A Washington native, Liza Donnelly is a cartoonist and writer for a variety of publications, including the New Yorker, New York Times, Politico, Medium and Ms. magazine. This past summer, her work was exhibited at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., and she was invited to draw in his studio, the first artist to do so since the painter’s death in 1978. Being connected to Rockwell and sitting in his studio during such a tumultuous time — the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests and the presidential election — Donnelly found herself examining her role as a chronicler — and connector — of our lives. Here she shares some of her work and her thoughts about being an artist.
Words did not always come easily to me. Painfully quiet as a child, I found a way to communicate with drawings. It was a satisfying way to express what I saw and felt without having to string words together. I discovered I could make people happy at the same time.
The world is loud right now. If we could actually hear the Internet, there would be a lot of yelling. So many words! When I’m on social media and see a drawing or a cartoon, a quiet descends. My eyes and brain relax as I look at the image. Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t think I’m alone in this reaction. That said, art is often misunderstood. As a cartoon artist, I know what I intend when I draw something, but I also know that there’s a chance that it will be taken completely differently. Art has the power to confuse us as well as to calm; it communicates in ways we don’t always recognize consciously.
Recently, I was honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum, in Stockbridge, Mass. As a child, I was well aware of Rockwell’s work, although our family tended to read the New Yorker (my mother introduced me to James Thurber’s drawings when I was 7) rather than the Saturday Evening Post, where Rockwell’s paintings of American life graced the cover for decades. While my show was on view, the museum gave me the opportunity to sit in the painter’s studio by his easel and palette and draw on my iPad. The museum always exhibits artists’ work, but I was the first to be allowed to draw in Rockwell’s studio since his death. Although the studio was closed because of the pandemic, we were able to create a virtual event on Zoom and social media about my visit — one of several online events held during my show. It was an honor to work in his studio and brought chills. I sat there as if in a trance, thinking about the painter and wondering about his motivation, his fears, his anger, his joy and frustration for his work. All the same things I feel in my own studio, every day.
For most of his career, Rockwell’s work was about people. He showed us the everyday, the moments in our lives that are fleeting and often go unnoticed. The illustrations he created for the Saturday Evening Post were of a time and place, of a certain group of Americans. Although the basic theme of each painting was often his idea, the very conservative publication curtailed what Rockwell could and couldn’t include — no smoking or drinking, and Black characters were to be depicted in a subservient role only, certainly not featured. These were the years spanning the early to middle of the last century, when many publications shied away from confronting racism and sexism. When he left the Post in the early 1960s, Rockwell began painting something else entirely. His 1964 painting about Ruby Bridges, “The Problem We All Live With,” and his 1965 work “Murder in Mississippi” are both stark comments on racism.
Over the years, art critics have acknowledged Rockwell’s technical proficiency, but some have branded his work as sentimental and unimportant. But it appears that Rockwell was not motivated by critics — I think he was motivated by his connection to his audience. His is an art of connection and communication. A sharing of ideas, of the joy of life and its struggles. He shone a light on us, illustrating common experiences and feelings. His work shows our better selves — even his civil rights paintings. They show our humanity.
In his autobiography, Rockwell wrote that fine artists only have to worry about pleasing themselves and that as an illustrator, he had to be concerned about his editor and his audience. I understand that — as a cartoonist, I have to ensure that the audience understands what I mean to say. It can be an emotional bond; Rockwell’s work often made his viewers feel, often as they smiled. Cartoons do the same, although in the case of editorial cartoons, there is more often than not political information and a strong opinion being passed along as well.
The loudness of the Internet has divided us, as everyone yells their opinions at one another. It’s hard to know where to connect, if we can at all. Cartoons can be divisive; some humor is not as universal as we once thought. Print is no longer king, and cartoonists and illustrators are trying to understand where their work can speak and how it should speak. As individuals, our worlds are still local, but now our collective world is global in a way that it never has been. This new reality creates challenges, but also opportunities for deeper, more meaningful exchange.
Since I began drawing at age 6, I have always seen my work as a way to connect to others. Growing up in Washington, I was not yet 10 years old during the civil rights era, yet I was very aware of it, spurring me to want to do political cartoons someday. In my teen years, I looked up to Herblock and Garry Trudeau, aspiring to provoke change through my drawings as they did. And during the early months of the pandemic, I felt a need for my work to be even more about speaking to people, perhaps in a more immediate way. Sitting alone in my studio for six months, my desire to connect was stronger, rawer.
So I set up my cellphone to record my hand as I drew, and I broadcast my work process live on social media. As I spoke somewhat randomly about what I was feeling, perhaps what we were all feeling, I drew health-care workers, cashiers, frightened children, covid-19 sufferers, families, masks. I drew Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Black Lives Matter protesters and police violence, John Lewis and Chadwick Boseman. With my crow quill pen, ink and watercolors (I sometimes play around with charcoal and pastels as well), I drew many of the things that we as a country were and are feeling, no matter our backgrounds. For 15 minutes every day starting at 5 p.m., I have shared my feelings in drawings and with strangers — I found a virtual community. It felt wonderful.
Sitting in Rockwell’s studio that fall day, I sensed an attachment to the artist. Never having met him, it may be presumptuous of me to say, but it seems that our motivations are similar. On the surface, our work is very different, but we both desire(d) to make a living doing what we love, which at times meant drawing with restrictions we may not agree with. But I sense that he — as I do — loved to connect with people through art that has humor and a touch of pathos. We both acknowledge and celebrate our audience; we need our audience. I began my life drawing for others, as Rockwell did, understanding early on that it’s a way to bring joy — and introspection — to others.
Visual art can help us see who we are. As our world evolves digitally and opens up viewpoints never before fully seen or understood, art can help us find our common humanity — not only in this country, but also globally.
I try to honor that as we all move forward in our short lives. Every morning, I sit at my desk in my studio, facing a blank sheet of paper, pen and ink. I try to remind myself that I’m lucky I get to do this, and then ask myself, “What shall I draw?”