Worth a Thousand Words

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Jacksonville-based political cartoonist Ed Hall agrees with the basic sentiment, even if he quibbles with the verbiage.

“What it did was focus me,” says Hall of his recent bout with colon and liver cancer. “It steeled me. As a result, I became a lot more prolific.”

It’s mid-afternoon and we’re sitting in Hall’s neighborhood café, discussing life’s vagaries. He doesn’t spend too much time talking about the irruption of illness, the trauma of treatment and the lingering uncertainties of recovery, though. There’s plenty more to cover. For the award-winning artist, health has been just one axis along which the roller coaster of life has careened.

As contributor, contractor or commissioned artist, Hall has always been, in a sense, his own boss. But that same fact has left him at the mercy of economic trends like recessions. Hall has ridden out a few in his time. His solution was to diversify his portfolio, to become a master of several forms of fine and applied arts. So in addition to his nationally syndicated cartoons, Hall earns income streams from sectors as diverse as education, residential design and pet portraiture.

Then there’s his political odyssey. Hall the cartoonist holds the collective feet of both parties to the fire. Hall the citizen votes his conscience—a nasty little habit that has progressively estranged him from his erstwhile party. Still a registered Republican, mind you, Hall is now a committed critic of the present administration and a bellwether of the common-sense majority’s turn away from Donald Trump’s divide-and-Twitter politics.

Hall came of age in different times. The Jacksonville native attended the University of Florida in the 1980s. Originally an architecture student, he quickly tired of left-brain thinking and switched tracks to graphic design and fine art.

“I had an epiphany,” he laughs. “I realized I’m more of a creative thinker than a mathematician.”

Hall’s first gig was graphic design for the Independent Florida Alligator, Gainesville’s immortal student daily. He returned to Jacksonville with two art degrees, in what he intended to be a quick pit stop en route to new adventures out of state. Economic recession thwarted his plans. So, instead of roughing it up North or out West, Hall launched his career right here at home.

He has been creating weekly cartoons ever since. One of his earliest media partnerships still endures. The Baker County Press (based just outside Jacksonville, in Macclenny) has been publishing Hall’s cartoons every week since 1991. He has been syndicated nationally since 2000 and has had his work picked up by The New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times and USA Today.

Still, Hall considers the weeklies his bread-and-butter.

“It’s tough making a living from cartoon to cartoon,” he explains, “but working in a smaller market and working for weeklies has protected me [from a lot of negative publishing trends].”

Another good strategy: diversify. Hall has branched out into several adjacent fields over the decades. He served as an adjunct art instructor at Flagler College and at the University of North Florida. He runs his own residential design company, Design Alternatives.

These aren’t sidelines, either. In the case of Design Alternatives, the work satisfies his original architectural ambitions. Residential design allows Hall to coordinate home construction projects from start to finish.

Hall’s latest passion project has the cartoonist painting pet portraits. The idea was inspired by the artist’s own pooch, Remmy.

“Remmy’s a rescue, and he rescued me as well,” Hall says. “I started painting pet portraits about a year before getting him, but that’s when it really took off. Remmy became my muse. Now portraits are a staple for me. I do a lot of them.”

Each commissioned portrait begins with a meet-and-greet or, if that’s logistically impossible, a series of reference photos and a bio provided by the pet owner. Hall wants to know who the animal is before he puts pastel to paper.

“My interest in pet portraiture goes beyond the mere representation of your furry little buddy,” the artist writes on his pet portrait website, hallpetportaits.com. “I try to get at the personality, the playfulness, the spirit of the animal. Through careful examination of the habits, the body posture, the gaze, I strive to incorporate all of the elements that make your pet special.”

Yes, Hall is a multitalented artist, one who takes the craft seriously to boot. The transition from analog to digital hasn’t been an easy one in any field, but Hall keeps current with the latest tools. He appreciates the portability and speed of digital cartooning. He even whips out his tablet and starts outlining a cartoon on the spot. It takes shape in seconds.

But Hall will never lose his taste for the old ritual.

“I try to do as much on paper as I can,” he admits. “I just like using materials. I like to get my hands dirty, especially with charcoal and ink for my cartoons.”

