By Angelo Lopez
When I attended the Association of American Editorial Cartoonist convention in 2010 in Portland, I met many of the best political cartoonists in the country. One wonderful cartoonist that I met was Ann Cleaves, a cartoonist based in Southern California. I am a big fan of Ann’s gentle satirical take on the nation’s politics and popular culture. She has one of the most interesting biographies of anyone that I know. Ann is a graduate of Brown University, and she also studied art at Rhode Island School of Design, The Art Institute in San Miguel Allende, Mexico, and the University of Houston. Ann Cleaves began cartooning as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia. As a volunteer in Fiji she illustrated schoolbooks for the Fiji Ministry of Education. She taught art in the Boston public schools, and cartooning courses in Texas. She also taught high school subjects in the adult division of the Los Angeles School District from 1988 to 2004. Ann and her husband Courtland live in Los Angeles.
Hi Ann. I’m honored that you’re doing this interview. Tell us a little of your background. What are some of your early influences that have shaped your point of view?
Along with art, I have always been interested in U.S. history and our society. I grew up in the ‘50s and early ‘60s in Lexington, MA. and loved to swim in nearby Walden Pond. Thoreau and friends, and history seemed very alive to me. One of my great grandmothers had traveled north to NH from Kentucky with her family in Civil War times. Her son, my grandfather grew up in New York City and told me many stories about family and US history, mostly true. My other grandparents all came from Scotland and England right before World War I. Courtesy of the British Empire, many of my relatives traveled and even settled through out the world.
Growing up I liked Pogo, Dr. Seuss, Tom and Jerry and Disney classics, but I was not particularly interested in political cartoons. I did spend four summers at an urban/suburban interracial church camp founded during the Depression. During college in the 1960s, curious about civil rights, I spent a semester (1965) at Tougaloo College near Jackson, Mississippi. Later I taught in a summer program on the South Side of Chicago. Readjusting to mainstream American society proved difficult. I had no idea what to do when I graduated from college. So, I joined an ice show – traveling with Holiday on Ice for a year throughout the US, and in Brazil and Argentina. Best job I ever had, with cartooning a very close second.
Ann, you’ve traveled to a variety of places. I read in your AAEC webpage that you started cartooning in Liberia when you were in the Peace Corps. How were those experiences for you? How did these experiences influence your political cartoons today?
After getting married and spending time in Mexico, my husband and I joined the Peace Corps and served in both Liberia and Fiji.
In Liberia I fell in love with the people in Jorwah, the small village where we worked and lived, and drew cartoons about our lives. When not teaching in the local elementary school I spent hours leafing through a pile of old issues of the New Yorker scrounged from a yard sale at the American International School in Monrovia – enjoying the cartoons and imaging life in the big city. In Fiji I helped illustrate schoolbooks as well as taught art at Suva’s Mahatma Gandhi High School.
Back in the US we settled in Houston. I dreamed my first editorial cartoon while I was attending art classes (stone lithography in honor of Daumier, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Redon) at University of Houston. I dreamed a lovely silvery Christmas card. Looking at it closely – it was Kissinger and little silver planes dropping bombs on Vietnam.
My strongest influence and aggravation when I started cartooning was Ronald Reagan. My first published cartoons were in the Temple Daily Telegram in Texas – one cartoon concerned a local bond election. I also did a series of cartoons documenting the weekly battles between local high school football teams.
Since then I have continued to draw cartoons. My first AAEC convention was in Seattle in 1990 with Horsey, Greenberg and Beattie as hosts – a very elegant and inspiring event. Speaker of the House Tom Foley was the guest speaker at the Saturday banquet.
You have this wonderful whimsical art style that I really enjoy. What has been the big influence on your cartoons? Who are your favorite cartoonists?
I have been inspired by a lot of cartoonists/artists (Thurber, Steig, Booth, Arnold Roth, Etta Hulme, Stayskal, Conrad, Magritte, Matisse, Miro, cartoonists from the magazine The Masses, and the artists of the ‘Ash Can’ school) but my style is simply mine.
You’re a fellow Californian. Here in northern California, I am contributing fairly liberal cartoons in a population dominated by people to the left of the political spectrum. Your cartoons seem to lean in a liberal direction. What is it like in the southern Californian newspapers that you are published in?
Not everyone in southern California is conservative. However, many people today seem to forget that most daily papers have in general been conservative, including the cartoons. Also, the main stream media has been spectacularly good, in hindsight, at forgetting how inaccurate they often are about what is actually going on in the world.
What have you most enjoyed about doing political cartoons?
Thinking about what is going on in the world and trying to visual the issues. Best part – finishing the cartoons and sending them off into the world.
Do you think political cartoons in America still have influence?
Individual cartoonists perhaps – and that was probably true in the past too. Who remembers Nast’s contemporaries, or Daumier’s?
As a southern Californian, what would you recommend to a person who is visiting the area for the first time?
That is difficult as there is such an amazing diversity of people, cultures, architecture, and nature here – plus a surprising amount of history. It is a fascinating part of the world.
This interview originally appeared on everydaycitizen.com, July 24, 2012