Editorial cartoonist Kevin Siers, who for the last quarter century has skewered political egos across the Carolinas with the tip of a paintbrush, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize on 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.
“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.
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.”
Born to draw
As a child growing 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 the outdoors, 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 enroll at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis as a biology major, then return to the mines or other jobs to earn more.
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-age 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, seven 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 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.”
The art of art
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.
Phase two of Siers’ day is spent crafting the cartoon.
“I dip the water-color brush in India ink and the brush is responsive. 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.”
And then comes part three of the day – 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, to 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 Sen. Jesse Helms, former county manager Harry Jones 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 celebrity 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. 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 free-lance artists, he said.
“I’m just really grateful to still be working and lucky to be at one of the 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.”