For all his breadth, though, Hall doesn’t style himself a Renaissance Man. There’s a more contemporary name for what he does.

“If you ask what I am, I’m a designer,” he says, “Whether it’s a house, a cartoon or a logo, I design stuff. That’s really the best description of what I do.”

If Hall is best known today for his political cartoons, that wasn’t his original intention. In fact, his earliest efforts weren’t political at all.

“I started as an artist, pure and simple,” he says. “I became political as I went along.”

It was quite an evolution, too. The word “outspoken” is printed all-too-casually these days, but a single glance at Hall’s recent archive suffices to qualify him as a bona fide outspoken critic of the current president. And yet the artist is a registered Republican.

“Most people are surprised to find that out,” Hall says. “I’ve always been similar to a fiscal conservative but I’m very liberal on cultural issues. I wouldn’t say I’m an independent, but as far as my cartoons are concerned, I’m an equal opportunity offender.”

He’s also an equal opportunity voter, following his conscience—not the party line—every time. It’s led him across the aisle more than once. Hall voted twice for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama before coming home to the Republican Party for the 2016 primary. His candidate of choice: John Kasich. When Trump won the nomination, Hall joined the resistance.

To hear him tell it, he didn’t stray from the party. Rather, it was the other way around. Hall considers the Republican Party’s embrace of vitriol and vulgarity a betrayal.

“What’s happened to the party has saddened me,” he laments, “especially to see how John McCain was disrespected by the [Trump] administration at the end of his life.”

Hall lays the blame at the president’s feet, and Trump has become his bête noire. The president’s ham-fisted demagoguery, his incompetence and venality are recurring subjects of ridicule in Hall’s cartoon panels.

“He’s the Reality TV president,” Hall snarls. “All he’s done is overlaid his TV show on top of the presidency. And I’ve never seen someone win with such little grace. He won the Kavanaugh nomination, and he goes out and makes fun of Kavanaugh’s accuser. He constantly has to feed his narcissism.”

The adults in the room having failed us, Hall looks to the children to redeem our democracy. He anticipates a groundswell of youth activism in the coming years.

“The youth vote is gonna have a big effect, not just this November but in 2020, too,” he predicts. “If they get organized, it’s a huge problem for Trump.”

Hall is currently participating in a group show whose raison d’être is to get voters engaged ahead of the midterms. Hosted by Yellow House gallery, the exhibit SUFFRAGE opened last week and runs through Nov. 10. It features dozens of politically engaged artists from around Northeast Florida.

“If you look at the name of the show,” says Hall, “they broke the word ‘suffrage’ down into ‘suffering’ and ‘rage.’ They wanted to tap into that rage we feel every day about the injustices around us. By opening people’s eyes, they want to get the vote out, to get people engaged in general. Most people do their day-to-day work and tend to block out all the problems of the world. We can’t do that anymore.”

Hall submitted some 60 works for consideration, of which 35 were selected for inclusion. It’s a mix of new and archived cartoons tackling wide societal issues like LGBT rights, gun safety, the Black Lives Matter movement and women’s rights.

“They wanted different categories, and they knew I could do it,” Hall says. “I have a wide range and a deep archive. I reached back about five years for the show.”

After SUFFRAGE, Hall’s work will be featured at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, on the campus of The Ohio State University. Three of his cartoons have been selected for the institution’s upcoming exhibition The Front Line: Editorial Cartoonists and the First Amendment, exploring the relationship between free speech and free images.

Among the three pieces selected is a cartoon depicting Colin Kaepernick. The NFL player who caused controversy by taking a knee during the national anthem is still a lightning rod for criticism. Much of that criticism comes from folks who think that free speech protection ought to end when the speaker in question says something with which they disagree.

Hall’s Kaepernick cartoon had already gone viral before the curators of The Front Line picked it up. The artist even had to pursue a Facebook troll over the cartoon.

“Some guy actually tried to modify the image and share it,” Hall laments. “Not only was it copyright infringement, but he changed the entire message. He made it say the opposite of what it was meant to say. I had to go through Facebook to have them pull it down.”

All in a day’s work for the busiest political cartoonist in Northeast Florida.