How to be an Artist, a Journalist, a Rebel, and a Cartoonist – An Interview with Kevin Kallaugher

Kal Kallaugher

Kevin Kallaugher (Kal) writes and draws political cartoons for The Baltimore Sun and the Economist, and this past week, he visited the Branson community. On October 24 he addressed students and faculty during a special assembly about how he turned his passion for drawing, humor, and current events into a lifelong career. Kallaugher spent his remaining time at Branson talking to history and art classes, drawing with students, and catching up with his college roommate, history teacher Jonas Honick. (Photo courtesy of http://www.kaltoons.com)

From early on, Kal was a rebel. Not in the leather-jacket-wearing too-cool-for-school kind of way, but as an activist and provocateur, using his wit and cartoons to critique his environment. As soon as fifth grade, he began to see the world through the eyes of a cartoonist and quickly realized the rewards and consequences that came with doing so. Later on, as a teenager living in Connecticut, the National Cartoon Museum coincidentally opened up near his house, just twenty miles away. He recounted, “I went down there and I would go and volunteer and I would meet cartoonists. Suddenly, cartoonists seemed like normal people. And I thought ‘Oh I can do this. That guy did it, maybe I can do this [too]’.” In high school, he began creating cartoons for the school newspaper, but soon discovered that they “got [him] in a lot of trouble.”  “I did a cartoon of the Dean of Discipline as a bullfrog and, unfortunately, he looked like a bullfrog. So it caused a lot of controversy”, says Kal. Realizing the power of caricatures, he “went to college…still [wanting] to do cartoons.” The first day he arrived on the ivy adorned campus of Harvard, he went to the school newspaper, seeking to fulfill his dream. After voicing his desire to be a cartoonist, they offered him his first job: to draw a caricature of the school president. So, he drew a cartoon of president Bok, but “in an unflattering fashion…and [the president] got pissed off.” He laughed, telling us, “I thought: I haven’t even started college yet and I have the president angry with me. So I was starting off on a good foot.” Once again, Kal saw the impact of his cartoons, how his act of dropping ink on paper had rippled into a response within the community.

Later he “worked for the college paper and…did a comic strip in the public paper” and once he graduated, he thought he “would try to become a comic strip artist like a Calvin and Hobbes type of thing.” However, he strayed from this plan, trading in pen and ink for eighty pounds of backpacking gear and a bike, to lead a bicycle tour of American teenagers around Europe. The only issue with this was, “[he] had not ridden a bicycle before [he] took this trip, [his] whole life.” Being the rebel and adventurist he was, he took the job and ended up staying after the tour was done. Kal “got a job playing semi-pro basketball for a few years” but, “halfway through the first season the team ran out of money”, so he resorted back to what he knew best, and began searching for cartooning jobs. “I would do caricatures on the street… and I was doing anything I could to try to get money,” said Kallaugher. Meanwhile, he continued to play basketball and also got a job “working at a school just like [Branson] in England…[as] a maintenance man”. Coincidentally, this was the place that led him back into the cartooning world.

He retold the story to us, “I was given a job in the art department one day to scrape wallpaper. And I was being paid about a dollar an hour, and I thought ‘this is crazy, I’m supposed to be playing basketball, but basketball is terrible, and I am here scraping wallpaper for a dollar an hour’. So what do I do?—I drew cartoons on the wallpaper before I would scrape it, just to pass the time.” Later, “an art teacher walks in, sees the cartoons, and he says, ‘What are you doing?’ I tell him the whole story. He said ‘Well just up campus is one of the fathers of one of my students, and he runs an ad agency in London.’” Thinking maybe he might offer a position, at “five o’clock that day I put on my best clothes, I had my portfolio, I knocked on the door and the door opens about this much” Kal motioned a small space with his hands. “It’s not going to open anymore because this guy doesn’t want me to walk in his house. But meanwhile, his two young girls, who are probably five and seven, recognize me because one of the other things I did was be a ventriloquist on the street with a puppet and entertain people to get some money. So she said, ‘Dad, it’s the puppet guy!’. So they let me in. I start chatting with the guy and he says, ‘Well, I’m not sure if I can help you but my art director might… Come to London, visit my art director’. So I go to the art director and he says, ‘I don’t have any work now, but here’s a list of all the newspapers in London, all their phone numbers and all their art directors, go visit them and tell them I sent you.’”

