Sutton’s Artfulness Conquers NYC (and Beyond)

Originally Published in the October 2011 Entertainment Guide

It’s been a good year for New York City artist Ward Sutton, St. Olaf Class of 1989. Four of his cartoons were published in the New Yorker. In April he drew cover art for a special comics issue of the Village Voice (described in the Washington Post as a “glorious menagerie of mashups inspired by cartooning greats”). In May he was awarded a Gold Medal by the Society of Publication Designers for “Tea Party Comics” created for the Boston Globe last fall. These parodies of comics, drawn in the guise of a Tea Party artist, also won Sutton two prizes from the Society of Newspaper Designers. His 1997 illustration of the band Prodigy has been on display since September at the Museum of American Illustration in NYC in an exhibit of artwork which has appeared in Rolling Stone Magazine album reviews.

And now Sutton is being featured in “Historic Happenings” for our special October visual arts issue. Well, perhaps this honor is far down on the list of his achievements this year, but Sutton does have a fondness for Northfield and for St. Olaf as the “launching pad” of his successful career.

Sutton, an art major, took a Manhattan Interim course in January of his sophomore year, visiting artists and exploring art galleries and the city. Now, Sutton says, he is “one of the artists St. Olaf students visit” for this course. Sutton is glad he went to a good liberal arts college and not a school specializing in art, as is often the case with East Coast artists he has met. Says Sutton: “I feel lucky I went to St. Olaf and got a well-rounded education. I am grateful for classes such as writing, religion and philosophy which inform my work.”

Sutton appreciated the outlets St. Olaf provided for showcasing artistic work on campus. Sutton set up exhibitions for his art, designed T-shirts for dorms and posters for a campus band (which flowered into his making distinctive rock concert posters in the 1990s). Sutton had also devoted a lot of time to the Manitou Messenger paper as graphics and back page editor, creating editorial cartoons, a humor column and a weekly comic strip “Ole Road.” (See box.) During Sutton’s junior year at St. Olaf, he received a first place prize for best editorial cartoon in a collegiate newspaper at the Minnesota Newspaper Association convention for his cartoon about the Twins’ World Series victory in 1987.

Sutton’s Award-winning 1987 Manitou Messenger cartoon.Courtesy St. Olaf College Archives.

Sutton, a 1985 graduate of Edina High School, had been encouraged in his drawing talents at an early age by his teachers. A sixth grade teacher even took comic strips he and a friend had drawn, laminated them and made them into a bound book. Another teacher put a caricature he had done in a display case which, Sutton says, “got me excited and made an impact.” An avid comic book reader and collector, Sutton was inspired particularly by the comic strip “Bloom County” which he talked about with friends every day and emulated in his drawing.

After graduation from St. Olaf, Sutton had a weekly comic strip “Ward’s Cleaver” in the Twin Cities Reader. He moved to Seattle in 1991, married his college classmate Sue Unkenholz in 1994 and designed and illustrated concert posters for bands in the emerging Seattle music scene.

Sutton had just initiated a comic strip “Schlock ‘n’ Roll” in which he was skewering trends in popular music for a Seattle music newspaper, The Rocket, when he and his wife moved to New York in 1995. This strip was picked up by the Village Voice in 1998. Sutton broadened the scope of the strip beyond music, renamed it “Sutton Impact” in 2002 and it ran until 2007. A book, Sutton Impact: The Political Cartoons of Ward Sutton, was published in 2005. Sutton continues as a frequent contributor to the Voice.

Sutton had been distinguishing himself in the world of poster art, creating limited edition silk-screened brightly colored posters of bands such as Beck, Blues Traveler, Pearl Jam and Phish through the San Francisco company ArtRock. But it was a poster for a Broadway show that “completely changed my career,” Sutton says.

“Superhero: Semi-Self-Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Courtesy of Ward Sutton

The break came when Sutton did a drawing of John Leguizamo for the Broadway show “Freak” in late 1997. The poster, in bright Day-Glo colors, was seen all over the city.  Innovative, not photo-based, “It just jumped off the wall, raised my profile and got the attention of art directors,” says Sutton. In February of 1998, Sutton had his first poster art exhibition in New York. This exhibit toured to Minneapolis, Seattle, Boulder and Austin, Texas, in 1999.

