Liza Donnelly drawing at Inspirefest 2018.
Liza Donnelly live-drawing at Inspirefest 2018. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

‘Listen, watch, wait, observe’: Art in the digital age

22 Jun 2018

Liza Donnelly captivated the Inspirefest audience with the simple act of picking up a pen.

The crowd at Inspirefest 2018 was hushed as renowned cartoonist Liza Donnelly took her time, silently drawing the front row of attendees on stage with her iPad in her trademark style. After a few minutes, Donnelly stopped and asked the audience: “So, do you feel more relaxed?” The laughter from the crowd seemed to provide the answer she was looking for.

“Listen, watch, wait, observe.” That’s how Donnelly summed up her professional practice as a cartoonist and communicator. Buoyed by the encouragement of her parents as a young child, she began drawing and soon found that it could be the perfect way for her to connect with people.

A storied career at The New Yorker followed, where her work found a wide, albeit quiet, audience ­– until “the internet happened”.

Technology is integral

A technology aficionado, Donnelly was the one in her family who was “ripping the first computer out of the box and jamming in the floppy disk”. It took another few years for her to begin using the internet as a tool to engage with her audience for the first time.

She first began drawing digitally while watching a State of the Union address a few years ago. Twitter followers responded to the work, and her practice of ‘live-drawing’ was born.

As she explained to the rapt crowd, Donnelly has used the internet as a way to communicate, but also as a way to learn more about the world around her: “The beauty of the internet is that you get to understand better than you did before.”

While her work always had political elements ­– she showed the audience a poignant cartoon she created shortly after 9/11 – it was during the Arab Spring that she saw the true power of online mobilisation, collaboration and its capacity for driving social change.

Using art to reflect on politics

Following the election of US president Donald Trump, she described how she needed to “recalibrate” who she was and what she wanted her work to mean to the wider world. “I needed to pull back and figure out what I really wanted to draw about.”

What she has drawn has ranged from the glitz and glamour of the Oscars, to the “very moving” Women’s March in Washington and the power of the #MeToo movement.

She even drew a cartoon to mark the repeal of the Eighth Amendment in Ireland, as her ancestral roots in the country made it deeply moving for her.

What’s so special about Liza Donnelly is that she is a keen observer of everyone and everything. She does not discriminate nor does she favour the high-profile subjects, such as celebrities and politicians, more than the woman in Dublin she captured walking her little dog a few days before Inspirefest.

Wherever she goes, she tries to gain a broad sense of the location and the people in it from all walks of life. The internet means she can now create visual moments on the subway in New York where she lives, or respond to political events occurring further away.

The power of art in communicating values and fostering cooperation is not lost on Donnelly. The cliché of a picture being worth a thousand words is a cliché for a reason.

This was made clear as she showed the silent audience an image of children behind prison bars in the pattern of the US flag, which she drew in response to Trump’s much-criticised immigration policies.

Donnelly’s unique gift for capturing poignant moments of human experience left the audience silent and contemplative, observing each other and the moment as she demonstrated so skilfully.

While technology is an integral part of Donnelly’s work as a cartoonist, she also told the audience that the noise of digital discourse can ultimately be draining. As a drawing of a peace dove gingerly holding a paintbrush appeared behind her, she called on everyone to “never waste a moment”.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. To find out more about the best event for bright minds in Europe, please visit

Ellen Tannam
By Ellen Tannam

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects. She keeps her library card close at hand at all times and is a big fan of babies, chocolate and Sleater-Kinney.

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