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Observer cartoonist Kevin Siers wins Pulitzer Prize

More Information

  • Siers Pulitzer Prize letter (pdf)
  • Siers: Editorial cartoon archive
  • Observer Pulitzers

    1968: Editorial cartooning, Eugene Gray Payne.

    1981: Meritorious public service, for a series on brown lung suffered suffered by workers inhaling cotton dust in the region’s textile mills.

    1988: Editorial cartooning, Doug Marlette (shared with The Atlanta Constitution).

    1988: Meritorious public service, for investigating the misuse of funds entrusted to Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and the PTL ministries.

    2014: Editorial cartooning, Kevin Siers.

  • Observer Pulitzer finalists

    1995: Public Service for Taking Back Our Neighborhoods.

    2005: Commentary – columnist Tommy Tomlinson.

    2008: Public Service – Sold a Nightmare, an investigation of the housing crisis.

    2 013: Local Reporting – Prognosis Profits, an investigation of the revenues of public nonprofit hospitals.

  • The 2014 Pulitzer Prize winners


    Public service: The Washington Post for its investigation of secret surveillance by the National Security Agency, and The Guardian US for its reporting on NSA surveillance. Finalist: Newsday.

    Breaking news reporting: The Boston Globe staff for its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and the manhunt that followed. Finalists: Staff of The Arizona Republic, staff of The Washington Post.

    Investigative reporting: Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity, Washington, D.C., for reports on how lawyers and doctors rigged a system to deny benefits to coal miners with black lung disease. Finalists: Megan Twohey of Reuters and Cynthia Hubert and Phillip Reese of The Sacramento Bee (a McClatchy newspaper).

    Explanatory reporting: Eli Saslow of The Washington Post for reports on food stamps in post-recession America. Finalists: Dennis Overbye of The New York Times and Les Zaitz of The Oregonian, Portland.

    Local reporting: Will Hobson and Michael LaForgia of the Tampa Bay Times for reporting on housing conditions of the city’s homeless population. Finalists: Joan Garrett McClane, Todd South, Doug Strickland and Mary Helen Miller of Chattanooga Times Free Press and Rebecca D. O’Brien and Thomas Mashberg of The Record, Woodland Park, N.J.

    National reporting: David Philipps of The Gazette, Colorado Springs, Colo., for reports on the mistreatment of wounded combat veterans. Finalists: John Emshwiller and Jeremy Singer-Vine of The Wall Street Journal, Jon Hilsenrath of The Wall Street Journal.

    International reporting: Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters for stories on the violent persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Finalists: Rukmini Callimachi of Associated Press, Raja Abdulrahim and Patrick McDonnell of Los Angeles Times.

    Feature writing: None awarded. Finalists: Scott Farwell of The Dallas Morning News, Christopher Goffard of Los Angeles Times, Mark Johnson of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

    Commentary: Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press for columns on the financial crisis in Detroit. Finalists: Kevin Cullen of The Boston Globe, Lisa Falkenberg of Houston Chronicle.

    Criticism: Inga Saffron of The Philadelphia Inquirer for architecture criticism. Finalists: Mary McNamara of Los Angeles Times, Jen Graves of The Stranger, a Seattle weekly.

    Editorial writing: Editorial staff of The Oregonian, Portland, for editorials on rising pension costs. Finalists: Dante Ramos of The Boston Globe, Andie Dominick of The Des Moines Register.

    Editorial cartooning: Kevin Siers of The Charlotte Observer. Finalists: David Horsey of Los Angeles Times, Pat Bagley of The Salt Lake Tribune.

    Breaking news photography: Tyler Hicks of The New York Times for pictures of the terrorist attack at Kenya’s Westgate mall. Finalists: John Tlumacki and David L. Ryan of The Boston Globe, Goran Tomasevic of Reuters.

    Feature photography: Josh Haner of The New York Times for an essay on a Boston Marathon bombing victim. Finalists: Lacy Atkins of San Francisco Chronicle, Michael Williamson of The Washington Post.