Sutton’s art was bringing him increased recognition in other avenues. His portrait of Prince Charles was on the cover of New York Times Magazine in November of 1998. In May of 1999, the New York Times published his first of many “Op-Art” cartoons on the Op-Ed page. Sutton contributed a bi-weekly cartoon “That’s Entertoonment!” to TV Guide from 2000-03. He produced art for Robert Redford’s 2000 Sundance Film Festival, cover art for Rolling Stone Magazine in December of 2000 and for TV Guide in January of 2001. Sutton has done illustrations for Esquire, Time, Entertainment Weekly, Sports Illustrated, The Nation, Onion and many other publications.

Sutton has also been involved in the field of animation. In the fall of 2001 he designed and directed an animated short for HBO. He did the animated opening sequence to the show “Strangers with Candy” on Comedy Central and has also worked on many Nickelodeon “TV Land” projects.

Sutton does monthly reviews of books in both words and cartoons called “Drawn to Read” for Barnes & Noble online (bnreview.barnesandnoble.com). When Sarah Palin wrote her autobiography “Going Rogue” in 2009, Sutton reviewed it as “Going Rote,” with the editor’s note that “Ward Sutton gives us a quick slog” through the ghostwritten book “so that we don’t have to read it ourselves.” Sutton says he enjoys “getting paid to read.”

Sutton’s poster for the Broadway show “Freak” was a career-changer in 1997. Courtesy Ward Sutton.

Sutton also collaborates with his brother, producer/composer Mark Sutton, on projects. Ward Sutton’s wife Sue Unkenholz, formerly executive director of the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall, now works as her husband’s business partner. They have two children, Yneth (8) and Tavio (4). Sutton’s website is suttonimpactstudio.com

Sutton has returned to Northfield on occasion to give talks and renew friendships. In March of 2002 he gave a presentation “Artobiography: From Manitou to Manhattan” which included an exhibit in the Dittmann Center art gallery. In October of 2007 he was the keynote speaker at a conference forum called “Entrepreneurship in the Arts” on issues facing all artists. Sutton advised young artists to head for New York, be persistent and give publishers or directors “something to remember you by.” Sutton said at one time he had bleached his hair, and people knew him years later as “that guy with the really blond hair.”

When Sutton comes to Northfield, there is one person he is always sure to reconnect with, St. Olaf art professor Wendell Arneson. Sutton says, “I cannot overstate the positive influence Wendell has had on me and my work. As my professor, my adviser at St. Olaf, and now my friend, he is a model of integrity as an artist and as a person. With his great talent, his keen eye, and his intuitive sensibilities, he was an incredible mentor to me and his work is engaging and inspiring. In short, Wendell rocks.”

Sutton’s animation art is featured on Comedy Central’s “Strangers with Candy.” Image courtesy Ward Sutton.

Arneson praises Sutton’s “very sharp intellect” and says both Sutton and his wife Sue are “very much citizens of the world, sensitive to all people’s cultures and faiths.” Open to the thinking of others, Sutton is “bugged when we as a country become very self-centered,”  which Arneson says comes out in Sutton’s political cartoons.

Arneson attributes much of Sutton’s success in cartoon parodying (see box) to his “gift of willingness to be a risk-taker.” Arneson says Sutton is “always looking, as all strong creative individuals do in the arts. Be alert and pay attention. It’s blatantly as simple as that.” Sutton’s technical skills facilitate his drawing in this style, with results that are “not obvious or trite.”

When Sutton was about to graduate from St. Olaf in 1989, the question came up about whether he should go on to graduate school. Arneson felt at that time graduate school “was not an appropriate direction to follow based on his illustration and political cartooning goals.”

“Time and experience,” Arneson told him, “will take you where you want to go.”

Sutton found a paper he had written for his St. Olaf Interim course in Manhattan. In it, Sutton had written about his career goal: to work as a successful artist in New York City.

Turns out Arneson was right.

Sutton (center) created chalkboard art portraits for a 2010 promotional event in Manhattan for the television show “Glee.” Sutton is shown with cast members Cory Monteith (left) who plays Finn, and Mark Salling (right) who plays Puck. Photo courtesy Ward Sutton.

Down the Ol’ Ole Road with Ward Sutton

First Ole Road cartoon. Courtesy St. Olaf College Archives.

Ward Sutton’s talent burst out on the pages of the Manitou Messenger shortly after his arrival on campus. His first cartoon, “Quiet, Please, I’m Trying to Study,” on Sept. 13, 1985, strikes a familiar chord today. (See illustration.) An editorial cartoon on Pres. Ronald Reagan on Oct. 4 established a political mindset still evident in Sutton’s work today. (Hint: he is unlikely to be invited to a Republican Tea Party gathering.)

