Barack Obama: Portraits of a President - An interview with Richard Baker

Barack Obama: Portraits of a President - An interview with Richard Baker Barack Obama: Portraits of a President is an essential evening of illustration brilliance featuring artists Barry Blitt, Steve Brodner, Anita Kunz, and Edel Rodriguez, sponsored by the Society of Publication Designers and hosted (and organized) by art director Richard Baker. The event will be Tuesday, November 17 at 7p at the Helen Mills Theater, 137 W. 26th St. in NYC. Get tix and more info here.

Richard Baker is a noted designer who has directed the visual identities of numerous top magazines, including Parade, Life, Us, Vibe and more. We interviewed RIchard about the Portraits of a President evening.

(Above): Illustration from The New Yorker by Barry Blitt.

Why President Obama? Why now?
President Obama is a controversial presence in politics, and he makes for a great subject among illustrators. Now that we're near the end of his eight years as President and are in the middle of the next election, I thought it would be a good time to look back through the eyes of some of the best-known and accomplished visual satirists--who also are some of my favorite illustrators. I think it's rare to witness in real time the authentication (which is what these artists do) of a moment in the American political timeline. This event will give the audience the opportunity to see some great works of visual journalism while hearing the artists talk about their personal journeys in creating these stunning portrayals of President Obama.

Four of the most-renowned political satirists will be on stage: Barry Blitt, Steve Brodner, Anita Kunz, and Edel Rodriguez. These artists have been assigned work by some of the best-known publications in the world. They will compare notes, tell anecdotes and exchange views with each other and the audience about what it takes to portray, sometimes in undignified parody, the most powerful politician in the world, and what it might say about us. The discussion will also take the long view of these visual documents in the context of journalistic history. They will discuss the challenges of illustrating someone whose politics they might or might not agree with, and the fine line they sometimes walk between healthy respect and appropriate cynicism. Politics mixed with art should provide a lively discussion!

SPDObama2.jpgWhy did you decide to organize this event?
I love illustration and I am interested in politics and I often hear, "Politics and art don't mix." Not true. Sometime they do mix and with great results. I am excited about the opportunity to gather four of the best illustrators to exchange views with each other and the audience about what it takes to portray the first African American President--and why the visual documents that they create matter.

Politics, race, and art--seems like a winner to me. I also wanted to do something in my little corner of the world as a response to the media--of which I am a part --and the way it throws around that awful phrase, "post-racial." That makes me cringe.

What particular challenges exist for artists who illustrate President Obama?

OK, let's put aside the ridiculous notion of "post-racial." When Barack Obama was elected President, race became a subject that could not be avoided. More and more, especially in the last year and a half, the issue of race has been front and center in the media. So the idea of satirizing the first African American President definitely presents more than a bit of a minefield. But getting to the other side and treating him like any other President--now that's the fun journey and these four illustrators will happily explain that process. I think the nature of who this President is has changed the rules of the game on so many levels. I don't mean just politically, but also to all of us as individuals living in America with the first black President--and what that means going forward.

How did you pick the four illustrators who are on the panel?

First of all they're great political minds and they are also some of my favorite illustrators and political satirists. Each of them brings their own perspective to their work on Obama.

Edel Rodriguez can be very conceptual--he uses ideas and process and not "a style" to push his work forward. He is also an accomplished painter and I see much of that in his work.

Anita Kunz, like so many Canadians I've met, is good humored, self-deprecating and an incredible talent. Her images are impactful, refined and full of subtleties. Her renderings have a moment in time sense about them, almost like a camera that makes illustrations.

Barry Blitt is almost synonymous with The New Yorker and satirical Obama covers. There is an wicked intelligent wit in his pictures in spite of how quiet they might seem on the surface.

Steve Brodner is fearless. I feel that he is like an impressionist taking the ticks and quirks of a personality, exaggerating them and using them in his illustrations. He is a great satirist--his images of Obama and the political scene cut like a knife to expose the ridiculous, and allows you to laugh at it.

What can students learn from attending?
This is an event that illustration, graphic design, and journalism students shouldn't miss. It's a rare opportunity for students to hear from four fascinating illustrators about some of their best-known, award-winning illustrations--which have been seen by millions of people. It presents the chance to hear behind-the-scenes talk about what it takes to be a working illustrator, what inspires them, and how they got their start. Plus they'll get to see delightfully compelling and captivating images. This will be an enjoyable, electrifying, and very inspiring evening.

Tickets for Barack Obama: Portraits of a President are available here.

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