For the next three months, Kal spent his weeks working, scraping wallpaper, visiting an art director in London in the afternoon, and then in the evening, practicing basketball. He continued down the list, “through all sorts of people” until he reached the very last contact—The Economist. “This is about two weeks before my work permit expired, the basketball season was nearly over”, said Kal.“[The Economist]  had only just introduced photographs, it was like reading the Bible: Perfect, grey, turgid text. And I’m looking at my portfolio that’s got animation, a comic strip, and the only thing I had in there that might work were a half dozen caricatures of Harvard professors that I had drawn. That’s all I had. I figured, I’m toast. So I go up and see them, the big art director is sitting there and he says, ‘This looks pretty good…leave them with me and I’ll get back to you’. A couple days later he calls me back and says, ‘Well, you are not going to believe it, but we have a few guys here that know [the Harvard professors] personally, they recognize them [from the drawings]…we want to bring you in for a one day trial.’”

This was the perfect opportunity, except for the fact that Kal knew nothing in regards to British politics and politicians. But, like I said, Kal was a rebel. The night before his one-day trial, as a suggestion from his teammates, he turned on Newsnight on the “tele”. The host was interviewing a man named Denis Healey, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a.k.a. the second most powerful person in the U.K.

“Denis Healey had a face made for caricature, he had a round tomato face, he had eyebrows that went to the ceiling, bunny rabbit teeth. He had the perfect face”, recounts Kallaugher. “So, I’m sketching away, drawing Denis Healey, but now it’s getting near midnight and I have to get up early to be at The Economist in the morning. So the next morning I show up at The Economist and the guy said to me alright Kal, it’s your one day trial, we would like you to draw Dennis Healy. And that was it. He was the only British politician I had ever seen or ever drawn and I’ve been with [The Economist] now for forty years.”

Now, after working for two well-renowned publications for so many years, he has mastered the art of cartooning and taken on the various difficulties that come with the job. One of which is appealing to two very different audiences: “The Baltimore Sun, a hyper-local, American newspaper that’s read both by the conservatives and the liberals, the down-market and the up-market” and “The Economist which is read by internationalist audiences, probably every head of state around the world, top business leaders, but it is also read by 700,000 U.S. citizens, most of them are probably college educated, with a great interest in international perspectives.” He navigates varying viewpoints, and different sets of knowledge, adjusting his cartoons accordingly. Similarly, Kal must be mindful of diverse global perspectives, “When I do complicated cartoons on international subjects, then I must try to do my cartoons and translate them in a way that would be understandable to global audiences.”

Another challenge is transitioning between an international and local focus, “Most people, as human beings, our personal boundaries are twenty-five miles outside of us. I was in Lebanon, southern Lebanon, and a group of students asked me, ‘What do you Americans think about what’s going on over here?’ Now twenty-five miles from the radius of these kids was a war in Syria, all sorts of chaos and bombs going off, Israel and Lebanon itself being in turmoil. And I said, ‘You know, I have really bad news for you, but your average American is not thinking about this, because they are just trying to get enough food to put on their table, get their kids to school, apply for colleges, do all those sorts of things’…So when I do cartoons for the Baltimore Sun, I have to think in that twenty-five mile radius, and most of my cartoons are dealing with local…Baltimore and Maryland politics.”

Similarly, every day, Kallaugher balances artistic freedom with the requirements of his job, “When I am doing cartoons for the cover of The Economist, that is a very intricate dance between myself and the magazine. They’ll contact me with the subject and the lead story and then I’ll work with them to come up with the cover. They also have a column that I worked with as well, a columnist. But all the political cartoons that you saw, those are my opinions and I don’t solicit from [The Economist] any ideas nor do they advise me on where to go…A lot of cartoonist do have much more input from the newspapers. Some cartoonists don’t have the ideas, they want to be told.”

