrown by his opponent and quickly mold it into something useful … much like his ink pen which can create unforgettable images on topics that are guaranteed to stir hearts.
To see an archive featuring all of Robert’s cartoons, visit his website at http://robertariail.com.