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Boiling over
Bush administration provides plenty of material for cartoonist Pat Oliphant
Here Comes Democracy

You can’t blame political cartoonist Patrick Oliphant for hoping for the worst.

After all, he makes his living from the stupid things politicians do. The last eight years have been particularly fruitful, and the result is a body of work that is by turns hilarious, maddening and tear-jerkingly sad.

See for yourself. An exhibition of Oliphant’s work, Leadership: Oliphant Cartoons and Sculpture from the Bush Years, can be seen at the Telfair’s Jepson Center for the Arts through April 6.

“It’s the first major exhibition of a renowned political cartoonist at the Telfair,” says Holly McCullough, curator of fine arts and exhibitions. “It was brought to our attention by local collector Walter Evans, who owns a couple of pieces by Patrick Oliphant.”

The exhibition features 76 pieces of art that span the George W. Bush years. “There are a few prior to the Bush years from the transition time before Bush took office, but he does focus primarily on the last eight years,” McCullough says.

While most people associate Oliphant with political and editorial cartoons, his work also includes sculptures, monotypes, etchings and lithographs. “There are a number of wonderful pieces of sculpture, mostly bronze, in the exhibition,” McCullough says.

Oliphant was born in 1935 in Adelaide, Australia, but came to the United States in 1964. He began his career as a newspaper copyboy, but by age 20 had become an editorial cartoonist for a newspaper in Adelaide.

In 1959, Oliphant’s editors sent him on a world tour to study the work of other cartoonists. In America, he saw a bigger audience, plenty of issues and an opportunity for new approaches to editorial cartooning.

Oliphant immigrated to the United States in 1964 to work as an editorial cartoonist for the Denver Post. The next decade would provide plenty of material for him to work with, and he soon received national acclaim.

Oliphant’s work became nationally and internationally syndicated in 1965. In 1975, he began working for the Washington Star, staying until it folded in 1981.

After that, Oliphant’s work was syndicated through Universal Press Syndicate. By 1990, he was the most widely circulated political cartoonist in the world, and his cartoons have appeared in more than 500 newspapers around the world.

Considered the dean of his profession, Oliphant has been called “the most influential cartoonist now working” by The New York Times.

Over the years, Oliphant has been the recipient of numerous awards, most notably the Pulitzer Prize in 1967. His other awards include two Reuben Awards, a Best Editorial Cartoonist Award from the National Cartoonists Society, the Thomas Nast Prize in Germany and the Premio Satira Politica of Italy.

In 2005, Oliphant received the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in the categories of Painting, Sculpture and Cartooning. His art has been presented in numerous museum exhibitions in the U.S. and Eastern Europe, including a retrospective at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in 1990. In 1998, the Library of Congress commemorated the acquisition of 60 of Oliphant’s works for its permanent collection with a special exhibition, their first for a living artist.

Today, Oliphant and his wife, Susan Conway, live in Santa Fe. They recently were in Savannah for the opening of Leadership.

Is it true you started working at age 17?

Pat Oliphant: I started out as a copyboy at Rupert Murdoch’s first newspaper, The News, in Australia. I worked there a few months and realized they weren’t going to pay much and moved to a conservative paper on the other side of town, The Advertiser.

When did you switch from writing to drawing political cartoons?

Pat Oliphant: I got my training after I got to the Advertiser. I had a name for drawing things.

Why did you leave Australia and come to America?

Pat Oliphant: There were more things happening here. I got here in 1964 -- 1964 was Nixon and Goldwater.

Is it true that Nixon was your favorite villain?

Pat Oliphant: He was -- until Bush 2. Nixon pales by comparison.

But isn’t it a good thing to have an idiot in the White House when you’re an editorial cartoonist?

Pat Oliphant: It’s what I call an embarrassment of riches. We’ve got the present administration and I don’t know what I’m going to do when I lose them. I guess we’ll have Hillary, but I don’t think I can stand to listen to that woman’s voice for four years.

So you don’t like Hillary?

Pat Oliphant: Politicians are hard to like.

How do you deal with politicians?

Pat Oliphant: I stay away from them because I’m afraid I might like them.

You were awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1967, but I understand you weren’t exactly happy about it.

Pat Oliphant: The wrong cartoon won. The editors had rewritten the caption and I sent it in as a gag with other stuff I liked. I’d demand a rematch, but I’d never get one.

When did you branch out into sculpture?

Pat Oliphant: About 1981, 1982. It was something I’d always wanted to do. All my work is part of my art. Cartooning is an art. Sculpture is a different type of the same thing, really, the political stuff, human interest sorts of things. Things that grab my imagination -- couples dancing, women in different situations. Men, too.

What are the ingredients necessary for a good political cartoon?

Pat Oliphant: I’ve got bring myself to a boil once a day. There’s enough of that to keep me working, God knows.

How do you keep in touch with current events?

Pat Oliphant: I just read a lot, although I’m always behind in that.

Tell me about Punk (a little wise-ass penguin with his own opinions who often appears in Oliphant cartoons).

Pat Oliphant: When I worked at the Advertiser, which was a conservative paper, I had to attend dreadful editorial conferences every day where they came up with ideas for cartoons that they liked. I needed a vehicle within the cartoons to express myself. I don’t think he looks much like a penguin now. Maybe a duck?

How do the current presidential candidates stack up? Is there anyone you would like to see win?

Pat Oliphant: I tend toward Obama, but what am I going to do if I have a president I like? I’m going to have to look for his clay feet. When he’s elected, he becomes the enemy.

Have you been to Savannah before?

Pat Oliphant: I like Savannah. It’s a beautiful city, unique in the same way as Santa Fe. Savannah has its own flavor. I love it.

Do you ever miss being away from Washington?

Pat Oliphant: With communications the way they are and technology the way it is today, you can be anywhere. I’d rather be in Santa Fe than Washington. I’d like to be in Savannah, too.

Leadership: Oliphant Cartoons and Sculpture from the Bush Years can been seen through April 6 at the Jepson Center for the Arts. Hours are Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. For information, call 790-8800 or visit