Sutton’s weekly comic strip “Ole Road” debuted on Sept. 26, 1986, by introducing mismatched roommates Adam and Moonstone. The strip became an enduring and endearing feature of the newspaper until the characters (and Sutton) graduated in 1989. Moonstone’s parents follow the Grateful Dead which accounts for their son’s name, looks and attitude. (At his birth in 1966, Moonstone explains, his parents cried, “Just what we wanted. A hippie! Tie-dye some diapers!” and he protested the Vietnam war with them as a toddler.) Moonstone tries to get uptight Adam to lighten up, with beers off campus and a setup with Heavy Metal Helga from Carleton. Spoiler alert: after Adam spends time abroad his senior year, broadening his horizons, a newly hirsute Adam appears in the strip, announcing, “Hi, I’m liberal.” But it doesn’t last. He declares, “I’m getting sick of granola! Besides…how many grassroots members drive Porsches?” The real Adam returns before graduation, shorn and in sweater and button-down shirt.

First Sutton cartoon in Manitou Messenger, Sept. 13, 1985.Courtesy St. Olaf College Archives.

Early in 1987, “condom-mania” broke out on campus as the college abstained from participating in “National Condom Week.” After an employee sold condoms at the Lion’s Pause, provoking many pro and con letters to the editor, Sutton gleefully produced a “Haunting Scenario” on “Ole Road” of what would happen if condoms were sold by the campus health service. A mock Messenger headline is “Wave of Casual Sex Sweeps Campus!! Olaf Image Declines.” A student runs off with fistfuls of condoms saying, “Forget any moral convictions I may have previously had one way or another…Now that Olaf has condoms, I’m having sex!” Notice is posted on a classroom door: “Sorry – Class cancelled due to sex!” The college president calls an emergency meeting of the board of regents but is told, “Sorry, Sir, they’re all out having sex!” The whole matter was spoofed with a Messenger headline “Students Demand Condiments” on May 8. 

In the fall of 1987, a new character introduced himself to Moonstone: “I am your new roommate as assigned by Star Fleet Command.” His name: Spock, a Trekkie (follower of the TV/movie “Star Trek” series). Moonstone has trouble adjusting, especially since his new roommate “thinks Led Zeppelin is some kind of Klingon vessel or something.”   

For the last “Ole Road” of April 28, 1989, Sutton imagined the future of his Ole Road ensemble, with Spock becoming president of the Trekkie Fan Club, Adam running for vice president with presidential candidate Dan Quayle, Moonstone following the Grateful Dead until the death of Jerry Garcia.

In the last panel Sutton appeared in a drawing of himself, heading away from Ole Road, saying, “Well, so long! See ya in the funny papers…”

Dreams do come true.

Sutton Noted for Cartoon Parodies

Sutton’s Village Voice comics issue of April 6, 2011 cover is widely praised. Image courtesy Ward Sutton.

Sutton has been given accolades by his peers, publishers and the public for his uncanny ability to parody drawing styles of many other cartoonists. He displayed this talent in the Manitou Messengers in the December issues of 1987 and 1988, treating fellow Oles to comic parodies of “Scarfield” (“Garfield”), “Gloom County” (“Bloom County”), “Deniss the Homicidal Menace,” and so on.

Sutton parodied 20 comics, giving them a rightward slant, for his award-winning “Tea Party” comics for the Boston Globe last fall. These included Hagar (“Horribly Misrepresented by the Liberally-Biased Media”) saying, “I’m fed up with big government over-regulating our raping and pillaging!” and  “The Family (Not a Circus, a Sacred Institution)” showing the children wailing, after watching Fox News: “Pres’dent Osama is gonna kill Gran-ma with Death Panels.” Sutton told the Globe his favorite parody was “Family Circus” because the “fearful hysteria embodied by Tea Partiers seems a natural fit coming from the mouths of irrational little children.” Sutton added that the best response he has gotten from the Tea Party comics was a message of “resounding praise” from the “Usual Gang of Idiots” at Mad Magazine.

Sutton’s cover art in the Village Voice of April 6 of this year takes his talent a step further, as he draws traditional comic book characters as they might be portrayed by other comic artists. For example, a surprisingly curvaceous Olive Oyl is drawn in the style of R. Crumb, Charlie Brown in the action comic style of Jack Kirby.

Sutton’s mentor at St. Olaf, Wendell Arneson, admires the inspired versatility of Sutton and says, “It is always magical to see what he comes up with in his art.”

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