Liza Donnelly
Liza Donnelly. Image: Eric Korenman

Liza Donnelly on art and activism: ‘Change comes one person at a time’

10 May 2018

Cartoonist and writer Liza Donnelly on her career, the importance of art and what drew her to Inspirefest.

Renowned cartoonist, author and feminist Liza Donnelly will take to the stage to both speak and draw at Inspirefest 2018.

Donnelly is based in New York and her work with The New Yorker has won numerous awards, with her cartoons also appearing in The New York Times, Forbes and Politico among other publications.

In recent years, she has become known for her live-drawing, a form of digital visual reporting, and she was the first cartoonist granted access to the Academy Awards. She also attended the Grammys, the Democratic National Convention in 2016 and even the White House press room.

People on the trees #MARCHFOROURLIVES

A post shared by Liza Donnelly (@lizadonnelly) on

She spoke to Siliconrepublic about her inspirations, the importance of social justice and the role of art in an increasingly conflict-addled world.

Donnelly has always been creative, but it was her mother that first introduced her to cartooning as an art form. “I was drawing already but she gave me cartoon books and I started tracing them. I realised I could make her happy and make her laugh, so I was hooked at an early age.”

A storied career

She continued drawing throughout her young life and eventually began submitting work to The New Yorker, where she soon flourished. A common thread within her work has always been politics and social justice, stemming from her childhood. “I grew up in Washington DC during the Watergate years and had the civil rights movement swirling around me and I was influenced by that, having a sense of wanting to help. I was idealistic.

“I wanted to use my skills for either political cartoons, cultural commentary, as well as fun. It came from that and wanting to use what little I can to help.”

Donnelly believes strongly in the power of cartoons to convey a message. “I don’t pretend to believe that cartoons can change the world but many cartoonists approach it that way because otherwise, we couldn’t do what we are doing.”

She said that even if one person thinks of something differently because of a cartoon, that’s a victory. “Change comes one person at a time; sometimes, the change I am looking for is cultural, particularly with feminism,” she noted.

Feminism is a constant presence

For Donnelly, feminism is ever present in the work she does. “When I was beginning my career, I considered myself a feminist but I didn’t use that belief in my work exactly. But then, around the turn of the millennium, I began to think about using my cartoons in a more purposeful way to help women’s rights around the world. I embody that attitude so I think it comes out in ways I am not even aware of.”

Donnelly’s live-drawing work has seen her become the resident cartoonist at CBS News in the US. “It came about by accident; I got an iPad about four years ago and started to draw some political event, a little more loose in style than a court reporter. I put it out on Twitter immediately and got a good response.”

Lupita Nyong'o and Kumail Nanjiani presenting. #oscars

A post shared by Liza Donnelly (@lizadonnelly) on

Donnelly was already a big Twitter fan, as someone who loves to communicate and does so for a living, so the combination of art and tech was perfect. “Some people tweet about events in words; I draw about events in pictures.” She couldn’t decide on a favourite live-drawing event but noted her fascination with the people behind the scenes at the Oscars, fixing dresses, as well as experiencing the raw emotion at 2018’s Women’s March.

Trump and the Italian president, live from the press conference. @cbsthismorning

A post shared by Liza Donnelly (@lizadonnelly) on

The intersection of art and tech

Donnelly is looking forward to Inspirefest and coming to Ireland in general, and her ancestors hail from Monaghan. In terms of Inspirefest itself, she was drawn to the curated nature of the event, as well as its combination of technology and the arts. The emphasis on inclusivity and different voices also caught her attention.

What role does she think art and creativity play in an increasingly tense and frenetic world? Donnelly said that artists need to keep reminding people of the existence and importance of beauty, as well as making things less adversarial. Of her own work, she said she tries to convey a message “in a way that’s not too angry”.

She concluded: “I try to use my art to continue the conversation in a way where we are not attacking each other all the time.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Get your tickets now to join us in Dublin on 21 and 22 June 2018.

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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