Ask any cartoonist: Simplicity is deceptive. “Cartoon” speaks first and foremost of line drawings and thought bubbles. But just because complexity isn’t immediately evident doesn’t mean it isn’t present. Think of it as reality distilled and exaggerated all at once.
“It’s a reductive language,” said Paul Karasik, guest curator of The Art of the Cartoon show at Featherstone Center for the Arts, which opens this Sunday. “Everything is boiled down to its iconic symbol. Bits and pieces are arranged and aligned to direct the reader’s attention to tell the story.”
There is perhaps no better person to curate the Featherstone show than Mr. Karasik, a New Yorker cartoon contributor who is also an enthusiastic scholar of everything comics-related, including their history, their place in American culture and how they are created. His book, How to Read Nancy, a 44-chapter deconstruction of a single comic strip printed on August 8, 1959, will be published this winter.
The upcoming show features works by six cartoonists, all with Island connections. But the Island theme is the lone link between the six artists, whose individual artistic styles are varied. In addition to Mr. Karasik’s own work, the exhibit spotlights New Yorker regular Mick Stevens and longtime Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer, as well as pieces by Vineyarders Gene Baer, Kate Feiffer and the late Denys Wortman Sr.
Mr. Baer is a retired art teacher on the Island (his son Chris Baer is currently the art teacher at the regional high school), but Mr. Karasik learned of his works only this past month, after reading a piece by Kate Feiffer. The cartoon world is a small one.
“They just knocked me out. I think they’re splendid,” Mr. Karasik said. “It’s a 1950s style cartoon, with that crisp line.”
Mr. Baer has been cartooning and drawing for years, Mr. Karasik said, and is “kind of an art-making machine.”
“It’s sort of his debut,” Mr. Karasik said. “I’m so glad he’ll be in the show.”
Mr. Wortman was a cartoonist with the New York World, a newspaper published in New York city from 1860 to 1931, whose work is “not widely known today,” Mr. Karasik said. “The humor is subtle and the drawing is very sophisticated.” The works are done in lithocrayon and ink. Mr. Karasik pored over several hundred cartoons by Mr. Wortman before opting for the more Vineyard-centric ones, those with gingerbread houses or the Gay Head Cliffs as a backdrop, for example.
“He was friends with Thomas Hart Benton, so there’s one that has a caricature of [the painter],” Mr. Karasik said. “If you’re a fan of Benton, you’ve got to see this drawing. It’s very funny.”
Kate Feiffer, best known as an author and playwright, is “just starting her cartooning career,” Mr. Karasik said. Her work “has a lot of energy to it,” he said, and carries the subtle artistic stamp of her father, Jules Feiffer.
When Mr. Karasik reached out to Jules Feiffer about the show, he thought he would receive a submission of panel strips, which is what the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist is best known for. Instead, he got large full-color drawings of superheroes. A surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one.
The drawings “will make the show so much better,” Mr. Karasik said, since “hanging comics on the wall is typically a questionable proposition.”
Comics are meant to be read and held in the hand, he added, so it’s challenging to hang a panel or a strip in a gallery and have the same personalized experience as flipping through the pages of a book or magazine. While selecting pieces for the show, Mr. Karasik tried to err on the side of gag cartoons, where the drawing carries much of the weight. About 50 pieces in total will be shown.
The last show Mr. Karasik curated was an exhibit at Northern Illinois University that focused on the working process of creating a comic: from sketches to draw ings to panels to books. The process, like the finished product itself, is more complex than initial appearances indicate.
“Some assume it’s very easy,” said Mick Stevens, who has been cartooning for the New Yorker for 35 years. He’s now one of about 40 contracted artists for the magazine.
“My style’s pretty pared back, so there’s not a lot of drawing involved,” Mr. Stevens said. But while the drawing may be minimal, the amount of time spent just thinking and planning, figuring out how to employ that cartoon language, is not.
“You kind of just sit there and stare at the blank paper for a long time, hopefully a short time, until something develops in your brain,” Mr. Stevens said. Sometimes the concept comes first, he said. Other times it’s the drawing, and still other times it’s the caption.
“I enjoy the process, even though it’s frustrating, of coming up with an idea and carrying it through,” he said. “Getting a drawing that I like well enough to send it off.” Being on contract with the New Yorker means that Mr. Stevens’ submissions to the magazine, eight to 10 per week, get looked at before those of other contributors, but it doesn’t guarantee a sale.
“You still really go week to week,” Mr. Stevens said. The cartooning life is not for the faint of heart, but for those who are immersed in it, there is no other life.
“I was drawing immediately, well, not really because that would have been hard on my mom,” Mr. Stevens said. “But I always did little cartoon strips. At first I thought I was being serious, but then I noticed that people were laughing at the drawings, so I went with that.”
Simple as that.
The Art of the Cartoon, featuring works by Gene Baer, Jules Feiffer, Kate Feiffer, Paul Karasik, Mick Stevens and Denys Wortman Sr., opens July 13 at Featherstone Center for the Arts. The show runs through July 30. An opening reception featuring music by Jeremy Berlin and Mick Stevens will be held July 13 from 4 to 6 p.m.