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Drawing on instinct: New Yorker cartoonist Tom Bachtell
by Liz Baudler
2016-11-02

This article shared 923 times since Wed Nov 2, 2016
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"I just always wanted to be well-rounded," said New Yorker cartoonist Tom Bachtell. "At least in the way I'm informed about the world, and the way that I connect to the world, particularly since professionally I"m doing stuff that is culturally and politically observant."

Bachtell's work at the New Yorker has him contributing weekly to the Talk of the Town section and doing illustration work throughout the publication. "This is a magazine where everybody wants to get into it, but everyone who works there is talented and smart, and there are all kinds of people who are feeding their opinions back to me, and I have to please a lot of people, and I have to do it on deadline," said Bachtell. " I have to remove myself from the reality that all of these people are waiting for me to get something done and I can't freak out. And I still have to get it done, and kind of calm myself down."

Deadlines aided Bachtell as he grew artistically. A self-taught cartoonist working in Chicago throughout the '80s, his New Yorker break came in the late 80s when an editor noticed a caricature of Tom Wolfe that Bachtell had done in Advertising Age.

"My career sort of took off almost a little faster than I could keep up with it at first," Bachtell explained. "It was a very steep learning curve, and it was really helpful for me to working with another artist, sharing space, because I knew nothing about production and materials, about composition. You learn a lot of that stuff by simply practicing it. I wasn't very fast, but there's nothing like a little deadline to focus the mind. And I also learned that I may not be completely happy with what I've done, but I wanted to do the best that I could up until the point where I had to turn something in."

Bachtell also finds the idea of audience helpful, whether the audience is readers or editors. He recounted his recent experience drawing Hillary Clinton for the magazine's endorsement issue. "I knew that it was going to be kind of a challenge, because I remember doing the Obama endorsement issue in 2008, and it just had to be kind of an idealized drawing because they were endorsing him. I couldn't be satirical in the usual sense," Bachtell said.

His editors were not thrilled with his initial attempts at drawing Clinton. "I knew that I wouldn't get it right the first time," said Bachtell. "The deadline is really tight, but in a compressed period of time, I realized the editors did not like what I was doing, and I also recognized what they were looking for. I had to kind of go to that look she had onstage where she was sort of exuding something—for lack of a better word, presidential. It's revealing a slightly different side of her. It wouldn't have worked if I hadn't had that outside influence."

Still, he enjoys drawing the former Secretary of State. "There are certain people I really never get tired of drawing, and I think that part of it is if it's a person in particular who you can always get to know a little bit more," Bachtell said. "Her eyes, there is so much going on in her eyes. She's very difficult to know, she has so many layers, and I think that's kind of one of the things that makes subjects interesting. You can keep peeling it away. It's like being in a relationship with somebody. There are people who are simply hard to draw, and there are other people who maybe don't have quite as much to look for. Like, really sort of blandly attractive people are horrible to draw."

Bachtell said one of the struggles he's had is to keep the spontaneity of his work obvious while becoming more technically skilled. "My drawings tend to have more detail now, there's more finish," he explained. "The challenge is to keep it from being a stiff-looking drawing. I want the drawings to look as spontaneous as they can. Technically—I can't believe it—but I'm just better at drawing varied kinds of lines, and I feel that I'm always trying to look at everything fresh everytime I draw a person, so I'm always trying to look at different aspects of them. So maybe I have more experience looking. That's a skill that takes a while to cultivate just like anything else."

Music and dance, always inspired Bachtell, and it took him a long time to see their connection to his cartooning. "I thought I should just keep exploring them, there's obviously a reason why I'm doing it," Bachtell said. "Movement's really important to me. I need to move. And, of course, I'm inspired by music, drawing to it. Ultimately the common denominator is rhythm. I love rhythm, and I like attaining some kind of rhythmic life in my drawings and vitality. I like them to sort of look like they're alive."

For many years, Bachtell's partner was Andrew Patner, the Chicago arts and cultural critic who worked with WFMT. Patner passed away suddenly in 2015. "I fell in love with Andrew like that," Bachtell remembered. "I swear to you, Andrew started to open his mouth to speak, and I fell in love with him as the sounds started coming out."

Bachtell appreciated how his extroverted partner helped him observe and connect to the world. "If he couldn't get to you on the radio, he'd go door to door," he joked about Patner. "It was so great just to be with him and observe people, observe events, concerts, political events, read the news together, and talk about it, and laugh together. He was giving me a front-row seat to the world, and that's kind of a remarkable thing."

Like many of his artistic associates, Bachtell has insecure moments, although his occur with regular frequency due to the nature of his work. "I almost feel as though I'm only as good as my last drawing," he said thoughtfully. "I'm really grateful to be able to do what I do. In some ways, I kind of landed in it, and in other ways I think my instinct sort of pushed me toward it. I'm kind of an introvert, though I love people, and I love the world, and this has given me the opportunity to connect to the world, and I'm not isolated, and I'm not alone in the world."

Along with his artistic studio partner, David Lee Csicko, Tom Bachtell will be inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame on Wed., Nov. 9, at the Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St. The ceremony starts at 5:30 p.m.; visit GLHallFame.org .


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