When I found Zina Saunders’ [pronounced Zai-nah] animations on Mothers Jones a couple weeks ago I knew I’d have to ask her for a chat. We got on the phone last week and by the time I was off I was texting my friends that she was one of the best interviews I’d had. Firey, bold, and straight-forward, Zina’s personality emboldens not just her animations, but her gorgeous portraits as well. Her work is straight-to-the-point, no-bullshit humour dripping with sarcasm.
To her, humour isn’t just a tool for spreading a message, it’s also the best way to pull the rug out from someone and reduce their credibility. She’s a fantastic testament to artists who have created a way to speak out while still being known for great, technically sound work.
Tell me about the difference in your art styles?
I do quite a few portraits for the Wall Street Journal. When they have interviews with musicians and opera stars and sometimes business people they like to have a painting of the person to go with the interview, and so they often ask me to do them. You know what’s funny about it, I do a lot of political stuff and it isn’t the kind of work that you would associate with the Wall Street Journal, which is a much more conservative publication. On occasion I’ve done a portrait for the Wall Street Journal of the very same person that I’ve done a satire of for Mother Jones, the very same week. I’ve done a portrait of Paul Ryan for the Wall Street Journal and the same week I tear him limb from limb for Mother Jones.
A testament to your diversity of styles.
It’s kind of neat that the Wall Street Journal doesn’t mind. In other words, they are hiring me just because of the art. Obviously I never do editorial cartooning for them, but a straight portrait is fun. Sometimes it’s a little hard if I really really hate the person with every molecule of my being, then it’s very hard to paint for them. But somehow I manage because, what the heck, I’m an artist.
She looks maniacally insane. Which she seems to be! Don’t you think? I always think of her as having a meat eating grin. I can never tell if she’s smiling at me or about to bite me. You know, she’s got a crazy gleam in my eye all the time, she’s a vicious looking character so she’s very very fun to paint. And real fun to lampoon.
Did you do that series for something in particular?
I just did it for me. The reason I did all of those paintings is that there was a gallery exhibit here in New York in the fall of 2008 within the society of illustrators that was all political art. It was a curated exhibit, meaning there were a couple of guys who were members of the society of illustrators who decided who would be in the show. At the time I was doing painted portraits of politicians but they were not political in so far as a concept, they weren’t satire, they didn’t have editorial content, they were portraits, so I didn’t expect to be included in the show. But I think there were 20 or 21 painters/illustrators in that show, and only one of them was a woman. That really really dismayed me.
There is another woman who’s a very wonderful illustrator and a close friend, her name is Nancy Stahl, and she too was really dismayed. She decided to create an online gallery of women’s conceptual artwork. And because she was much nicer than me about it, she wondered whether it was possibly that women were not getting the assignments because they were woman, or that women were not encouraged to try their hand. She was thinking, what’s behind this? I, being the character I am, immediately got furious and wanted to attack, I assumed the worst – that they were a bunch of sexist bastards.
So anyway, she asked me if I wanted to do a piece for this online gallery and I said yeah, of course. Well the very same week John McCain chose Sarah Palin to be his running mate. As soon as I started reading up on her I was completely appalled. Those two things really fired me up. So I did one painting for Nancy’s online gallery of Palin. I made her a librarian and the bookshelf behind her was full of bibles, and she’s going “shh!” at us. I did it because she was the mayor of that little town in Alaska and she was looking into banning books in the local library.
So that started it, then the next painting was the painting of her with the Statue of Liberty as though she was a deer hunter. I used to get up at three in the morning every day and I would paint two or three a week before I would get to work on my regular assignments for actual publication. I would do them just for myself every morning and then put them online on my blog, they got a lot of attention and it was through that, within one or two weeks, The Nation asked to buy one of them for their pages, and the San Francisco Chronicles wanted one of them as a stand-alone op-ed, and it began the ball rolling for me in becoming really involved in doing political satire.
Is that when you started doing the animations as well?
