blonde middle aged woman in black speaking on stage in front of cartoon sketch of the White House with women in thought bubble above it.
Liza Donnelly at Inspirefest 2019. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Drawing disruption: Life through the eyes of a cartoonist

10 Jun 2019

What’s it like to view life from behind a digital sketchbook and pen?

“Pictures speak a thousand words; cartoons disrupt.”

If anyone can attest to the truth of this statement, it’s Liza Donnelly. An award-winning cartoonist with The New Yorker and resident cartoonist at CBS News, Donnelly has earned her stripes with her strokes, live-drawing her way through awards ceremonies and political movements alike.

She returned to the Inspirefest stage this year to offer a brief history of cartooning, illuminating how it has been a disrupting force in politics for centuries.

From Benjamin Franklin to Donald Trump, Donnelly outlined a variety of figures who have both designed and been the subject of cartoons throughout the years. These cartoons are important markers of public opinion during certain time periods, acting as a mirror of society and an outlet for our own emotions. Not only do they attempt to alleviate tension by using humour, “they also bring us together when we have been disrupted”.

However, they can also be problematic, as seen in 2015 with the well-publicised attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices, prompted by the magazine’s decision to print controversial cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

As cartoons began to move from the puzzle printout to the front page, Donnelly noted that cartoonists had to think differently about their craft and how it was contributing to global conversations.

The election of Trump in 2016 ushered in a new era of political commentary for cartoonists.

Despite various scandals and contentious issues providing ample fodder for satirists the world over, Donnelly dismissed assumptions that she derived enjoyment from it all. As an optimistic person, she doesn’t relish the idea of a seemingly irredeemable head of state as it does not bode well for the country over which he presides. “It’s not fun, it’s confusing and it’s difficult to try to speak to what’s going on without constantly being just ridiculing.”

Indeed, there is much to feel uneasy about. Opposing views on gun control and anti-abortion legislation continue to tear the country in two as Democrats and Republicans are pitted against one another, and walls – metaphorical or otherwise – are built. From the Kavanaugh hearings to the Mueller report, Trump’s presidency, she feels, has brought with it a black cloud that now hovers atop the White House; an ominous symbol of darkness over something that should be a beacon of hope for many.

As mentioned, though, Donnelly is a glass-half-full kind of person. She does have faith that these turbulent times will be weathered and that the US government “is going to do the right thing in the final word”.

She continued: “I believe there have been times in the history of our country where things have been almost as bad as this, so I have hope that we’re going to pull through this. This constitutional crisis will right itself and we’ll be back on track.”

In the meantime, she believes that her skills as a live-drawer can not only help her cope, but can also be a source of comfort and solace for those who need it. As the political storm continues to rage, the cartoonist is the one who remains calm. She is listening, watching and waiting for it to pass.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2020 are available now.

Shelly Madden
By Shelly Madden

Shelly Madden joined Silicon Republic as sub-editor in September 2016 to realise her lifelong dream of being a professional nitpicker. Before this, she worked as a freelance writer for various newspapers and made coffee for people who use the word ‘expresso’. She enjoys red wine on rare occasions, such as weekdays and weekends.

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