Sunday, August 3, 2003

Cartoonists go eye-to-eye

Art museum displays Cincinnati's two newspaper editorial artisans' work on same subjects side-by-side

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Jim Borgman (left) and Jeff Stahler discuss their exhibit.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
Sometimes, Jim Borgman is saying, "you try to find humor in a situation and you're absolutely paralyzed."

Sometimes, Jeff Stahler is saying, "you get so overwhelmed and horrified by a situation you can't laugh at it, even when it's your job to find something to laugh about."

Borgman, The Cincinnati Enquirer's Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, and Stahler, The Cincinnati Post's John Fischetti Editorial Cartoon Competition winner, were standing shoulder to shoulder staring at their cartoons from Sept. 11, 2001 - their takes on the World Trade Center attacks.

31 pieces by each

The occasion was a walk-through of the exhibit The Editorial Eye in the Cincinnati Wing of the Cincinnati Art Museum, a collection of 31 pieces by each cartoonist, arranged chronologically and showing their takes on three dramatic events: The Cincinnati riots of 2001; 9-11 and subsequent developments; and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"This is amazing," Borgman says at the first picture, Stahler's take on the riots. "Maybe only another cartoonist would notice, but it's a bomb waiting to go off. Drawing the stereotypical cop and the stereotypical African-American in a confrontation is difficult and dangerous because it could cause big trouble. But you pulled it off perfectly. Really masterful."

Stahler delivers an answer while looking at Borgman's take on the same events. The Big Ostrich Gig shows citizens burying their heads in the sand. "I love it because the whimsy is so perfect. And bringing in the Big Pig Gig is inspired."

The museum has framed the cartoons in brown wood and hung them in pairs to make it easier to compare how each cartoonist dealt with the same subject matter.

"Look at this, we both did the same thing," Borgman says, hovering over two pieces done immediately after the World Trade Center bombings - his is the Statue of Liberty cradling her face in her hands, Stahler's a stooped Uncle Sam in almost the same pose. "We both used American icons with hands over their faces. With something like this, you try to capture the shock and the horror, but you don't want to outthink yourself."

"What's amazing to me," Stahler says, "is that neither of us really knew what was happening when we drew these. Was it an accident or deliberate? Was there more to come? If it was deliberate, who in the world ... ?"

The story behind those two cartoons, both cartoonists said, is that they each found out about the World Trade Center attacks about 10 a.m. and had to have cartoons in by 11 or 11:30 a.m. for publication the same day.

"At times like that," Borgman says, "you grab for the most familiar props. We fall back on the vocabulary we all know."

Kristin Spangenberg, curator of prints, drawings and photographs, selected the drawings. "The pieces were chosen from more than 100 drawings each of them did on the three themes we wanted to follow," she says. "The museum told me I could get 40 drawings in the gallery. I managed to squeeze in 62."

The most difficult chore, Spangenberg says, wasn't selecting drawings, but eliminating them. "Something had to go. Eventually, I decided to try to pair two drawings that say something very similar, but in different ways."

"Whose turn is it to say something nice about the other guy?" Borgman wants to know. "Me? OK. Look at the way Jeff uses so many TV sets in his drawings. When you think about it, that makes a lot of sense, because that's the way most people find out things."

Right now, Stahler is hovering over one of Borgman's boycott pieces, this one set on Fountain Square: "Look at this. Look at the detail on the fountain. I wonder if anyone knows how hard it is to capture that. I wouldn't do it because it's just too hard."

"I do that when I don't think my idea's very good. I throw in the old razzle-dazzle," Borgman fires back.

Here's some more razzle-dazzle: The two cartoonists were asked to draw each other (see Page E1). Borgman didn't think it was necessary: "He looks just like Bob Bedinghaus (former Hamilton County commissioner). Can't we just use an old one of him?"

Uh, no.

After about two minutes, they were finished and back to touring the gallery.

Curator Spangenberg, walking along, explains one thing that hit her full force as she was going through the drawings: "I saw two guys with enormous talent approaching their environment in different ways."

"I think about that a lot," Borgman says. "I often open the Post with dread, worried sick that we used the same approach."

At this point Stahler is squinting at the dates on two similar drawings: "Look. Mine came out a day earlier. It means I had the idea first."

Different approaches

Spangenberg points to the cartoonists' styles to illustrate the different approaches: Borgman's is more complicated and lush, with lots of pen strokes. Stahler's is more spare with plain backgrounds and simple lines.

Or, as Borgman says: "I set things up like a theater production with a stage and props and a whole big set. Jeff does just the elements - he reduces the issue to its basics." He points to two drawings dealing with terrorist attacks to make the point: Borgman's "Emergency Kit" is six distinct elements done up as a first-aid kit. Stahler's "Bush's Focus" is a scrunched up nose and squinty eyes with tiny Osamas as pupils.

So goes the tour. Here's Borgman admiring "Bed Hog," Stahler's take on homeland security vs. individual freedom ("Wow! I wish I had done that"); here's Stahler admiring Borgman's "Moving On," his 9-11 anniversary drawing ("This is one of my all-time favorites. It's so animated, it's almost Pfeiffer-esque"); here's Borgman squinting to get a closer look at Stahler's "Where Are They," a May cartoon on new graduates in a tight job market ("Ugh! It's an annual topic we have to do over and over, but look how fresh this idea is").

And here's Borgman, explaining one thing he really likes about Stahler's work: "Look how good he is at using cultural references and finding connections," he says, pointing at Stahler's take on the Emmys coming at the height of the anthrax scare. It's a guy in a mask and rubber gloves accepting the envelope holding the winner's name. "It's so simple and so easy to understand. It's also what everyone was thinking."

And here's Stahler, explaining one thing he really likes about Borgman's work as he points at a post-9-11 piece showing the isle of Manhattan with a black background, except for two stark white vertical lines: "He has the ability to capture something so well, so precisely. This is like a New Yorker cover. It's absolutely classic."

And here's Spangenberg commenting on the exhibit: "You can see what I mean when I say it was really difficult honing it down to 62."

If you go

What: The Editorial Eye, an exhibit of 62 editorial cartoons by the Enquirer's Jim Borgman and the Post's Jeff Stahler.

Where: Cincinnati Wing of the Cincinnati Art Museum

When: Now through Oct. 12. Open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday; until 9 p.m. Wednesday.

Cost: Free

Information: 639-2995 or Web site.

Related events

• Panel Discussion, 1 p.m. Aug. 16: Jim Borgman and Jeff Stahler discuss their work with curator Kristin Spangenberg in the museum's lecture hall, then sign books in the Great Hall. Free for members, $5 for nonmembers, reservations required; call 721-2787.

• Gallery Talk, 2 p.m. Aug. 29: David Stradling, assistant professor of history at the University of Cincinnati, uses the cartoons to illustrate "Shock, Sadness and the Lost History of Street Action in Cincinnati." Free, but reservations required, 721-2787.

• Gallery Talk, 2 p.m. Sept. 5: Spangenberg discusses "The Issues of Our Lives: Editorial Cartoons in the New Millennium." Free, but reservations required, 721-2787.


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