That only began about a year and a half ago. I had at that point been doing political editorial illustrations for assignments. For Mother Jones or the Nation or the New Republic. They would contact and give me an article to illustrate, so I’d be given the text and then have to come up with something interesting and hopefully clever to enhance the text, not just a straight portrait.
Well, was asked by Mother Jones to do an illustration to go along with an article about Dan Savage’s Google bombing of Rick Santorum. They asked me because I’m known for having very in your face cartoons. They figured this was right up my alley, and of course it was. I did about 15 different sketch ideas for it and they were all, I have to admit, pretty good, and I sent them all to Mother Jones and they chose 1 to run in the magazine, and then they said they had a lot of trouble choosing, so would it be ok if they put a slide show of all 15 sketches on the website. And I said yeah, sure!
Over that weekend I started thinking, you know what would be cool? A slideshow is a lot like an animation, why don’t I animate a couple of my sketches. I didn’t know anything about animation, I knew how to do a very simple little gif animation. I did two different very simple but pretty funny animations based on two of my sketches. I sent them to Mother Jones and they loved them and put them up. They got a lot of attention and that started me doing an animation every week that shows up on their front page.
I get to write it, animate it, act it, sing it, do the whole thing all myself, and I get the freedom to do it. If you go back and look at some of the early ones, they’re terrible. They’re so bad. I didn’t know my ass from my elbow about how to do these things. I hadn’t a clue. And I’d never really thought that way, I had always thought in still images, not in moving stories – but it was really exciting. In between my regular jobs I would be teaching myself after affects and getting better (hopefully) in doing that. Now I feel good. They’re way better than they used to be, but would still really like to get a whole lot better. Doing one of these things every week is hard, you have to think up an idea and see what makes you the maddest in the world of politics.
It’s obvious in your work that you’re very out there in terms of content… I think you say what you really think, and what most people wish they’d say. What do you think the importance of humour is to the political discourse?
Ok, you know what I really think? I think that the most vicious way to attack a person is by making fun of them. I think that if you hated my guts and you really wanted to torture me, I think you could do it best by making fun of me. I think that when I read or see arguments with politicians or people with a certain political perspective, where they’re treated with respect, then I think you give them too much power.
First off, I just make jokes to myself, I actually dream in jokes and wake myself up laughing. I don’t know whether the whole world thinks I’m so hilarious, but I tend to think in terms of humour. I just love to make fun of people who make me angry. I love to poke fun at them, disempower them, and point out what idiots they are. I think they deserve to be laughed at and scorned and mocked. With the humour, almost without fail, it has to be something that really makes me angry, and it’s a great way to try to attack what makes you angry and what you think is unfair.
I think it also helps to make it accessible to people, so that it encourages people who may not already be on your side, to consider what you’re saying. I’ve gotten many emails from people who have seen my cartoons who are very angry about them, but many times they’ll say like “I hate your cartoons, but I have to admit they’re really pretty funny.” When you get someone who’s a Palin supporter and who is really mad about the way you portrayed her but will admit to you that they’re funny or nice to look at, then I think you’ve made a human connection across a divide, and that’s important.
I know I’m preaching to the choir, when you’re doing political cartoons you’re preaching to your own side, but there’s always the distant hope in my heart that someone who isn’t entirely convinced one way or the other will be amused enough and have their curiosity peaked enough to see whether it’s really true. Hopefully maybe it’s doing some good, otherwise it’s just fun and entertaining and it’s a blast.
Your work is really fun to look at and it’s neat to see how any styles you use. You have a painting style, the silk screened look, and then the cartoons. So there’s a lot of different ways to draw people in depending on their aesthetic.
Yeah, I always like to experiment. Once I find something that I like, expressing myself in a particular way, after awhile I get a little bored with it and I want to try something else. It keeps me interested, and I do like to learn a lot, so each new avenue I go down I learn something new. Which is important to developing and evolving as an artist and a person.