Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – He uses a cane and moves slowly but the mordant wit guiding the pen that launched thousands of political cartoons skewering the powerful and despotic is still evident.
He’s taken on Putin, Nixon, the Clintons, Kim Jong-un and countless other politicians and dictators.
The unique character of his cartoons, that at one time were syndicated in an estimated 500 newspapers worldwide, is unmistakable.
Pat Oliphant, 86, sips coffee in his Santa Fe home studio as he tells a reporter he has not drawn for several years after his eyesight deteriorated.
Dressed casually in a blue shirt and cardigan sweater with a shock of white hair, he relates a career that started in his native Australia as he playfully banters with his wife of over 30 years, Susan Conway Oliphant.
“The thing he liked was studying the features and what part of a politician was telling and what he stood for,” said Conway Oliphant.
“Did I say that, I must say that in the future,” Oliphant responds. “I don’t know how I survived in here, it’s bloody cold,” he said, as he sat in the studio, filled with small notebooks where cartoons were first sketched.
A mutual friend introduced the couple in Washington, D.C., where Conway Oliphant owned an art gallery after becoming an art conservator and studying in France.
They bought their home here in 1996 but Oliphant has been coming to Santa Fe since his days at the Denver Post in the 1960s and ’70s. “It’s been a long association,” he said. He went on to work at the Washington Star during Watergate and then his work was syndicated and also appeared for several years in the Journal.
Getting ready to start the fun
He read two newspapers and watched a morning news show to start his day and then hit the drawing board where for some 60 years a cartoon was finished by noon to be transmitted to newspapers worldwide.
“It all comes together at one time after you make up your mind what you want to say,” said Oliphant. “That’s when the fun starts, otherwise you scrap the whole thing and start again.”
“That doesn’t happen very often,” said Conway Oliphant.
The studio, infused with natural light, displays numerous sculptures that Oliphant created simultaneously with his cartoons as well as wood carvings he tinkered with.
He shows visitors a caricature figure of Richard Nixon bent over with his hands covering his private parts. That’s titled “Nixon Holding His Own,” said Conway Oliphant.
“She always blushes when she has to say that,” Oliphant teases her.
He started as a copy boy at his hometown paper, the Adelaide News. It’s one of Rupert Murdoch’s early papers, and Oliphant gives the media mogul no quarter.
“There is nothing great about Murdoch, he should have been euthanized early,” said Oliphant.
His parents nurtured his drawing talents and he became a political cartoonist at 20. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1964 to become the cartoonist for the Post.
Political columnist Fred Brown worked with Oliphant at the Post. “What a magnificent character!” Brown said in a phone interview.
Oliphant had a penchant for cartoons that would never make it into a family paper such as LBJ naked, said Brown.
“Oh yeah, I did a lot of those,” Oliphant said, when told of the anecdote.
He lamented the changing media environment, which he thinks has weakened the political cartoon trade.
“They’re not but they could be (still powerful),” he said. “Something happened with the internet, I don’t know what it was that really killed off (cartoons) … in some strange way it terminated the use of good cartoons.
“The practitioners are no longer treating it as an art, which it is.”
A villain a day for motivation
Oliphant’s cartoons are populated with villains, which he needs for inspiration.
“I should say Trump,” he answers when asked what villains would get him mad today. But he was “not to my satisfaction,” able to capture the ex-president.
“I did him several times, but getting that self-satisfaction in his face, it’s almost impossible to voice really my disgust for that guy,” he said.
Oliphant frequently depicted Russian President Vladimir Putin, sometimes as an oversized figure looming over dissidents or as the shirtless “Superslav” racing on horseback. He often includes Punk, the little penguin he invented in Australia, at the bottom of cartoons, who in this cartoon opines, “That Putin is a riot.”
A lifetime of reading has underscored his sense of justice. “I like to take the side of the guy that I think is worthwhile … There’s an attitude of being for the little guy, the oppressed, being on the side of the guy who needs a little lift.”
In the early days, Oliphant would give drawings away to admirers, but now his wife is learning about and compiling a database for posterity and for scholars to research.
“We are keeping the whole body of work because it’s too important as a history of the second half of the last century,” she said. About 10,000 have been catalogued but Oliphant may have done as many as 15,000 or 20,000, said Conway Oliphant.
About 7,000 originals have been gifted to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and the Library of Congress has several thousand. Yale University has some.
Conway Oliphant is still in awe of her husband’s body of work.
“I think he’s a miracle,” she said. “To get up in the morning and think about what you are going to do that day … and how he’s going to say what he thinks and get it out by noon … and to do it every day for 60 years.”
If not for the cartoon decline and his eyes, Oliphant might still be skewering his next target.
“We have seen the demise of a perfectly good mode of expression, it’s awful and I don’t know how it will ever be resuscitated,” he said.
“I miss it every day of my life because it was something I enjoyed, really enjoyed.”