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Successful sketches

By Alexandra Wertz '12
November 8, 2011

An illustrated self-portrait of Ward Sutton '89.

With his artwork appearing in publications such as the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Village Voice, and the Onion, Ward Sutton '89 has come a long way since the days when he created a weekly cartoon for St. Olaf College's student newspaper, the Manitou Messenger.

Yet Sutton hasn't forgotten the experiences that helped shape his career. Each January he meets with students participating in the college's Manhattan Art Interim program, which he took part in as a student. "The program really had a deep impact on me," Sutton says, noting that it enables students to immerse themselves in New York City's art scene. "It's a nice feeling of giving back to the next generation, of things coming full circle."

Sutton says his liberal arts education has been invaluable in his career, because he's not only an artist — he's also a writer, a satirist, and a social commentator. "I meet a lot of illustrators in New York, but most of them attended art school here on the East Coast and focused only on drawing," he says. "I feel very lucky to have had such a well-rounded education and especially value the things I learned in writing, religion, and philosophy classes at St. Olaf."

He learned a lot outside the classroom as well, especially in the work he did for the Manitou Messenger. He recently organized a reunion of Oles who worked on the Manitou Messenger in the 1980s, and seven of the alumni held a panel discussion where they talked about how working at the paper informed their career paths.

"For me, there are so many direct lines from my Mess experience to what I do today: pitching ideas, receiving assignments, creating illustrations and cartoons on deadline," Sutton says. "The Mess was a huge part of my St. Olaf experience."

As were the people he met while here — including his wife, Sue Unkenholz '89. They've made a home together in New York City, where Sutton manages his freelance career. He dishes on his favorite thing to draw, why he considers North Dakota a second home, and the fellow Ole who helped him visualize his career path.

What was the one experience that launched your career as a cartoon artist?
I created the poster for John Leguizamo's broadway show Freak in 1998, and the high-profile exposure of that artwork really changed my career.

Describe your sense of humor. What is your favorite thing to draw?
I like creating cartoons where I have the opportunity to use humor to make statements, whether it is social or political commentary. I don't like to be heavy handed and humorless, but I'm not always subtle either. I enjoy working in different forms, whether it is a feature for the Boston Globe (I recently created a full-page parody of the comics page as if it were created by members of the Tea Party) or a single-panel gag cartoon for the New Yorker (I've been pitching to them for roughly five years and sold about a dozen cartoons so far).

Ward Sutton '89 (center) with several cast members from the television show Glee. Sutton worked on a project connected with the show last year.

What do you most enjoy about your job?
Doing what I love, working at home with my wife, having my time be flexible, being able to travel and still work wherever I am.

What do you find most challenging about your job?
Lately, I find myself having to work late nights quite a bit, and that can be exhausting. I also wish I made more money. I don't need to be rich, but I'd like to make more for how much work I put into my creations.

Where do you live now?
I live in the West Village in New York City. My family and I walk almost anywhere we need to go. We love not owning a car; it's extremely liberating. But my wife's family has a farm in North Dakota that is our second home. It's the exact opposite of Manhattan … we love living in those extremes.

What are some of the experiences that shaped you while at St. Olaf?
I am very grateful for my St. Olaf experience, and those four years continue to impact my life in profound ways. The Art Department was fantastic. Wendell Arneson was my professor and advisor, and he is a fantastic artist and inspiration. I also worked closely with [Professor of Art] Arch Leean, who sadly passed away earlier this year. Arch had an amazing talent and history in animation work with Disney, Hanna-Barbera, and others. I took an independent study with him in animation, among other classes, and his guidance and support was invaluable.

What advice would you give current St. Olaf students aspiring to be an artist of some sort?
Be open to many possibilities, especially at first. Figure out if you want to earn your living from art or do something else for money and create art on the side. If the former, think about what you like to do, and how that could translate into income. There are no set paths for a freelance artist. You have to be as creative in navigating your career as you are creating your art. Especially in today's economy and shifting media landscape, keep an eye on where things are headed for the future, and work to be there. Be willing to work cheaply or for free in the beginning to get your foot in the door.

Also, a big part of making it in the art world or any world is who you know. Today's students should not be shy about reaching out to alumni who have gone on to work in specific fields. That Ole connection can go a long way. The worst someone can say is, "Sorry, I'm too busy." When the Messenger had its 100th anniversary during my sophomore year (1986–87), there was a symposium with Mess alumni. Through that, I met L.K. Hanson '66, a longtime cartoonist and illustrator for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. Seeing him work helped me visualize what I wanted to do, and we remain friends to this day.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or