January 28, 2004
Eagle cartoonist Crowson to open exhibit Tuesday at Cowley
From the time Richard Crowson was young, he liked to draw, and he liked art.
Now, the 51-year-old is making a living drawing. He's the editorial cartoonist for The Wichita Eagle, and he's scheduled to appear Tuesday at Cowley County Community College.
Crowson will be the featured speaker at 7 p.m. Tuesday as part of the Irwin Visiting Artist Series at Cowley. The reception and talk will be held in the Earle N. Wright Community Room and Gallery inside the Brown Center on the main campus. Crowson's exhibit of 28 political cartoons will be on display through Feb. 18.
"Some people balk at the term cartoons," Crowson said. "They sort of stumble over what to call them. Maybe cartoon has a lack of sophistication, but it's fine for me."
Crowson has been at The Eagle since 1986. He spent the first year as a graphic artist, and began drawing editorial cartoons full time in fall 1987. A Memphis, Tenn., native, Crowson previously worked at the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun.
"For decades, The Eagle had a guy who did editorial cartoons on the side," Crowson said. "He developed a local reputation. It was called Hoots and Quacks, about an owl and a duck. I sort of had to talk them (The Eagle) into creating a position."
Crowson, who once was Elvis Presley's paperboy at Graceland in Memphis, draws five cartoons a week. His work does not appear in The Eagle on Mondays or Saturdays or when the captionless contest winner is displayed every other Monday. Crowson's contest has become popular with subscribers.
"I started the contest about a year-and-a-half ago," he said. "I get 50 to 150 entrants every time we do it. It's really fun. It gives readers a chance to express their creativity. A lot of people describe their ideas, but they can't draw. Yet, they have an urge to do political satire."
Crowson's work displayed in the Wright Gallery is some he's most proud, "not too eccentric. They're not cartoons about Wichita politics. That wouldn't have a lot of interest in Cowley County."
Crowson said the process of drawing his cartoons was quite simple. Rather than have editors cram ideas down his throat, he stays in tune with his surroundings.
"I do have discussions with editors about what writers are writing about," he said. "Half the time I'm a loose cannon. It's kind of an issue in editorial cartooning with some whether an editor gives you an idea and you draw that idea. It's much better to have the enthusiasm of your political opinion about what you draw. It's not just a funny comment on the news. It's an attempt to express my point of view about the news.
"I'm so lucky at The Eagle that I've never had someone tell me what to draw. They turn me loose. It's a wonderful thing for me creatively, and I try not to abuse it."
On a typical day, Crowson arrives at The Eagle by 8 or 8:30 every morning. He sits in on editorial meetings three days a week to discuss issues. He tries to have his cartoon roughed out in pencil by noon. He said he might draw two or three different cartoons and show them to co-workers.
"First, I want to see whether they get the point of the cartoon," Crowson said. "Then I judge from their reaction if it's something I want to pursue. Then I go back to the drawing board. In early afternoon, I do the pen-and-ink drawing. Drawing the final product takes an hour-and-a-half. The hard part is all the thought that has to go into it."
Eagle readers have noticed a constant character in Crowson's cartoons. He's Al, Crowson's late wire-haired fox terrier.
"I had Al nine years," Crowson said. "He died two years ago, and at the time of his death, I decided to put him in my cartoons. I'm far from the first cartoonist to have a mascot in the corner. It's a fun little device to get another jab in."
Crowson, who holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Memphis (Memphis State when he graduated), decided against becoming a fourth-generation Methodist minister. Instead, he's found his niche, both professionally and geographically.
"I've really found the place to do it," he said. "I love Wichita. I love the whole Midwest. It's still kind of exotic to me, having lived in the South. There are so many things I like about the people here in the Midwest. One is their attitudes."
The other reason Crowson enjoys Wichita is its proximity to a Cowley County tradition, the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield.
"I'm a Bluegrass banjo player," he said. "When I was in Tennessee, I had always wanted to come to the Walnut Valley Festival, but something would always come up. When I interviewed at The Eagle, I decided I could come to the festival. I haven't missed a one."
Not only has Crowson attended the festival as a fan, he's also performed, as has wife Karen.
In 1992, Crowson published a collection of his editorial cartoons in a book titled "Prairie Mirth."
"It was a take-off on a book called Prairie Earth," Crowson said. "But few people got it."
Crowson's work has been reprinted in Time and Newsweek magazines, the New York Times and USA Today newspapers, and several books.