Wit and Wisdom
Cartoonist Matt Davies won a Pulitzer for his witty jabs at the political elite. Now, in a new children’s book, this Wilton dad takes on a neighborhood bully
photograph by Bruce Plotkin
Matt Davies learned cartooning the way most successful parodists, caricaturists, and comedians get their start: in school. That his was a strict, uniformed comprehensive school near London, where he was born, only heightened the need for comic relief. “Drawing was a nice antidote to the school,” recalls the forty-six-year-old political cartoonist and Wilton resident. “I very quickly learned the awesome, populist power of art. I would do caricatures of my English teacher, Mr. Mackenzie, who was a lovely guy, actually—I don’t know why I picked on him—but he looked really funny and he drove a really silly little purple car. And I remember drawing him and passing it around and everybody chuckling, and I sort of became known as the guy who could draw and make fun of teachers.”
Although his drawings frequently got him in trouble, that early education apparently paid off. In 2001 Davies won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and in 2004 the first ever Herblock Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartoons. He was a Pulitzer finalist again in 2011. His political cartoons have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, and, perhaps most impressively, MAD Magazine, which he read as a boy.
The British school system of his youth continues to inform Davies’ art today. “Kids with teachers feel very much like people with politicians, where they’re in positions of power and can make decisions that can really affect you,” he says. When Davies was seventeen, his father, a banker, was transferred to New York and the family settled in Westport. At Staples High School, he took art classes with Jim Wheeler, who taught him drawing. “I learned a lot from him,” he says. “When I got to art school, I was being taught the same things that Mr. Wheeler used to teach when I was in high school.”
After a year at the Savannah College of Art & Design and a stint at the School of Visual Arts in New York, he began drawing editorial cartoons for the Journal News in Westchester and later for Hearst Publications.
Today, Davies lives with his wife and three children on a former apple farm near Cannon Crossing. In the studio, which he’s carved out of an enormous maintenance barn on the property, rows of drawings anchored by thumbtack-like magnets hang on sheet-metal-covered walls. The black-and-white cartoons above his slant-topped wooden desk are political barbs (he draws for RemappingDebate.org, Tribune Media Services and Hearst); the color illustrations across the room are for his first children’s book, Ben Rides On, about a young boy’s clever solution for dealing with a bully. It will be published by Roaring Brook Press next spring.
If England nurtured Davies’ political art, America has heightened his appreciation for the freedom to draw what he pleases. “This country has an awesome history of editorial cartooning—from Thomas Nast back in the late-1800s to now,” he notes. “Every politician has had to grapple with people drawing cartoons about them that, amazingly, are protected by the First Amendment. Cartoonists globally get thrown in jail for doing what we do and take for granted here.”
Attacked by some critics for his unbalanced liberal renderings, Davies’ response is, “Thank you, that’s exactly as it should be. Because as one of my very conservative colleagues said, ‘If a cartoon doesn’t have a strong, potentially offensive point of view, it’s called a Hallmark greeting card.’”
For young cartoonists, Davies has this simple advice: “Just draw what you like.” As for art school students, he says, “Learn animation. The most popular movies right now in Hollywood are all animated, and animated movies require artists who can draw storyboards and character sketches and who can animate and render color.
This fall, Matt Davies’ political drawings are on exhibit in the Riverwalk Display Case at the Westport Public Library through November 18. If you miss it, his work can also be viewed (an original art purchased) at mattdaviescartoon.com.