Art Scene: Illustrating Politics
John Deering has been entertaining the state with his award-winning political cartoons, but what many don’t know is that this talented artist also has a passion for sculpture, painting, illustration, art restoration, politics and history.
photography by Janet Warlick and courtesy of John Deering
Whether you agree or disagree with his political ideas, you can’t deny the talent behind John Deering’s editorial cartoons. He’s poked fun at the big players — Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush — taken on the Taliban and still makes time to comment on local politics, which is his first love.
Deering grew up in Cammack Village, a small township in Little Rock, Arkansas. His father served as a policeman, fireman and even mayor. Deering listened in on the city council meetings each week and became fascinated with the inner workings of local politics at an early age.
As he developed this interest in politics, he also found he possessed a passion for art. “I’ve always wanted to create art. Even at 3 years of age, I expressed myself through art. In the fifth and sixth grades, I was fascinated with light and shadows, and I began drawing and creating wood engravings at the age of 12,” Deering said.
This love of art was fostered and encouraged through Deering’s tight-knit community. “I got lots of encouragement from the community. The postman was one of my first customers. Shop owners would commission drawings to hang on their walls. That support was crucial for me at that time.”
Deering went on to attend the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to study fine art. At the time, he envisioned himself as a medical illustrator but took a chance on a job at the Arkansas Democrat in 1980 doing layout and paste.
“I saw what they were doing in the editorial art department and applied for a transfer the next year. I moved up to drawing maps, charts and illustrations and the occasional editorial cartoon, and let it slip to my boss that my dream was to be an editorial cartoonist. I stuck around for seven more years and finally landed the job of editorial cartoonist. It was the perfect way for me to pursue my love of drawing and public policy, current events and history.”
Deering’s cartoons made waves across the state and created a lot of buzz in the political arena, even attracting the attention and inciting the temper of the typically cool-as-a-cucumber then-Gov. Bill Clinton.
“In the late ‘80s, there were a lot of problems concerning the environment in the state. Forests were being clear-cut, and people in political office just didn’t seem to be concerned with pollution control.”
Deering created a collection of cartoons about pollution in Arkansas, one of which specifically pointed the finger at Clinton. The book was sold in the Capitol gift shop, and when Clinton saw it, Deering’s managing editor got an angry phone call at home, and the paper published a letter from the governor in the “Voices” section the next week.
“This series of cartoons caused a big stir at the paper, but it was a major way I defined my work in ‘89 and ‘90.”
That incident was Deering’s first taste of influencing politics, and he has continued to push the limits throughout his career. He took on the Taliban in 2001 with the publication of a controversial cartoon just two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.
In “A Letter to the Taliban,” he created a ransom note that read, “To the Taliban: Give us Osama bin Laden or we’ll send your women to college.” The cartoon caught the eye of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and inspired her to form Vital Voices, a “non-governmental organization that trains and empowers emerging women leaders and social entrepreneurs around the globe.” At an awards ceremony, Hutchison explained that when she saw the cartoon, “It hit me like lightning. I looked at that cartoon and thought, ‘We should do that! We should send their women to college.’”
When Deering isn’t working as chief editorial cartoonist at the paper, he spends his free time painting and sculpting. His sculptures can be found in prominent places around central Arkansas including the Arkansas State Capitol. Deering is the genius behind the statue of the soldier in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the state capitol; as well as his latest project, “Roughneck & Wildcatter,” a project to commemorate the oil workers and culture of El Dorado; and “Testament,” which is a tribute to the Little Rock Nine at the state capitol. His whimsical, sometimes political-leaning paintings are shown exclusively at Cantrell Gallery in Little Rock, where he currently has a show running through January.
This quiet artist still resides near his hometown of Cammack Village, where he works from a studio he built onto the back of his home. We suggest you discover his work for yourself — tour the grounds of the capitol, peruse his paintings in the gallery or just pick up the paper.