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Cartoonist With A Conscience

by Andrew Elias

DOUG MacGREGOR HAS BEEN a cartoonist for more than 30 years, drawing editorial cartoons for The News-Press in Fort Myers from 1988 until earlier this year. He is also a graphic designer, illustrator, painter, photographer, and author. The newest of his five children’s books is Turtellini, the Turbo-Charged Turtle. Doug has also published Get Creative, Turn On The Bright Side of Your Brain, a book filled with puzzles, brain teasers, and drawing, math and reading exercises. Doug is also a songwriter (his newest CD is titled Friday Fish Fry) and teacher (teaching classes in cartooning and creativity for adults and children at the Renaissance Academy of FGCU, the Alliance for the Arts, and BIG Arts. This past spring he had solo exhibitions of his cartoons at the Coloring The World gallery and the Alliance for the Arts in Fort Myers.

I asked Doug a few questions about his life, his work, cartooning and creativity in general.

How did you get started as a cartoonist?

It all goes back to second grade. I loved the Peanuts gang. I got real good at drawing Charlie Brown and Snoopy on his doghouse. I used to show them around class and my friends asked me to draw them one, too. My teacher interjected and said, “these are great Doug, but don’t forget Charles Schultz draws those for a living. Snoopy and Charlie Brown are his characters”. Then I knew it was time to invent my own style of drawing, and I did. I drew a lot as a kid, but I really didn’t start drawing cartoons seriously until I attended Syracuse University and drew sports cartoons for the Daily Orange student newspaper.

What led or attracted you to editorial cartooning?

I had a wonderful history teacher in high school who instilled a terrific sense of patriotic and civic pride in me and it’s stayed with me to this day. One of my college art projects was a dictionary of American political slang. I drew dozens of cartoons on terms such as ‘boondoggle’, ‘gobbledegook’ and ‘jawboning’. While doing the research I found a book on editorial cartooning that had the work of the active editorial cartoonists. It was terrific inspiration. Editorial cartoonists drew a cartoon a day and got to express their own opinions about the world’s events and issues. They got paid once a week to be artists with a conscience. I said, “Sign me up.”

Easier said than done. That was in 1980. It was a recession and newspapers weren’t lining up to sign on new untried editorial cartoonists. After graduation and a short stint as a copywriter at an ad agency, I put a portfolio together and startedhunting for a job as an editorial cartoonist. It was the days of the Iranian hostage crisis, Jimmy Carter and his brother, Billy. After a year and a half I finally landed a position at a small newspaper in eastern Connecticut called the Norwich Bulletin. Family owned and liberal, it fit right in with what and where I needed to be. Those were wonder days. Every cartoon was new and I had fantastic creative freedom. I worked hard at my new craft and developed my own true distinctive drawing style. I had a wonderful eight-year stint there.

How did you decide the subjects and topics of your editorial cartoons?

Most of the time the cartoons needed to pass the ‘water cooler’ test: What are people talking about at work, at the breakfast or dinner table? I would scan the front pages of The News-Press and I would always pick a topic I felt drawn to, passionate about and was relevant to reader’s lives. I always drew for the readers and followed my own intuition about what they cared about.

What did you try to achieve with your editorial cartoons?

The editorial cartoon box was my window on to the world. Whether it was local, state or national, it was a chance to express my personal views. It wasn’t so much about changing minds or getting readers to agree. It was more about sharing my thoughts, insights and passions. I always try to get readers thinking about the world around them. Editorial cartoons are a rare and engaging form of art. I always drew my editorial cartoons to give you both a laugh and jolt of reality.

What was the process like – from concept to finished art?

Most of the day was spent reviewing the day’s news topics. Finding a visual vehicle to move the idea was always the trick. I would always try and ‘feel’ what the issue was saying to me and take a stand. A good editorial cartoon isn’t stagnant, it’s engaging. It should make you think, but not lose you in esoteric nonsense. It should be direct, clever, insightful, satirical and funny.

By early afternoon I would try and have a topic picked out. Sometimes it would take till late afternoon to ‘get’ my idea. When it was about 4 o’clock and I had no cartoon idea I would leave my office and walk around The News-Press offices. While stopping to visit with reporters and staff in other departments I would always ask them what was going on and what was new. Those conversations would always lead to a relevant and timely idea for the next day’s cartoon.

Once I went back to the drawing board and had an idea I was fine. Drawing was always the fun part. I would start by drawing the cartoon in pencil and then inking it in afterwards. It usually took up to two hours to pencil and ink. Once that was finished I would take the finished drawing to the copy machine and reduce it in size to fit under a scanner. After the black & white drawing was scanned it was time to add color. Photoshop has always been a huge time saver for adding color. I can usually color each cartoon in about half an hour. Then two versions of the same cartoon were saved, one in black & white for the print edition and one in color for online.

Were there any issues that you were particularly concerned with when drawing editorial cartoons?

I would have to say education and the environment were always my ‘close to home’ issues. Coming from a family of educators I am always passionate about teachers, schools and making sure the classroom is taken care of.

Were any of your cartoons particularly controversial – receiving a lot of feedback?

The George W. Bush years were my most controversial. I did many cartoons on our ill-advised involvement in Iraq that raised the ire of local conservatives. Many mailbag letters and emails referred to me as unpatriotic and a communist. What those critics didn’t understand was that reaction only fueled my resolve to draw more and take the White House to task for causing more unnecessary casualties. That war was ugly and the conservative reaction to my cartoons was particularly nasty. I also did my best and proudest work in that time period.

