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Matt Wuerker B.A. ‘79: Drawn to Politics

August 06, 2008

Back in what he calls “the Bronze Age of print journalism” (circa late 1970s), Matt Wuerker drew cartoons for the Pioneer Log,sharpening his wit and illustrating skills while wielding an X-acto knife.

“That was precomputer,” he says. “I remember helping with the layout, which meant cutting out the copy and art and applying hot wax to attach them onto sheets with blue-line grids. Those X-acto blades would cut you and the hot paraffin could burn your fingers. It was harrowing work.”

Wuerker, a political cartoonist and illustrator, is on staff at the newspaper/website Politico (www.politico.com/wuerker).

Over the past 25 years, his cartoons have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Smithsonian, Sojourners,and the Nation, along with Willamette Weekand LA Weekly.

Drawing came naturally to Wuerker as a kid.

“I was in the first grade when JFK was president,” he says. “My ability to draw a pretty cool PT boat wowed the other kids. I guess I’m still trying to impress the cool kids in class.”

At Lewis & Clark, Wuerker considered other majors but was drawn to international affairs.

“I fancied myself a worldly fellow,” he says, “and more importantly, I was pulled in by great teachers–particularly Bob Mandel, who had just started to teach in the international affairs department. I found his creative, conceptual way of teaching very stimulating.”

After graduation, he planned to volunteer for the Peace Corps in the Truk Islands (now called the Chuuk Islands). But his former Pioneer Logeditor, Rick Cooper B.S. ‘78, intervened and offered him a job working in clay animation films.

“I had to choose between adventure in the South Pacific or animating plasticine in a dark closet,” he says.

Wuerker’s college sweetheart, Sarah Stephens B.A. ‘79, was remaining in Portland, so he decided the Peace Corps could wait. In 1981, the couple married and moved to the Canary Islands, where Sarah landed a job teaching English. Upon their return to the States, he dabbled in music video animation, outdoor mural projects, and book and commercial illustration.

“At one point, I was even a partner in a syndicated comic strip with Laurence Peter–author of The Peter Principle,“says Wuerker.

But throughout his varied career, the one constant has been his political cartooning.

“It’s a small niche, this place where political opinion and art get to mix in the editorial pages of the nation’s newspapers,” he says. “Where else do you get to be a combination of Dr. Seuss and Noam Chomsky?”

Though much of his work has originated left of the political center, Wuerker now aims to combine wit and original thinking to reach across that ideological divide.

“We’re living in a polarized political period,” he says. “Much of the news media reduces the conversation to just hurling mud–and worse.” Wuerker prefers to make his points through eye-catching drawings and humor.

Wuerker draws with ink on paper, but he’s not a technophobe. Unfazed by industry hand-wringing over the plight of newspapers in the digital age, he sees the Internet as a visual medium perfectly suited to cartoons and animation.

“Some people think of the Internet as a series of tubes,” he says, “but I think of it as a great big refrigerator door where we can all hang our stuff and share our favorite cartoons. It can only be good for cartooning.”

Matt and Sarah live in Washington, D.C. Their son Owen is a sophomore at Lewis & Clark.

–by Pattie Pace