    Fiction: “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt.

    Drama: “The Flick” by Annie Baker.

    History: “The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832” by Alan Taylor.

    Biography: “Margaret Fuller: A New American Life” by Megan Marshall.

    Poetry: “3 Sections” by Vijay Seshadri.

    General nonfiction: “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation” by Dan Fagin.

    Music: “Become Ocean” by John Luther Adams.

    Source: Bloomberg News

Editorial cartoonist Kevin Siers, who for the past quarter century has skewered political egos across the Carolinas with the soft tip of a paintbrush, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize Monday.

Siers, 59, is the third Charlotte Observer cartoonist to receive journalism’s highest honor. His award brings to five the number of Pulitzers won by the newspaper.

“And last week, I won a fishing contest, too,” Siers quipped to colleagues gathered in the newsroom when the award was announced.

“I always tease him because I tell him he’s not only so clever about what he does, he can draw well, too,” said Observer publisher Ann Caulkins, who, along with the staff, toasted Siers with champagne served in plastic cups.

Observer editor Rick Thames called Siers one of Charlotte’s enviable civic distinctions.

“Every day, Kevin lifts us above the contradictions in public life and calls out what really matters,” said Thames. “He tweaks and pokes and, most importantly, says flat-out what others would have us try to read between the lines. As a bonus, we get to laugh and cry together.”

View his Pulitzer Prize portfolio.

Born to draw

As a child growing up in the rural Minnesota iron range about 60 miles north of Duluth, Siers (pronounced “Sires”) began drawing before he could spell. He would sketch cartoons, then draw gibberish in the bubbles he’d provided for the dialogue.

Siers improved his skills by imitating the style of newspaper comic strips such as “Pogo” and “Dick Tracy.” By the fourth grade, he was copying the intricate fantasy artwork of Marvel Comics’ “Spider-Man” and “Fantastic Four.”

“I imitated everybody,” Siers said. “I stole left and right. Eventually, I came up with my own style.”

As a teenager, he spent the northern Minnesota summers fishing, hunting and hiking, then after high school followed his father, a mechanic, into the ore-mining trade. “That’s what everyone did up there,” he said. “They’d strip mine the ore, process and manufacture it, then ship it out on the Great Lakes to Pittsburgh.”

He started as a laborer and worked his way up in the mining hierarchy. It was well-paying work, and whenever he’d saved up enough, he’d take classes at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis as a biology major, then return to the mines or other jobs to earn more.

Siers’ look back at 2013 cartoons.

Starting out small

During one layoff at the mine, he submitted cartoons and got them published in the local weekly, The Biwabik Times. They went on to win a prize from the Minnesota Press Association.

“So I said, ‘I guess I could do this,’ ” Siers said.

When he returned to the university, he began doing editorial cartoons for the campus newspaper, the Minnesota Daily. He got to know Steve Sack, political cartoonist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and last year’s Pulitzer winner for editorial cartoons.

“Sack was my mentor,” Siers said. “He’d take me out to lunch and show me grown-up cartoonist tricks.”

A dreadful gig

After years of on-again, off-again enrollment, Siers finished at Minnesota in 1987. He did freelance art work, which led to what he remembers as his most dreadful assignment.

He was hired to fly to Orlando and draw caricatures of executives attending a banking convention. But the executives didn’t want caricatures and sent their wives instead.

“So I was drawing caricatures of middle-aged women. That was really uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to pretty them up. I wasn’t that good an artist yet. I was squirming, they were squirming. So, I guess I got used to making people uncomfortable there.”

A job in the Carolinas

In the autumn of 1987 at age 33, Siers landed a job at The Charlotte Observer, replacing cartoonist Doug Marlette, who had left for The Atlanta Constitution.

In the 26 years since, Siers has sketched five presidents, eight Charlotte mayors (four in the last year) and served under three Observer publishers.

He starts each morning by studying the newspaper to get ideas. He then attends the morning editorial board meeting, where topics are discussed for the Observer’s opinion page.

