For only the second time in his almost 30-year career, editorial cartoonist Robert Ariail is having a gallery exhibition of his art. The career retrospective, “Editorial Cartoons,” opens Thursday at City Art Gallery.
Sixty original drawings will be exhibited and, unlike his last gallery show 22 years ago, the framed cartoons are available for purchase. (The State Museum mounted an Ariail exhibit in 1998.) The work dates back to the early ’90s.
“This will probably be the last opportunity anybody can buy an original,” Ariail said.
That’s because he has agreed to donate his career work to the South Carolina Political Collections at The Hollings Library at USC, something that might happen as early as this fall. But he’s not putting a permanent cap on his ink pen.
“I can see the end of my career, although I don’t want to stop,” the 57-year-old Ariail said. “I’ll continue to produce and donate that as well. I saw it as a real honor and a way to have a legacy.
“I can see myself working at 70, 75. It’s not physically taxing. It’s mentally taxing. I don’t want to quit.”
Ariail’s work has earned him state and national awards.
He was the recipient of the 2012 Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Award for the Arts for Individual Artist and the S.C. Press Association award for cartooning. Last week, he went to Washington to accept the National Press Foundation’s Berryman Award, his fifth national honor.
A Columbia native, Ariail was The State’s editorial cartoonist from 1984-2009. He joined the staff at the Spartanburg Herald Journal in 2010, and his work appears in more that 600 publications worldwide.
“It’s kind of neat. I joke that I get hate mail from all over the world now,” Ariail said. “But usually, if I get feedback, it’s usually positive. It’s nice to know your work is out there and people are responding to it.”
Ariail is fearless in his often humorous social commentary.
He added to the public debate on seatbelt legislation by drawing then-state Sen. Glenn McConnell, a fierce opponent of requiring seatbelts, with a lap belt clasped tightly around his mouth so that his objections were stifled.
Another in the show features McConnell bathing in a tub of money while playing with a toy replica of the H.L. Hunley, the Confederate Civil War submarine that became the first sub to sink an enemy ship before it itself sank. McConnell led the effort to recover and renovate the Hunley more than a decade ago, and, in Ariail’s cartoon, a towel with the Stars and Bars of the Confederate flag is on the towel rack.
Ariail satirically draws both Republicans and Democrats, local and national figures, and scenes of government bureaucracy and foreign diplomacy.
A cartoon published in The State on Valentine’s Day 2003 depicted Iraq president Saddam Hussein opening a box of heart-shaped candy from then-President George W. Bush. Written on the candy that Saddam holds in his palm are not-so-friendly overtures: “C U Soon,” “I Want U,” “U R Mine” and “U.N. Trouble.”
A coalition of forces led by the United States and the United Kingdom invaded the country 10 years ago this month.
The cartoons are meant to spark discussion, Ariail said.
“The role is to bring up a subject and maybe look at them a little differently,” he continued.
However, the position of editorial cartoonist, perhaps, is creeping toward obsolescence. Ariail estimates about 60 editorial cartoonist have lost their jobs since newspapers began staff reductions during the Great Recession. And editorial cartoonists don’t earn much through syndication.
“You can’t make a living putting your stuff out on the Internet,” said Ariail, who was laid off from The State in 2009. “Syndicates have made cuts. It’s more like a stipend. The royalties aren’t as big.”
City Art is where Ariail buys his supplies, and he began discussing a show with City Art’s Wendy Wells last year.
“I just couldn’t schedule it,” said Wells, who owns an Ariail original. “So I asked him if he’d like to schedule it this year. He’s nationally acclaimed, and we have a tendency not recognize our own.”
The art is moderately priced, with nothing exceeding $600. When he donates his work to USC, Ariail will publish a coffee-table-sized book, another retrospective of his 29 years as an editorial cartoonist.
STARTING THE DAY
A typical work day begins with Ariail walking to buy a newspaper in the morning. He drinks coffee while reading the paper and watching TV news. Hopefully, he has an idea by 11 a.m. (Ariail sometimes works days in advance.) The cartoon begins as a black-and-white ink sketch.
“I might sketch 10 to 20 sketches,” Ariail said. “I kind of like them better because they’re kind of a spontaneous look.”
He prefers to use a Pigma Micron pen because the ink — archival India ink, to be precise — doesn’t fade. He paints with a Sable No. 2 brush, which allows for both fine and thick lines. He’s a throwback cartoonist because he draws on a light table before scanning the image into a computer.
“I like to do it the old-fashioned way,” said Ariail, who works at home but adds he misses going to an office. “When I do it this way, I have something to look at, to hold. When you’re doing it digitally, you can make a print of it, but there is no original.”
The imperfections of pencil marks and Wite-Out streaks are visible in the artwork.
“So you see it all,” Ariail said. “They clean up nicely when they’re reproduced.”
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.