If you’ve been to any of the events lately at Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen‘s office or the NJ11th For Change rallies you’ve probably noticed that Verona’s congressman wasn’t there but a cartoon-like cardboard cutout of him was. What you might not have noticed is that the cutout is the work of a Verona artist, Pam Wye.
Wye has a bachelor of fine arts from Syracuse University, a MFA from Vermont College and, before her family became Verona residents 14 years ago, a well-established career as a painter and graphic artist, creating works with a strong narrative thrust. But Wye also has what she says is an “obsessive interest” in politics. So it was perhaps fate that her art side and her political side would meld in 2015 when Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president. She began crafting what the editorial art world calls “single-panel gags”: Cartoons that invite a response from viewers through both the scenario they depict and the punchline underneath.
Editorial cartoons have a storied place in politics, from the “Don’t Tread On Me” drawing of the American Revolution to Honore Daumier’s caricatures of French King Louis Philippe in the early 19th century and Thomas Nast’s campaign against Boss Tweed in 1870s New York City. The contractions in the newspaper industry and shrinking editorial budgets had meant fewer opportunities for cartoonists–until their work found new outlets online.
As the presidential campaign progressed, Wye says she found herself almost paralyzed by what was transpiring. She did a few cartoons, but their audience was limited to family and Facebook friends. Then came election night. “That was a crystallizing moment,” she says. “I decided that I had to do something that only I can do.”
Her drawings of Trump took on a sharper tone. “Having a voice in the bigger conversation is important,” Wye says. She also then discovered Frelinghuysen, the Republican who has represented Verona in Congress since the town was gerrymandered away from Democrat Bill Pascrell in 2012. She deftly captured Frelinghuysen’s slightly rumpled preppy look and pointedly asked, in her captions, what he was doing to stand up for his constituents. With the emergence of NJ11th For Change–a non-partisan group formed to hold Frelinghuysen accountable to his district, she found a new outlet for her work, and posted her cartoons to its Facebook page.
NJ11th For Change enlarged her drawing and turned it into a cardboard cutout. It has taken on a life of its own, standing in for the real Frelinghuysen on stage at the group’s town halls and posing with constituents–some of them Verona residents–in Instagram photos and videos. Wye is amused to see how rally-goers have interacted with the cutout, including posing it so it appears that Frelinghuysen is peering in through the door at one venue. (Frelinghuysen did not return an email asking for comment on his cartoon double.)
Wye works in gouache, an opaque watercolor that she notes was Walt Disney’s preferred medium for drawing. When the paper drawing is finished, Wye scans it into her computer and emails it off to her twin sons, now freshmen at Syracuse and Brandeis universities, for a friendly family critique.
The enthusiastic reception for her political drawings notwithstanding, Wye remains deeply committed to her work as an art teacher and director of the fine arts department at Newark-based St. Benedict’s Prep, where the arts are often a needed outlet for expression in the difficult lives of its students. “Art,” she says, “is their voice too.”
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