You also write and illustrate children’s books. Why and how did that develop?

I graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in illustration in 1979. Since then I have always wanted to write and illustrate children’s books. It’s the inner child in me that has to share stories that are light-hearted and fun. Writing and drawing children’s books seems to come naturally for me. I love the process of writing, developing and drawing characters and then producing a finished product. All my books have been self-published and printed locally.

My most recent two books are Rad Hair Day and Turtellini, The Turbo-Charged Turtle. Both are available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.com.

Rad Hair Day is dedicated to children struggling with special challenges that result in long-term medical hair loss. It’s a tall tale about the care for hair and a cause to share that takes two teens around the world with style and imagination. I’m also selling it at local hair salons and hospitals to raise funds for health-related charities.

Turtellini, The Turbo-Charged Turtle stars Turtellini, an inventor who happens to be a turtle. He sets his sights on breaking the water speed record and designs a series of turbo-charged engines to get him there. The book focuses on drive, ambition, invention and always begs the question, “what if?”

Your paintings are quite different from your cartoons and graphic design. What do you enjoy about painting as compared to cartooning?

I love to paint landscapes and clouds, which I like to call ‘cloudscapes’. I always get a window seat when I fly and take photos of the clouds. I also love to paint to music. I usually paint in oils, but lately I have rediscovered acrylics. I love its immediacy and the colors are a lot more vibrant. Most of my paintings I do for fun and others I donate to charitable causes.

You have a few CDs of original songs. How did you get into songwriting and recording?

I have a new-found love for singing. I used to play violin and guitar as a young child, but I gave that musical portion of my life up to pursue art as a career. The last ten years or so I returned to playing guitar. I like to create chord progressions, then sing and record scat tones and vowel sounds I think fit the guitar work. Then I go back and write words and phrases that mimic the vowel scat tones I created. It takes a while to work out lyrics that rhyme and match the tonal sounds, but I always let the music guide my words. Each year around just before Christmas I put together a CD of personal songs and share them with friends and family. Some of these tunes are on my website: www.dougcreates.com

You also teach cartooning and ‘creativity’. How do you teach ‘creativity’?

After drawing a cartoon a day for 32 years I had to stop one day when asked, “How do you do that everyday?” I thought about it and pondered the process. Being able to turn a light bulb over my head each day doesn’t come naturally, it’s work. And it’s a process.

I began to write down all the tricks, techniques and processes I have used to think up ideas each day. I began to realize creativity is part art and part science, as well as a right and left-brain process. I think most people use the left side of their brain more than their right in everyday life, but the right side holds and unlocks the wonder, imagination and intuition that is essential to the creative process. After three months of writing and drawing I self-published a book entitled, Get Creative, Turn On The Bright Side Of Your Brain. It’s been a big hit locally and contains activities meant to help the young and young at heart be more creative. In addition I teach classes and workshops locally for all ages using the book as a guide.

What do you tell young kids about the importance of art and humor?

Creating art and finding the humor in everyday life are both a healing tool and a mission statement for me. These two help smooth out the bumpy paths I have to cross in life. Walking that talk everyday is my personal challenge. I always try to convey to young kids the importance of remaining creative by drawing, painting, singing, dancing, writing, acting and keeping their inner child healthy. It’s a funny thing watching a six year old fill up a white piece of paper with drawing after drawing. Only minutes later they will ask for more paper because ideas are still flowing out of them constantly. Then if you do the same to a sixteen year old they will tell you, “I can’t think of anything to draw.” What happens between the wonder of a six year old and the bewilderment of a teen is the interesting part of creativity. When the inner child is safe, happy, and filled with light-hearted laughter the flow is natural. When the inner child changes as we become adults so too does the natural ability to create. Humor and the ability to stay young at heart play a big role in staying creative through life.

Most recently in April and May I had two art gallery showings in Fort Myers. I was fortunate to display over thirty or so of my original cartoons at the Coloring The World Gallery on Dean Street in April.

In May I had a one-man retrospective at the Alliance for the Arts of my humorous art entitled, ‘Poked in the Mind’s Eye: The Humorous Perspective of Doug MacGregor ‘. It included many new works that made you laugh, think, and wonder, as well as, challenge your imagination. My two new books including original art for, Rad Hair Day and Turtellini, The Turbo-Charged Turtle were also on display.

After 32 years as an editorial cartoonist - what are your plans for the future?

I plan to teach my creativity workshops to young and old around town and beyond. My goal is to take my creativity and cartoon talks on the road and present at conferences, schools, libraries, book stores, life enrichment centers and where ever there is an opportunity. Leaving the News-Press has provided me a chance to open new doors and share my insights as an artist. My children’s books will hopefully get into the hands of larger publishing houses who see future promise in my work. Wherever I end up along this path I hope I am helping others to laugh and enriching their lives by being more creative everyday as we all grow younger. •

from the September-October 2011 issue

Editorial cartoonists
drew a cartoon a day
and got to express
their own opinions
about the world’s
events and issues.
They got paid
once a week
to be artists
with a conscience

Creating art and finding
the humor in everyday life
are both a healing tool and
a mission statement for me.