However, Kal embraces the daily challenges and the thrill of his job. “Tomorrow”, he told us, “I am going to do two cartoons for The Economist …and presently I have no idea what I am going to draw. And it doesn’t scare me…I kind of enjoy it, partly because the news changes so fast, new news could start tomorrow, and I have to wait and see what’s going on.” The spontaneous and dynamic nature of cartooning fascinates him and the most exciting time to cartoon is where we are now—during the chaos of election season.

“Election years are great”, remarked Kal, “because this is the time when everyone is really knowledgeable about what’s going on, so you can assume a lot more a lot. Plus, what is kind of fun, is that you feel like you are in the middle of the conversation, you are in the middle of a historic conversation, maybe even helping to inform people and maybe change their minds in certain directions—maybe, you never know. So this is a really cool time, plus I also have to tell you, after all these newspapers and television stations have been doing months of coverage, they are always looking for stories and they always call cartoonists, [asking] ‘How are you drawing Donald Trump?’ and ‘What do you think about this?’ You get Japanese television stations coming into your house and you have all these various people coming that want to interview about what your take is. But it is also because there is such crazy antics that go on. So this is…a fun time.”

Especially during his time in the U.K., where elections only lasted six weeks, he found those “six weeks…so intense, both as a cartoonist and a journalist, it’s like [he] never slept because everything was happening in hyper-drive.”

While there are the adrenaline rushes that come with this roller coaster of a career, Kal has also learned to perfect his artistic process, honing skills that can apply to life. When we asked what it really took to be a cartoonist, he shared some of his wisdom with us, “First of all there’s this whole idea of this distilling very complex things down to simple nuggets. Is a really interesting skillset, it’s a skillset that not only works for cartoonists, but works whenever you are having to write something. You have to do a book report, right, what are you doing? You read a book, you distill it down. Trying to get things down to the simplest essence is a real skill and by the way, this a skill that is going to be really important the rest of your life. Because if you are going to move out into the business world or wherever, one of the important things that is going to set you apart from other people is how you think. If you have this own ability in your mind to take complex things and distill them down into deliverable nuggets of words, and then being able to successfully deliver them to people, you are very valuable.”

Secondly, he taught us how to be our own editors and critics, how to look at challenges through the eyes of an artist. “I recently had the opportunity to hang out with a bunch of people…who write for the Simpsons” said Kallaugher, “And when you write for the Simpsons, they have a writing room, and the writing room has about… 15 to 20 people in it. And when they submit their ideas for a script, and somebody is a chief writer for a script, they are lucky if they get 30% of their script into the show when it finally appears on the air. All the other people are throwing bits in, they are tearing it apart, they are adding jokes, moving the storyline. It’s a collective experience. So when you’re me, when you are a cartoonist, and when you’re you, writing an essay, what you want to do is to be able to create these 20 people inside of your own head. You want to have a creative group of different voices, yelling at each other, coming up with different ideas, challenging each other, in order to advance an idea…You have to have, in your head, that little person, that little voice, that is willing to come up with a crazy idea on the side and then suddenly a whole new door opens, your ideas come spewing out, ideas you didn’t realize you had. That’s part of this creative process. Experiment, play, push.”

These skills have played a vital role in Kal’s career, but have also allowed him to harness his passion to discuss crucial issues, outside of this job. “I really like doing cartoons about the environment, because the environment is a very important subject, it affects all of us”, said Kal. While there is a natural instinct for companies to choose profit over adhering to “environmentally friendly laws”, and doing “what’s good for [them] rather than what’s good for the collective”, Kal hopes to progress away from this mindset. “Be[ing] an advocate for helping the planet is a worthy goal, but it’s also one that you have to be unrelenting and constant in…So that’s a subject that I enjoy doing a lot.”

Over the years, Kallaugher has worn many hats, gone down many paths, but ultimately found his way back to cartoons. Everyday, he faces the thrill and challenge of his career, and looks forward to the next task, pen poised and ready to make his mark on the ever-changing political discussion.