His favorite presidents to draw are Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. The reason? Jowls and hair, respectively. Cartoonists emphasize distinctive features to create a likeness. “When you’re drawing the president or anybody, the more attractive they are, the more difficult they are to draw,” says award-winning editorial cartoonist Mike Smith. “Obama doesn’t have a lot of features, other than ears.”
Over the course of six presidencies, or 34 years, Smith has been turning his observations and opinions into political cartoons for the Las Vegas Sun (the Weekly’s sister publication). His work is widely syndicated and has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post and elsewhere.
Now, as presidential politics dominate the national conversation, Nevada Humanities is presenting an exhibition of his work, titled Cartooning the Presidency. The exhibit consists of a selection of Smith’s favorite presidential cartoons from over the decades. They appear in their original 11-by-14-inch format, which allows the viewer to see beyond the pristine published version. “There are corrections and smudges—things in the art that are not perfect,” Smith says, encouraging the viewer to look closely. He still draws his cartoons by hand, drafting in blue pencil and inking with Sharpies and brush pens. He scans the drawings, then adds color in Photoshop.
One of Smith’s biggest challenges is coming up with a cartoon every day. “It’s really about reading,” Smith says. “My day is 90 percent absorbing information and 10 percent drawing.” The pressure of a deadline cures any blocks. “The closer you get to deadline, the more creative you become,” he says.
Astonishingly, even though his work appears in the Opinion section, readers sometimes complain that Smith’s cartoons aren’t objective. “They’re missing the point of a cartoon,” Smith says. Call him an artist, a humorist or a caricaturist, but not an impartial journalist. “I take the work that a journalist has done, and I use satire and exaggeration to make a point,” he says.
Smith is a proud liberal who dislikes Trump. Ironically, when Republicans are in power, he has more material. “In cartooning, you have to be riled up. You’ve gotta be angry with what’s going on,” Smith says. Other pet topics include the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump, traffic and education. He used to poke fun at pop culture, but the frenetic news cycle of the current administration has kept him covering politics.
“There’s never been an administration with so much news in so short a period of time. It’s hard to keep up with it all,” says Smith, who makes a comic every day. “How do you draw a cartoon about a cartoon? He’s so outrageous, it’s almost hard to improve upon. But at the same time, it’s a blast.”
Mike Smith: Cartooning the Presidency Through September 27, Monday-Friday, 1-5 p.m., free. Nevada Humanities Program Gallery, 1017 First St. #190, 702-800-4670.