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Kentuckians in Visual Arts

Editorial Cartoonist Joel Pett
Lexington, Kentucky

Joel Pett

Who Joel Pett grew up in Bloomington, Indiana and Ibadan, Nigeria in West Africa. This early experience immersed in another culture, he says, shaped his interest in power and corruption and those who abuse their positions of authority. His family returned to the U.S. when he was in the 6th grade, and Pett felt like an outsider, becoming increasingly sympathetic with victims while simultaneously developing an anti-authoritarian political posture. He attended the University of Indiana in Bloomington, declaring a French major because, he says, he was nearly fluent in the language and wanted to take the minimum of classes needed to stay enrolled and take advantage of college perks like free movies, lectures, and intramural sports. Without finding much direction, he quit after three years. In his mid-20s, Pett decided to pursue his interest in political cartoons, placing his work in local, independent arts and culture magazines in Bloomington and living cheaply from freelancing. He found a full-time position at the Lexington Herald Leader in 1984, and in his fifth year as a professional cartoonist he was selected as one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. He went on to win a Pulitzer in 2000, and his work has been published in newspapers and magazines throughout the country, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe. Other honors include a Global Media Award in 1995, the Robert F. Kennedy Award in 1999, and even a regional Emmy Award in 2006 for work he contributed to KET’s series The CommonHealth of Kentucky.

What/When “I work six days a week, producing at least six cartoons—five for the Herald-Leader and one for USA Today. I also write a short weekly column for the Los Angeles Times. I usually spend Sunday researching newspapers, web sites, and blogs to get a sense of the current events and issues. Then I sketch out ideas for Monday’s USA Today and Tuesday’s Herald-Leader. I generally finish one or two cartoons a day. I also attend a weekly meeting at the Herald plus some special-issue meetings on occasion. I work at my studio in Jessamine County and sometimes at home.”

How “It’s always challenging to stay well informed, given the sheer glut of information and misinformation available. And because of this, it becomes more and more difficult to re-present this information in a fresh, provocative way, because sometimes it’s already too sensationalized to bother fooling with it. Another big aspect of this career is finding a place where they will allow creative freedom. Lots of newspaper editors and publishers are overly cautious control freaks, and artists don’t thrive under them. One of the practical effects of my early nomination for the Pulitzer was that it gave me more control over my time and the production of my work. Still, I remain something of a critic of the prize system. It runs like everything else in this country—lots of rewards for the few, not much for the rest. The winners are often decided upon more by popularity and sales figures than anything else. Even though awards have brought me a little job security, as well as a more comfortable financial situation, I like to think I would have drawn the same cartoons whether they had been recognized by some far-off judges or not. Our obsession with ‘the best’ comes at a high price. Truth is, there are a handful of great cartoonists, and the rest of us are barely incrementally distinguishable.”

Why “Cartooning jobs are very few and far between; there are about 90 other folks throughout the country who have professional positions like mine. Very few of them ever quit, and it’s a peculiar situation because the work is relatively unessential to a newspaper’s bottom line. We could all be fired tomorrow and the industry would make the same money for Wall Street. But without commentators and critics, life would be pretty boring. I was taught that journalism is supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Our media does a pretty lousy job of providing the right information for people to make decent judgments on events and issues, and so it becomes much more easy to become a critic of this information. Almost everything is enjoyable about this job. I feel fortunate to do work that I like, and thankful to have enjoyed the appreciation of my peers. This is really the best possible situation.”

Getting There “In my opinion, the most important thing you can do to develop as an artist is to get out of the country. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to China, Hungary, Russia, much of Europe and Africa, and some of South America. Once, in Cameroon, I showed a cartoon depicting Norman Schwartzkopf in a less than flattering way, and a young student asked, ‘How does your military react to such criticism?’—as if the U.S. military would come knocking at your door for lampooning one of its own. Obviously, the Cameroon military was a different story. Free speech takes on a whole new meaning in places where you speak your mind under the threat of punishment. A career in the arts is a labor of love. What separates those who succeed from those who don’t is not talent—it is dedication and passion. Usually, the dividing line comes in the form of material comfort. If you get sucked into the materialism trap, you’re dead, because it will undermine your passion and replace it with the mundane stress of having to pay bills. If you want to be any kind of writer, musician, or artist, it helps not to get caught up in defining yourself by your possessions. Artists and writers need something to say. You can be a terrific technical artist and never go very far—it’s the undeniable voice that wells up through your work that is most vital. Finally, I personally don’t see a great future for newspapers, so I encourage budding cartoonists to study film, animation, video, and try to figure out how to master the medium of the future—the Internet.”

600 Cooper Drive, Lexington, KY 40502 (859) 258-7000 (800) 432-0951