Tom Bachtell: Chicagoan at The New Yorker



February 14, 2016




A self-portrait by Tom Bachtell.

A self-portrait by Tom Bachtell.

“I was just in the right place at the right time with The New Yorker.” Is there a writer, illustrator or cartoonist in the world who wouldn’t want to be able to say that?

For Chicagoan Tom Bachtell, drawing for “The Talk of the Town” and “Comments” sections of The New Yorker has been a weekly assignment since 1993. He has admitted that this historic magazine has set a “high bar” for other publications, and finds his work with them to be “profoundly thrilling.”

He describes doing those incredible caricatures – which often inform how the reader will picture the world leader or celebrity from then on – as “a process for getting to know someone, and a hope that he or she reveals interesting qualities.”

Barack Obama, as imagined by Bachtell.

Barack Obama, as imagined by Bachtell.

Speculating that he drew George W. Bush “probably a zillion times” and Barack Obama almost as much, he still describes his work as “anticipated pleasure.” Doing two to three drawings per issue, he never knows the topics until two days before the magazine’s Friday deadline, and doesn’t usually know what the “Comments” topic will be until Friday morning.

Although he a was first discovered by The New Yorker’s art director in 1988, when he then began to take on part time assignments, his talent shone in childhood. He recalls, “Ten years old, I was drawing cocktail parties. In retrospect, I realize I had some kind of native talent – I really enjoyed doing amusing drawings of people and satiric pictures of my parents’ friends at parties even.”

Tom’s caricature of Honest Abe.

Tom’s caricature of Honest Abe.

How did The New Yorker find you?

“When I moved to Chicago, I got a job as a copywriter at Montgomery Ward to pay the rent. I drew at my kitchen table at night and sent out packets of my drawings to art directors around town. Mare Earley, an art director at the Chicago Tribune, called me at work, and I raced over to the Tribune offices to show my work around. I started working for them almost immediately, and I learned everything about production and deadline work from my experience there. Eventually, I had to quit my copywriting job to be able to handle the deadlines. I slowly started doing caricature work because I asked to do it. I thought I had no aptitude for it, but also recognized that I was occasionally able to create unusually spot-on drawings. And that was incredibly satisfying to do so.

“Robert Gotlieb was the editor of The New Yorker then, just after William Shawn, and the editors clearly made a decision to begin putting more imagery and illustration back into the magazine. So they were on the lookout for new talent. Chris Curry, the art director there, found me. I don’t think she had been at the magazine very long then herself.

“I did a caricature of Tom Wolfe for “Advertising Age.” Suddenly, I was fielding a phone call from her. My heart was pounding. I couldn’t believe it. She hired me off and on for the next few years to do occasional caricatures for the “Goings On About Town” section. In 1993, Tina Brown was named as Editor. I began to draw for “The Talk of the Town.” And I have been doing it ever since.”

Potential future POTUS, Hilary Clinton, drawn by Bachtell.

Potential future POTUS, Hilary Clinton, drawn by Bachtell.

How long does it take per issue?

“I work fast, and the time is measured in hours and minutes. I’m usually working on several drawings at once. I’m deadly serious about the deadlines – that’s why I’m usually not reachable by anyone outside of the magazine at the end of the week.”

Are there certain features of a person’s face that most interest you to draw?

“I know that I have a lot of a mimic in me which means I like to kind of inhabit the person I am drawing. It is kind of a mimic’s impulse to get a sense of their spirit and then embody it. It is true that I am drawn to the eyes, but it is not necessarily the first thing that I draw.”

How did you first become an artist?  Did your parents encourage you?

I was lucky for the environment and milieu I grew up in. I was surrounded by books; immersed in culture. We took The New Yorker. I was obsessed with our cartoon collections of Thurber, Arno, Charles Addams, Sid Hoff and others. My parents were smart, socially active, politically aware, and athletic. My mother was active in the League of Women Voters, civil rights and fair housing issues. My father was on the school board. My mother would plop my brother and sister and me down at the kitchen table, pass out manila pads and markers, and just have us draw. It seemed perfectly natural and fun.

“Drawing was profoundly pleasurable, but just one of many things I did. I loved school, math, science, writing, everything. I studied piano. So, I think my parents were encouraging in all ways. They had high expectations, but they instilled confidence. I think that’s important, because to be an artist means holding polar views of yourself – you have to have some kind of supreme arrogance and faith in yourself, yet also feel some kind of deep insecurity and questioning that allows you to be highly critical of your work. I didn’t make the conscious decision to pursue a career as an artist/cartoonist until after college. I didn’t study drawing in college. I did it on the side. I majored in English and Music, minored in dance. I was an artist all along, but I was using my studies to add to the breadth and depth of my experience.”

What was your first job as an artist?

“My mother actually hired me for my first paying cartooning gig. She was Associate Director of Admissions at Antioch College, and hired me to draw a slew of funny drawings for a prospective student handbook. She died when I was only 26, and didn’t live to see me land at The New Yorker, but I don’t think she would have been surprised. She really got me started. My father is exuberantly proud of my work, but was a little skeptical when I first told him of my decision to pursue cartooning. He looked at me quizzically and said, ‘Are you sure? But cartoonists are funny…and you’re not particularly funny.’ We always get a good laugh out of that.”

Bachtell’s Yo-Yo Ma.

Bachtell’s Yo-Yo Ma.

Do you enjoy other forms of art?

“I express myself through drawing, the piano, and dance. I love rhythm. I love movement. I love improvisation. I love collaboration. I think my drawing is fed by those things, and by my physical awareness. I have been swing dancing for years. I dance several times a week and choreographed swing dances. I will occasionally try something out of the ordinary for me, such as large-scale drawing.”

Dancer-Choreographer Bob Fosse by Tom Bachtell.

Dancer-Choreographer Bob Fosse by Tom Bachtell.

 What are artistic aims for the future?

“I’m always looking for time to work on children’s books.”

It has been just a year since Tom’s longtime partner, Chicago’s beloved broadcaster, journalist, and classical music and arts critic, Andrew Patner, died. 

We would like to ask about Andrew.

I consider myself blessed beyond measure to have known and loved Andrew. I’ve come to think, in retrospect, that Andrew and I were doing similar things, just in different ways. We came from similar backgrounds, had similar, broad interests, and shared a sensibility and sense of humor.  We were both observing the world together, thinking about it, commenting on it. Andrew had a kind of infinite curiosity and knowledge about the world, which I thrived on. I think we brought the world to each other.”

Though Tom may have made his name in the Big Apple, we are grateful that his heart belongs to our city. He is our very own “Talk of the Town.”