Illustration by Tim Eagan
Illustration by Tim Eagan

At 16 years old, artist Tim Eagan drew his first political cartoon during the presidential race between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Eagan placed a comic mocking Nixon in the window in his conservative neighborhood.

On election night, Eagan’s house was egged, and from then on, he realized the power of political art.

The emphasis on the words and credibility in election cycles drive political artists to produce social commentary through visual perspectives.

“It gives a snapshot to how people feel. You can go back in time,” said political artist John Mavroudis.“There’s something really visceral about seeing an image, and that will stay with you long after words fail your memory.”

Tim Eagan’s political cartoons have been a voice in Santa Cruz for 40 years. Eagan began working for the Santa Cruz Independent, a local publication, during the 1976 election. This was an important election for Eagan and other local progressives. There was a conservative majority on the Santa Cruz Board of Supervisors, but after the election, Santa Cruz began shifting to the left.

“I always imagined we were part of [the shift],” Eagan said. “But who could say?”

Today the increase of digital technology has  allowed artists to explore politics and activism beyond editorial cartoons.

Artist and UC Santa Cruz professor Dee Hibbert-Jones was nominated for an Academy Award for her animated short film “Last Day of Freedom,” which focuses on the topics of race, mass incarceration and mental illness.

Hibbert-Jones said it was important to portray the complexity of people and politics in her work.  Her style reflects the feelings, experiences and circumstances of her characters.

“Balance for us is between empathy, pain and serious issues,” Jones said in an email. “We use humor less, although I think there is a gallows humor in troubling subjects.”

Illustration by John Mavroudis
Illustration by John Mavroudis

Fellow political artist John Mavroudis also strays from using humor in his art and instead incorporates the old with the new.

His 2009 cover for The Nation shows President Barack Obama, surrounded by civil rights activists of the past, being sworn in.

Mavroudis’ most recent print of Donald Trump quickly went viral when actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson of ABC’s “Modern Family” posted a photo of it. The portrait of the presidential candidate is entirely composed of words that came to Mavroudis’ mind when he thought about Trump — words like violent, bully and thin-skinned.

“I got to thinking about imagery that would take a stance, so I wouldn’t have to keep repeating myself all the time,” Mavroudis said. “I thought, why not make a large portrait of him just made up of the words that come to mind? This for me was a defining image of him.”

The Power in Political Satire

Artist Tim Eagan spoke of the power of humor to take down people’s guards and open them up to an idea. He noted that looking at a political cartoon engages people quicker than reading a news article.

“It’s not just about making jokes or mocking somebody’s hairdo and the size of their hands,” Eagan said. “It’s about trying to make the world a better place.”

It wasn’t until later into the election that Eagan realized, portraying a subject through artwork may also mean giving them free press — despite being a subject of satire.

Eagan has chosen not to draw Trump, and he expresses his distaste for him by actively eliminating him from his art.

“I stopped drawing Donald Trump back in May because I was tired of feeding into his ego,” Eagan said. “I was trying to make Donald Trump as ugly as I possibly could, and finally I thought, ‘What does that do? How is that helping things?’”

Illustration by Tim Eagan
Illustration by Tim Eagan

Deepening the Discussion

To Eagan and other political artists, the use of art to express ideas and humanize candidates is vital in sharing opinion.

Though different in medium, style and sometimes subject choice, the artists agree there is a foundational need for political art.

“It’s important to bring [politicians] down to being what they are,” Eagan said. “They’re just humans. Making them look foolish is helpful.”

Like Eagan, UCSC art department  chair and activist Jennifer Parker aims to get people thinking critically through art. Her work is focused on an intersection of art and science through mixed media.

Parker said political art deepens the discussion surrounding politics and adds another form of media into the mix of contributions from photographers and journalists.

“It can be more than just a beautiful piece,” Parker said. “Art can try and say something to get people and get them thinking different.”