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Take a peek over Jim Borgman's shoulder

Jim Borgman has been the Enquirer's editorial cartoonist since 1976. Borgman has won every major award in his field, including the 1991 Pulitzer Prize, the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year in 1993, and most recently, the Adamson Award in 2005 as International Cartoonist of the Year. His award-winning daily comic strip Zits, co-created with Jerry Scott, chronicles the life of 15-year-old Jeremy Duncan, his family and friends through the glories and challenges of the teenage years. Since debuting in July 1997, Zits has regularly finished #1 in reader comics polls across America and is syndicated in more than 1300 newspapers around the world.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Thoughts on The Arts

I'm going to be speaking to some local groups about giving to the Fine Arts Fund over the next weeks. This is the story I'll be telling them:

In 1993 I visited Barrow, Alaska, the tip-top point of the North American continent, as the departure point for a dogsledding trek I was invited to take with the late great Susan Butcher and her husband Dave Monson across the North Slope to Prudhoe Bay. The journey is a whole story in itself. But what I want to tell you about is the week I spent in Barrow, an Inuit village isolated on the tundra hard against the Arctic Ocean.

Susan Butcher and I had met at a conference a year earlier and struck up an unlikely friendship – her a hearty outdoorswoman who in 1978 had been dropped into the Alaskan wilderness with four dogs and a sack of tools and who had proceeded to build for herself a cabin where she lived and trained dogs for five years before becoming a legendary four-time Iditarod champion; and me, a soft doughy cartoonist from Ohio who could have drawn her cabin beautifully, but would have frozen quietly within hours had my life depended on building it or otherwise surviving in that unforgiving environment.

Susan and her husband invited me to mush with them across northern Alaska as they groomed that year’s batch of three-year-old huskies for competition, and that’s how I found myself in Barrow in May of 1993 preparing for a five-day trek over 300 godforsaken miles of featureless ice and snow and wondering how I had gotten myself into this.

Susan Butcher was Elvis in that part of the world, and for a week I got to know the residents of Barrow as a minor figure in her entourage. We visited people in their homes, met the local dignitaries and even joined in the harvesting of a legally harpooned whale a mile out on the shelf ice of the Arctic Ocean. I could not have been on more unfamiliar turf. Well, there was no turf. It was permafrost. (I watched a work crew bury a sewage pipe by cutting into the ground with giant chainsaws one day.)

I have been in many unfamiliar situations in my life, but there was something uniquely foreign about this one. Nowhere could I find any attention given to aesthetics. In this harsh land, the only abilities that seemed to matter were the ability to find food and traverse space. The richest man in town had a weatherbeaten three-room cabin with bare walls that looked like all others. But inside we found an all-terrain vehicle, three kinds of snowmobiles, a speedboat, skis, snowshoes…and a frozen seal thawing on the living room floor.

In Cincinnati, and sometimes in other places I travel, when I mention that I’m a cartoonist ears tend to perk up in curiosity. People have questions and one sort of reaction or another. In Barrow, the mention of “cartoonist” was met with a blank stare. There were no follow-up questions. Helpfully mentioning that I drew both editorial cartoons and a comic strip only seemed to dig the hole deeper.

One man I met, trying to make conversation, said finally, “Do you hunt caribou?”

“No,” I said. “We don’t have caribou where I live.”

“Oh.” That seemed to confuse him. “Do you hunt moose?”

I told him that we didn’t have moose in Cincinnati either.

Finally, perplexed, he asked, “Then what do you hunt?”

It was hard to explain that the only thing I had ever successfully hunted for was a certain rare pen nib called the Gillott 404, and that I’d had to Google it six or seven different ways before finding it in an art supply store in lower Manhattan.

The point is that I spent the week looking for my little toe-hold in the Inuit culture and could find none. Where people must work so hard to simply survive, there was no luxury for art beyond some scratchings in whale baleen or the occasional quilt. No one I met in Barrow would have wasted valuable resources on something as functionless as a painting or a violin. The lack of color and music deadened my senses and had the cumulative effect of draining me of joyfulness. I was relieved when we left, even to mush across 300 miles of polar bear territory standing on the runners of sleds.

Since that experience I have wondered how many Mozarts or Rembrandts, Warhols, Disneys, DeNiros, Springsteens or Baryshnikovs have been born into places that did not understand them or support their passions and which subsequently did not become richer for the gifts they have to give to their communities or, for that matter, to the world. These are the colorless places, the deadening places, the places where vibrant spirits go to wither and die.

You may think that the arts are for someone else. You may be an infrequent museum-goer and theater may not be your thing. But the arts, the artists and the art students of this community reach you every day in a hundred different ways and lift your spirits anyway.

As an editorial cartoonist who wades waist-deep into this town’s idiosyncracies every day, I know that, with all its charms, this can be a trying place to live. Don’t try to do it without the color, the fun, the richness and the joy the arts have to give.


at 3/5/07, 2:37 PM Blogger jackborodkin said...

For facts about the Iditarod:

at 3/5/07, 8:48 PM Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess neither the Enquirer nor care that the Liz Carroll blog section is now being bombarded with phoney posts containing 800 phone sex numbers. Could you guys care any less about your communtiy?

at 3/5/07, 11:01 PM Anonymous tim of sioux falls, s.d. said...

