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Elwood H. Smith
Cartoon Rube at the Reubens!
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Happy Hog in Chicago

Cartoon Rube at the Reubens!

I'm finally recovering from my gig with the wild and wooly "National Cartoonists Society Reuben Awards Weekend", which took place in Chicago this past Memorial Weekend. I've long been an admirer of "real" cartoonists--that is, those illustrators who write and draw self-contained comic strips, single panels, political cartoons & gag cartoons. I started out wanting to be a cartoonist, but life has a life of its own. Once out of art school, I needed a salary job to replace my grocery store stock boy status, so I landed a job as an assistant to the assistant art director for Irving-Cloud, a small publishing house an hour north of Chicago in Lincolnwood, Illinois. There, I had an opportunity to draw regular spot cartoons for "Jobber Topics" magazine, but I soon became enamored with typography and design. I worked as an art director for about 8 years in publishing and advertising before I finally plunged headlong into illustration full time.

Although my style comes directly out of the Cartoonist Hatbox, I've never thought of myself as the genuine article. The Reuben Weekend, however, followed by an event this past weekend in Chatham, Connecticut has given me the courage to rethink my self image.

Maggie and I flew to Chicago on my birthday, May 23rd and we ended up in a ritzy hotel right next to the river on Wacker Drive. I stood looking out the window from the 26th floor of the Renaissance Chicago remembering myself as a 19-year old greenhorn, suitcase in hand, getting off the bus at Chicago's Greyhound Station in the Autumn of 1960, ready to attend the Chicago Academy of Fine Art. I lived and worked in Chicago until I moved to the Michiana Shores area in 1973 and to NYC in 1976. It felt good to be back. The Reuben Award thing didn't begin until the 26th, so Maggie and I had some time to spend with her daughter, Annie, who moved there recently, having fled New Orleans just before Katrina hit. We also had dinner with my ex-wife & her spouse and that, too, was a pleasure. One of those rare divorces that didn't turn ugly. Maybe there were fewer lawyers back in '71. We also saw some wonderful art at the Art Institute and caught a slew of mind-boggling original Chris Ware pages at the Museum of Contemporary Art where we ran into DRAWN! creator and all-around-nice-guy, John Martz who I'd just met a day earlier at the Reuben event. We all stood in awe of Chris Ware's lonely, beautifully drawn world.

Oh, right, the Rueben Award event!

Rick Stromoski, who is the new Cartoonists Society president, invited me to speak at the 2006 Reuben Awards weekend and, since it was going to be held in Chicago (Maggie was born there) and Ralph Steadman & Everett Peck were going to be there, I really had to say yes. Also, I couldn't resist being a featured speaker at a genuine CARTOONIST award ceremony. Well, I'm here to tell you, it was great! Steve McGarry (the former president of the Society) and Jeff Keane were generous with their time and expertise, helping me set up my (first) PowerPoint presentation. Stromoski was a gem, making me feel right at home. I figured I'd be a bit of the "odd man out" at this all-cartoonist gig, but as it turned out, cartoonists follow illustration nearly as closely as we illustrators follow the cartoonists.

One very talented guy I hadn't heard of, who was the Master of Ceremonies at the Rueben Awards evening, did a hilarious standup comedy routine. His name is Dan Piraro and he's been the MC now for several years and obviously knows all the prominent member's foibles. His strip is "Bizarro" and he was honored with the Reuben Award for Best Newspaper Panel Cartoon by the NCS three years in a row. In addition to a book of his work & life's story entitled "Bizarro and Other Strange Manifestations of the Art of Dan Piraro" Dan has created a wonderfully weird-sounding comedy routine called "The Bizarro Baloney Show", which I have to catch somewhere ASAP. It's gotta be a 5-Star event.

Click for Bizarro

Ralph Steadman offered a rambling slide presentation which, for some in the audience, went on too long by half, but I enjoyed every minute of it. He's an eccentric--kind of like Anthony Hopkins in "The World's Fastest Indian", but much more acerbic. A very funny guy, although like his art, he's ready and willing to wield sharp objects--spatter some acid-laced India ink around the room. I talked with him for a while at a party and found him to be charming. However, when he accepted his Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award, he used the opportunity to lambast America (mostly) and England (somewhat) and then go on to berate cartoonists in general for lacking any real political courage. Many at the event were offended and decided Steadman was out of line to use the Reuben Weekend to vent his spleen. Others (I was among them) figured if you ask Ralph Steadman to your party, you should anticipate the unexpected. In fact, Jeff Keane, who currently draws his dad's creation, "Family Circus", talked about it at a party later, saying that he didn't necessarily approve of Ralph's behavior or agree with his views, but was not surprised nor particularly dismayed by the rant. It seemed to me to add another wonderful texture to a widely varied and entertaining weekend.

Click for Steadman

So, that's Part 1 on "How I Became a Cartoonist". I'll make Part 2 short and sweet.

Maggie and I spent all day Saturday, June 3rd at the CartoonFest, a fundraiser for a small library in Cornwall, CT. We were there most of the day. The gig included several talks, a silent auction and a free dinner for participants, followed by a great one-woman show by New Yorker cartoonist, Victoria Roberts. I thought the event was to be held last weekend while we were in Chicago, but once I realized that Maggie and I were able to attend, Liza Donnelly, who'd invited me to participate, asked me to be on a panel with R.O. Blechman, Danny Shanahan, Jack Ziegler, Bill Lee & Peter Steiner. All participants had original art for sale in the library. The artists are splitting all sales with the Cornwall Free Library, so the whole event was for an excellent cause. Liza is married to Michael Maslin, another great New Yorker cartoonist who was involved in the event. They, along with Shanahan, live here in Rhinebeck. Good company!

After we were given a simple, but tasty meal, New Yorker cartoonist Victoria Roberts appeared onstage as one of her cartoon characters, Nona. She is simply amazing! Catch her if you can. It's a one-woman show (with piano backup) and she fully inhabits the character. Vivacious Victoria transforms herself into an elderly, doddering, extremely odd woman with bright orange hair & chattering teeth. She danced. She sang. She told wonderfully weird short stories, wearing a Japanese kimono & ballet slippers, Victoria, wearing a cordless microphone, regularly wobbled over to a box of props, sometimes seeming unable to recall where she was going or what she set out to do. She ended the show with a kabuki dance. Try to imagine Blossom Dearie as a kabuki dancer. Another 5-Star review!
Victoria Roberts as Nona

So, Drawgerites, that's how, in just two (2) consecutive weekends, I became a full-fledged cartoonist. And proud of it.

-E
CF Payne & EH Smith making a toast.
Dang, I forgot to mention that the great Chris Payne was at the Cartoonist Society gig. Now there's one hell of a powerhouse. Energy & talent to burn.
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