Is the paintbrush mightier than the tweet? Iconic artist Edel Rodriguez hopes so

Artist Edel Rodriguez and moderator Julie Burstein discuss one of Rodriguez' iconic political images. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Artist Edel Rodriguez and moderator Julie Burstein discuss one of Rodriguez' iconic political images. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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It’s been said the eyes are windows to the soul.

Donald Trump has no eyes. Not as depicted by Edel Rodriguez, anyway.

“Then, he would have compassion. There is a tenderness in eyes,” said the Cuban immigrant, whose visceral magazine covers, protest posters and U2 concert murals have crystallized debates about immigration, gun control, climate change and sexual abuse.

Artist Edel Rodriguez speaks at 'Defending Democracy' series, Oct. 25, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Artist Edel Rodriguez speaks at ‘Defending Democracy’ series, Oct. 25, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Speaking Thursday at the Center for Spiritual Living in Harding, Rodriguez explored Art as an Agent of Change with moderator Julie Burstein, author and creator of WNYC’s Studio 360.

Their 90-minute talk concluded the Defending Democracy series presented by NJ 11th for Change. Prior discussions focused on the intelligence community and threats to a free press.

Rodriguez’s provocative palette is famous or infamous, depending on your politics. Trump beheading the Statue of Liberty was a cover for German magazine Der Spiegel. Trump “meltdowns” have fronted Time, where Rodriguez was as an art director for 13 years.

THE EYES DON'T HAVE IT: Provocative magazine covers by Edel Rodriguez.
THE EYES DON’T HAVE IT: Provocative magazine covers by Edel Rodriguez.

These and other covers leave no doubt how America’s Illustrator-in-Chief, as Fast Company dubbed him, feels about our Commander-in-Chief.

“It’s disgusting to me, it’s outrageous,” Rodriguez said of the separation of migrant families at the U.S. border. “It is entirely caused by this government. It’s not caused by anything else. There’s absolutely no reason to do it.”

Now, it feels “shameful that I live here. And that’s what bothers me, that I have to be ashamed of being an American sometimes nowadays,” said Rodriguez, 47.

He was 9 when he arrived from Cuba in 1980, crammed with his parents, sister and nearly 100 others onto Nature Boy, a shrimper, during the Mariel boatlift crisis.

Screen depicts Edel Rodriguez at 9, on 1980 boatlift from Cuba to America. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Screen depicts Edel Rodriguez at 9, on 1980 boatlift from Cuba to America. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

They came ashore in Key West with little more than the clothes they were wearing. The Coast Guard welcomed them with food–Rodriguez ate apples for the first time–and there were mounds of donated clothes and toys.

Teachers in the U.S. nurtured his talents, and his father–whose first declaration on American soil was a booming “Down with Fidel Castro!”–constantly reminded him of his new freedoms.

“He taught me that in America, you can say anything. This is the greatest country.”

With the election of 2016, “it all came crashing down.”

When people despairingly ask how he can change anything with posters, Rodriguez takes the long view. Nobody would remember the tragedy of Guernica, the Spanish village Nazis bombed as a warmup for World War II, if Pablo Picasso had not painted it. Someday, Rodriguez’ magazine covers may bear witness, too.

“Years from now, people will look back and remember what happened,” and they will know “we weren’t all with this.”

Edel Rodriguez illustration responds to Saudi murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Edel Rodriguez illustration responds to Saudi murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The poisonous rhetoric, the hatred, and the violence oozing up in America are unacceptable to Rodriguez, who hopes his artwork rouses people “to do something about it… to vote, to get action. The trouble we’re in is because we’ve taken too many things for granted, and it’s really obvious.”

Pronouncements from the White House and Trump supporters remind him of a Third World country, where dictators contradict reality.

“We’re being driven insane because we’re told what just happened didn’t happen,” said Rodriguez, who holds art degrees from the Pratt Institute and Hunter College.

A Florida Congressman asserted last week that migrants heading for the U.S. border are bankrolled by liberal philanthropist George Soros. That’s ludicrous to Rodriguez.

“Nobody can pay you enough to walk 2,000 miles with your kids. You can’t pay me to walk six blocks with my kids,” said the New Jersey resident.

GETTING THE MESSAGE

Picasso’s influence can be seen in a Rodriguez painting of a dove wrapped in barbed wire. Rodriguez’ grotesque Where Are the Children–a commentary on the border situation–borrows from Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. 

Goya’s gruesome treatments of war gripped Rodriguez as a youth.

“I was a really fun teenager,” he joked.

Edel Rodriguez' 'Where Are the Children?' on the left; and Francisco Goya's 'Saturn Devouring His Son.'
Edel Rodriguez’ ‘Where Are the Children?’ on the left; and Francisco Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring His Son.’

These days, however, his work may owe as much to modern journalists as to the old masters.

“I’m just painting what’s going on in the world. I do think of myself as a bit of a journalist– looking, reading, being a little suspect of everything.”

He shares his art with activists for free. When you’re at war, he explained, “you don’t have generals asking you to pay for bullets.”

In a video for Doctors Without Borders, Rodriguez’s illustrated characters convey, with surgical precision, the dangers from which migrants are fleeing in Central America.

Video: ‘What Would You Do?’

He favors images that can be grasped by farm workers and PhD. candidates alike, and by citizens of many countries, in an era of 140-character attention spans.

“My work has to connect in two or three seconds,” Rodriguez said.

A new illustration, about the Saudi assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, shows Trump mopping a pool of blood.

A Turkish acquaintance instantly got the message, according to Rodriguez. “Perfect!” the man told him.

A 1932 German newspaper cover by John Heartfield showing Adolf Hitler taking money from an industrialist, mocking Hitler's motto of 'Millions Stand Behind Me.' Some accounts say Heartfield ranked No. 5 on the Gestapo's most wanted list.
A 1932 German newspaper cover by John Heartfield showing Adolf Hitler taking money from an industrialist, mocking Hitler’s motto of ‘Millions Stand Behind Me.’ Some accounts say Heartfield ranked No. 5 on the Gestapo’s most wanted list.

These are dangerous times–authorities are investigating pipe bombs and suspicious packages sent to Soros and other Trump critics this week–and Rodriguez acknowledged concerns for his security.

Burstein, the evening’s moderator, inquired about the source of his courage.

The artist cited John Heartfield, a German illustrator who defied the Nazis in the 1930s and lived to talk about it. Mostly, though, Rodriguez’ bravery is home grown.

He fled a dictator in Cuba. His wife lost grandparents in the Holocaust.

“I didn’t come here for nothing,” Rodriguez said.

“I didn’t leave my grandparents and my entire family in Cuba to shut up. I believe in a huge way in free speech. That’s why I’m here.”

Audience applauds artist Edel Rodriguez, who spoke at 'Defending Democracy' series in Harding, Oct. 25, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Audience applauds artist Edel Rodriguez, who spoke at ‘Defending Democracy’ series in Harding, Oct. 25, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Why are people so hateful. What a shame that Rodriguez is demeaning toward our most effective and caring President. Sad!

  2. It was a compelling presentation on the power of art in our society. Thank you Kevin for this thorough reporting on an important subject.

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