“Artistry is only part of his skill,” said editorial page editor Taylor Batten.

“He’s first and foremost a journalist who has a passion about current events and public affairs. He is so plugged into what’s going on, he’s able to use that base of knowledge to inform through his cartoons.”

Batten said the portfolio of 20 cartoons on national topics submitted to the Pulitzer jurors was typical of Siers’ range as an “equal opportunity” satirist of politicians on both sides of the aisle. President Barack Obama is a frequent target.

Thinking, drawing, coloring

Siers’ workdays are split into three phases. First is mining the spark of an idea. He spends a few hours scribbling at his desk, playing with ideas, which jell into a sketch by midday.

Siers is under no obligation to follow the editorial board’s opinion in his cartoon and occasionally takes contradictory positions.

“Sometimes we’ll be discussing what we’re going to do,” said Caulkins, the Observer’s publisher, “and Kevin is saying, ‘I have a different take on that.’ He is his own person. We embrace that.”

Siers is rare among modern professional artists by his choice of his tools: A watercolor brush and fine-point pen. Most of his breed have long since adopted the computer screen as their canvas.

“I dip the watercolor brush in India ink and the brush is responsive,” he said. “You push down and get a thick line. You ease up and you get a fine line. I’ve thought about using the computer, but I just love the physical feel of pushing against the paper. It’s very hard to let that go.”

Afterward, he scans the finished cartoon into the computer, and uses a Photoshop program to colorize it. He sends copies of cartoons on national issues to King Features Syndicate, which distributes them to clients across the country.

Hitting the target

To succeed, an editorial cartoon must be simple, even while conveying a complicated message. Its elements must click emotionally with the reader, and the best elicit either a laugh or an “ouch.”

“Kevin is able to say as much in a cartoon as anyone can say in a 700-word editorial,” Batten said.

Caulkins said she routinely gets feedback, positive and negative, on Siers’ work. A talented editorial cartoonist, she said, should attract a range of reactions.

Some of Siers’ artistic victims are, surprisingly, enamored of his work. Former county manager Harry Jones, the late Sen. Jesse Helms, and county commissioner Bill James are among those who have requested and received originals of cartoons in which they have been lanced by Siers.

“Jesse used to have a wall of editorial cartoons about him in his office,” said Siers. “He used them to raise campaign contributions – he’d say, ‘See what they’re doing to me. Send money!’ 

A quiet presence

Attached to the Pulitzer are two obligations. First is to accept the $10,000 prize check, and the second is to bask in the limelight. Siers intends to do his duty with the first, but the second is not his thing.

Siers is among the quietest, most low-key members of the Observer tribe. He spends his days in his snug, well-littered office largely absorbed in his craft, bent over his drafting table in what he calls “this zen thing.”

For a quiet man, he has a powerful voice in the newspaper through his work. Because of its size and prominence on the editorial page, the cartoon is among the best-read elements in any newspaper, a fact best expressed by William “Boss” Tweed, leader of New York’s corrupt Tammany Hall political machine in the 19th century.

Cartoonist Thomas Nast caught the attention of the city’s masses with his scathing satire of the political giant. Tweed complained: “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!” Tweed was later arrested and died in prison.

Local editorial cartoonists are an endangered breed. As newspapers have cut staff over the last decade, many have lost their jobs.

Siers is the last full-time daily newspaper cartoonist in the Carolinas, though the The News & Observer of Raleigh and Spartanburg Herald-Journal run cartoons from freelance artists, he said.

“I’m just really grateful to still be working and lucky to be at one of the papers that still values editorial cartoons,” Siers said.

He said he believes economics is only part of the reason many newspapers have abandoned local editorial artists. Some of them, he said, don’t want the hassle that a cartoonist can stir up. “A lot of newspapers don’t want a strong voice in the community,” Siers said. More than half of his cartoons are on local or state issues, rather than national politics.

Caulkins said she couldn’t imagine the Observer without the punch of an editorial cartoonist. “And we’ll have one,” she said, “as long as I’m here.”

Washburn: 704-358-5007
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