As election day approaches, we note that Lauri Apple, the Chicago illustrator who rocketed to marginal internet notoriety with her drawing of Rod Blagojevich and parachute, is currently drawing our own City Council for AnimalNY. NYC High, being unveiled one drawing at a time, offers a thumbnail profile of each Councilperson, illustrated in prom clothes. Why? With Brooklyn’s representatives up (pictured is my Councilwoman, Letitia James), we asked Apple about the project.
Your work is different from most political cartooning—less obviously partisan, more drolly incredulous about the people portrayed.
Yeah, it seems that party has become less important in some ways, especially regarding the Republican party. As we’ve seen in many primary races, it’s now sane/moderate Republicans trying to hold their own against these crazy/extremist teabag types who want to dismantle the government. And then there’s Michael Steele at the head of the party, doing his unique Michael Steele performance art thing—the “moo moo” and hip-hop Republican initiatives, and all that, but not really unifying everyone under the same umbrella. 2010 has been kind of the Year of the Outlier as far as elections go, so my drawings are a response to that. The increasing drama and strangeness.
The Dems have their own intra-party disputes as well, though you’ll notice I don’t really draw them as much because they’re not as “interesting” as the GOP. But of course, I’ve been drawing a lot of Democrats lately, because they’re NYC council members, who are largely Democratic.
Upon entering my current profession, I was bemused to discover that it works exactly like high school: there’s obvious cliques, invisible hierarchies and social teapot-tempests that couldn’t possibly mean anything to anyone else. Listening to other people discuss their jobs, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is true across the board—”That the world, in short, is teenaged.” What was the inspiration for drawing our City Council as a prom?
Basically, the inspiration is the same as what you’re suggesting about our perma-teen world. Politics is like a popularity contest, it’s just one with higher stakes and greater responsibility attached to it than, say, winning the “Nicest Eyes” category in the yearbook. In high school, everyone is supposed to strive for popularity. Unfortunately, a lot of people never get over this drive or need, so they continue chasing it. I guess the adult version of popularity is “status,” and one way to achieve status is to run for office and win. You become a politician, and then you have power, and all these people asking you to do stuff or trying to grant you favors, expecting you to make decisions with serious consequences that can get you into the newspapers and history books. Maybe legacy is the highest form of popularity? (Someone can write their undergrad thesis answering that question.)
In terms of the actual clothing, the prom theme stood out because of the association between the prom and popularity (there’s a prom king and queen, who become the sweepstakes winners of the whole popularity contest). I was trying to think of a common style of dress to give all the council members, while maintaining some room for personalization. What I’ve learned by trying to do this is that there’s not much variation in tuxedo styles, so I feel really badly for you guys. I guess the boutonniere is where it’s at. Women get to have more fun in this regard—we can wear short dresses, long ones, poofy sleeves, no sleeves, etc. But the tuxedo—it’s really the same thing all the time.
I love the variously fashionable and dweeby/princessy outfits you’re putting them in—can you tell us a little about how you go about imagining each City Councilperson as a high-school type?
It’s kind of a feeling I get from watching YouTubes of them, and getting a sense of their personalities. I draw them before doing the write-ups, so I really have no idea what they’re all about when I draw them—it’s only afterward that I learn. Some of the members I try to snazz up, while others, I’m just maintaining snazz because they’re already sharp dressers. Like Albert Vann—I would probably vote him as “best-dressed guy,” for the high school yearbook.
Do you see this project as inspiring civic engagement, by making elected officials more “relatable”?
Yeah, I hope to do that. Earlier this year, another Chicago artist and I organized a show called 50 Aldermen/50 Artists, where we had 50 different Chicago artists make portraits of Chicago’s city council members (we call them aldermen). People got really into it, and about a third of the council came to the opening. I can’t organize something like that show with NYC artists from afar, which is why I’m making all the portraits myself. Putting them on Animal made sense to me, because I regard [publisher] Bucky Turco as “the guy who’s got his ears to the ground,” and someone who totally gets the potential for connections to be made between politics and the arts. So I asked him if he was interested in the series, and he was. Now we’re all the way into Brooklyn, with just one more borough (Staten Island) to go.