Visual Arts

A New Yorker cartoonist from YS

Tom Bachtell’s cartoons were first seen on the T-shirts he designed for his Yellow Springs High School senior class. Now one million subscribers take in Bachtell’s weekly caricatures in the “Talk of the Town” section of the New Yorker magazine. And last month, the New Yorker published a special issue of 50 “Talk of the Town” pieces from the past 10 years, entirely illustrated by Bachtell.

Some 30 years after his sketches were first printed in Antioch College admissions materials and 20 years since he began doing caricatures of politicos and celebrities for the New Yorker, Bachtell has honed a unique and largely self-taught drawing style that captures the quirks of his subjects.

“I enjoy almost channeling myself into people to understand their physicality,” Bachtell said in a recent phone interview from his Chicago studio, after completing caricatures of political figures Anthony Weiner, Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin for the next New Yorker.

That Bachtell, the son of Sam and the late Mary Jane Bachtell, would be the sole caricaturist for the “Talk of the Town” and regular contributor to its cinema page was almost a matter of fate. He admired New Yorker cartoons as a child in the copies that were laying around his family’s home in books covering its darker, more atmospheric cartoons from the 1920s and 1930s, which still today influence his work.

“Drawing and funny pictures were with me from the start,” Bachtell said. “I had a real romantic fascination with those New Yorker cartoons.”

But Bachtell went in other creative directions after graduating from Yellow Springs High School in 1975, studying piano at the Cleveland Institute of Music and completing a degree in English, with a minor in dance, from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. After a few years as a member of the Cleveland Dancers and copywriter for Marshall Field’s, Bachtell decided to try his hand in cartoons. He took a life drawing class, his only training, and began submitting his work far and wide.

“I had a hunch I could develop my own style of drawing,” Bachtell said. “But people thought I was crazy.”

One source of support was Arnold Roth, to Bachtell, “one of the greatest cartoonists ever” and a personal hero. Bachtell first met Roth, who married villager Caroline Wingfield, at the Wingfield’s house on President Street when the Bachtell family moved to Yellow Springs in the early 1970s.

Bachtell’s first published works were sketches on Antioch life, which were included in its admissions materials, since his mother worked in the admissions office.

“It didn’t pay but allowed me to see my work in print and that gave me a huge sense of accomplishment that let my imagination run,” Bachtell said.

It was just weeks before he planned to give up his cartoon career that Bachtell received a call from the New Yorker after they saw a drawing he did in Advertising Age. Since about that time Bachtell has been a full-time cartoonist, submitting two to three drawings per week to the New Yorker, and completing sketches featured in numerous other publications, including Newsweek, Entertainment Tonight, Mother Jones, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Town & Country and even an American Airways in-flight magazine.

Bachtell developed a unique style while on the job that harkens back to the golden age of cartoons in the 1920s and 1930s, when there was an emphasis on the drawings, not the captions.

“[The classical cartoonists’]drawings were loaded with spontaneity and wit,” Bachtell said. “It may be completely anachronistic, but I still aspire to that as well.”

Bachtell completes black and white caricatures with brush and ink, drawing several versions before he’s satisfied with the result. While caricatures can be mean as they highlight people’s most obvious features, Bachtell tries instead to detail his subject’s proportions to capture their personalities.

“It’s a simple, dashed-off style that looks spontaneous and introduces different brush textures,” Bachtell explained. “It tends to have a little looser and less composed look than other caricatures.”

Recently Bachtell’s been pleased with his caricatures of John Updike, Abraham Lincoln, Donald Trump, James Taylor, Will Ferrell and Pablo Picasso, and he’s also happy with many of the George W. Bushes and Barak Obamas he’s had to draw over the years.

Though the market for cartoons and caricatures has been declining of late, Bachtell said he feels special there’s still a place for it.

“[Caricature] lends some imagination, it can capture some kind of ineffable quality that photographs can’t do,” Bachtell said. “I think a good image can enliven text.”

Bachtell, who remains an active pianist and swing dancer, credits the “creative community” of Yellow Springs, his mother, who was an artist and writer, and his father as sources of encouragement throughout his career.

“My time in Yellow Springs was extremely important for my artistic development,” Bachtell said. “I still consider my Yellow Springs connection really important.”

Visit ysnews.com to see a video of Bachtell creating caricatures for the New Yorker.

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