Thanks for sharing your experience in Alaska. My brother worked on a B.P. oil rig in Prudhoe Bay. He said marksmen with high-powered rifles were stationed on the rig to ensure polar bears wouldn't encroach the work site. He also said temperatures outside the enclosed rig would dip to 100 degrees below zero. As an artist and cartoonist, I agree that the arts are essential to the enrichment of our lives. I also understand that people, who live in such harsh conditions, would find artistic pursuits frivilous when facing the daunting task of surviving brutal conditions on a daily basis.

at 3/6/07, 7:31 PM Blogger who said...

What a great story. Thanks. Glad you made it back through the 300 miles of wilderness and weren't mistaken for a moose or another creature to shoot. But, drawing scenery would be easy. No bricks to detail, etc. Or, it could be boring.

Glad you're back where we love you.

at 3/6/07, 11:00 PM Anonymous John Carey (NJ) said...

Of course, Inuit culture is at its scariest when it appears in everyday American life. It shows up in various forms and attitudes -- from high profile attacks on arts foundations to singular, personal indifferneces, such as not bothering to hang a painting on the fridge.

at 3/7/07, 10:09 AM Blogger Steve Willhite said...

I posted a link to this over at a comicbook forum that I frequent and I think you got some very nice comments and some further thoughts on the arts and your article.
Check it out, Mr. Borgman, I think you'll be pleased.

at 3/8/07, 11:49 PM Anonymous Joseph Harbin said...

There was an art show in NY in the last year which dealt with sketch books of the 19th century -- practice books of young people. At one time the ability to draw, to render something, was considered part of being a well rounded person, akin to playing the piano. This idea has been lost for one reason or another. Along with this is the fact that contemporary American school children don't draw pictures (animals, famous people, presidents) on their reports any more. Why should they when grownups tell them that computer printouts make things look so "professional"?

at 3/9/07, 9:19 PM Anonymous H. Beige said...

There is also the tenor of a society set by those in power. Kennedy had Frost, and Casals at his White House and celebrated the fact that he did. (After winning the Nobel Prize, Faulkner resisted his presidential invite by saying that Washington was too far away just to eat lunch.) Nixon honored Ellington (and was dumb enough to ask Johnny Cash to play "Oakie From Muskogee" Cash declined). Ford had a lot of jazz at the White House and Carter had a jazz blowout celebrating the Newport Jazz festival.
What are civilizations remembered for? What do we go to Europe to see? Remnants of uncreative people? Hardly.
We're mired in a
sports-celebrity-rock-rap-"Jack Ass"-car culture that feels maturity is a sign of death and art is a tattoo.
Hang in there. Yer fightin' the good fight and you're not alone.

at 3/9/07, 10:06 PM Anonymous Weekly Cartoonist said...

From a Debora Soloman article from the 90's :

'In the three decades [since Kennedy], the White House collection has come to encompass many of the key movements in American art, from the operatic landscapes of the Hudson River School (Frederic E. Church, Jasper Cropsey) to the quaint city scenes of the Ashcan School (Robert Henri, William Glackens)...

While Mr. Carter borrowed about a dozen works by the American Impressionists during his Presidency, Ronald Reagan filled the corridors of the White House with pictures of cowboys and Indians. They depicted an America that never existed, a land where the skies are always blue and the good guys always win.

Jimmy Carter -- a Sunday painter himself who once taught art appreciation on a Navy battleship -- said in a telephone interview from Plains, Ga., "The White House is a wonderful place to display examples of the finest American painting." He added: "Quite often people think that the only great painters are from France or Europe. Many Americans still think that, and all Europeans do."

This article dealt when Clinton installed the first abstract art at the White House: a Willem de Kooning painting (de Kooning was 90 at the time.).

at 3/10/07, 10:44 AM Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If it says Libby, Libby, Libby on the Label, Label, Label, I don't want it, want it, want it on my Table, Table, Table.

:Cheney reading
morning newspaper

at 3/10/07, 12:02 PM Anonymous Anonymous said...

the inuit are not as art depraived as some think:

at 3/16/07, 6:23 PM Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've lived in Barrow since 2004 and I have to say that I was actually kind of offended by this blog. I would like to suggest that Jim take another, closer, look at our community. If he had simply walked over to the high school shop he could have seen some of my freinds and neighbors creating beautiful works of art any night of the week (visit to see some of the bowls, bottles, and goblets they create out of wood). Or he might have met Victor the visiting ivory carver who comes all the way from Russia to teach the students to carve ivory. Did he not see any of the beautiful parkas that the native women here create that everyone from tiny babies to elders wears around town? Did he visit the Inupiat Heritage Center? Come to see Kivgiq (Dance Fesitival) and see dancers from all over the world? I myself learned to quilt to pass the long dark days here, and the fact is a lot of people take up an art of some kind. Yes we spend a lot of time simply surviving, but we do love art and have artists you just have to drop your stereotypes and actually look for something other than a painting on the wall purchaced at Wall-Mart.

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