Making It

QUITE A CARICATURE: Mike Jenkins in the flesh and in ink.
QUITE A CARICATURE: Mike Jenkins in the flesh and in ink. (Keith Barraclough)

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By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, March 23, 2008

Mike Jenkins lost the job he loved two weeks shy of his 20-year-service mark. From 1984 to 2004, he was a political cartoonist for the former Journal newspaper chain, addressing local issues around the Beltway. It was the kind of position he had coveted since he was a doodler growing up in Richmond, where he met famed political cartoonist Jeff MacNelly. MacNelly "was just an amazingly great artist and a great idea person," Mike says. "I decided then I wanted to do something like that. He was living a perfect life."

Mike, 51, drew profile caricatures for tourists at Kings Dominion while he was in college at William and Mary, where he majored in government. He started his career at a paper in Texas before moving to the Journals. The chain entered a tumultuous period around 1990, changing ownership several times, closing offices and shedding staff (it was eventually purchased by Philip Anschutz).

Nevertheless, Mike's dismissal caught him by surprise. "I had survived so many layoffs, I figured they weren't going to lay me off." Worse, he says, "I was kind of stuck because I didn't have a Plan B. I loved being here, and it's really hard to find a job on a newspaper as a staff cartoonist."

In the past two decades, the number of full-time positions for editorial cartoonists at leading U.S. metropolitan papers has dropped from about 200 to about 80. With those poor prospects, three children happily ensconced in Arlington schools, and a wife who had an established career here, Mike decided he had to come up with a second career locally. Attending a fall harvest festival at his children's school, he saw a caricaturist at work and thought that if he made a career out of his college job, "I wouldn't have to completely reinvent myself."

Around Christmas 2004, Mike called Caricature Artists Group owner Marie Cheek for work. His first assignment was a two-hour birthday party. Soon he was on his way to slightly surpassing his $30,000 annual salary at the Journals and working about one-fifth the time.

"He has a great work ethic {lcub}hellip{rcub} and I use him more than any other D.C. artist on my jobs," Cheek writes in an e-mail. Mike's backgrounds stand out, she adds. "I think that comes from many years of having to draw a new comic every day."

Mike draws caricatures mostly on nights and weekends, making about $75 an hour and covering events such as corporate get-togethers and bar/bat mitzvah parties. He has had to capture everything from drunk adults and small children in motion ("You have to learn to take it in at a glance") to a rat at a pet store promotional event ("They have eyebrows and expressions").

With his work schedule, Mike is there when his kids get home from school, so the family no longer needs an au pair. And his free days have allowed him to explore another art form: murals, which he's painted for a local wine shop, a school and neighbors. "The murals stay, and you get a lot of appreciation for it."

While he's hoping the mural work takes off, Mike misses political cartooning. "I read the paper every day. I listen to NPR. I go through all the motions of the first part of a day of being a cartoonist," he says. "I'll always think about doing it again."

Are you succeeding with a new and unusual career, invention, business or creative endeavor? E-mail changb@washpost.com.


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