Illustrator Ed Fotheringham speaks to PKM about his Trump illustrations, his punk rock past, and his artwork for Mudhoney, the Supersuckers, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, and Bob Dylan
As a young man, Seattle-based illustrator Ed Fotheringham cut his teeth on the chaotic energy of punk rock. Born in Portland, Oregon but raised in Australia, Fotheringham spent the early to mid-Eighties as a student at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he met both Mark Arm and Steve Turner. Before Arm and Turner went on to form Mudhoney, they played with Fotheringham in various bands, most notably The Thrown Ups. As lead singer, Fotheringham pushed the limits of both music and good taste.
His association with Seattle’s rock scene would continue into the 1990s as the man behind numerous Mudhoney album covers (“Piece of Cake,” “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge,” “My Brother the Cow,” “March To Fuzz” and others) along with lesser known local bands like The Fall Outs and Flop. During this time, Fotheringham also showed up in a Mudhoney music video, playing the role of a lone slam-dancer as the band bashed out its shambolic single, “Suck You Dry.”
A prolific illustrator, Fotheringham’s work has appeared in the numerous high profile magazines and newspapers over the years. Most recently, “Mr. Fotheringham” (as he signs his work) has turned his illustrative talent, wry insight and self-described “puerile” humor to the administration of President Donald Trump, using the day’s headlines as fodder for his creations, which he posts to social media sites. No matter how bizarre or depressing the news out of Washington, DC gets, Fotheringham’s provocative wit shines through. “My use of humor is often puerile, and shockingly relevant when referring to the Trump administration,” says Fotheringham. “I’ve been told the humor in the drawings allows some to cope, and that they look forward to the posts, which is the best compliment I could receive.”
Your work has never been overtly political, has it?
No, not at all. In fact, my work is often, unfortunately, called “whimsical”. I have made my career as an illustrator, not a fine artist (tried that, didn’t dig it), so my work tends to exist as commissioned visual solutions to outside problems. The solutions can run the gamut from poodles to poo jokes, depending on audience, intent, and venue.
They say that hard times make for great art. What are your thoughts on that?
I think hard times can inspire a type of reaction from artists (especially in editorial and poster art) that might not occur during more placid times. Is the art better? I’m not sure about that. I think art is a product of its environment. It can operate effectively as a salve (or a call to action) for those who need it in hard times. Art can also be reflection of beauty, a guide to new way of looking (thinking), a personal expression, a meditative object, or a mechanism for the many different responses that great art elicits.
Why did you decide to start your series of drawings of President Trump?
I was baited by a friend to respond illustratively to the situation. I explained that I do not do political work, and (yet) she persisted (thank you, Kyla). Although I left the conversation with no intent of pursuing the matter, a couple of days later Stephen Miller, the 31-year-old Trump advisor, uttered “the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”
The next morning I woke with a vision in my head of Miller holding Trump’s tie, trailing between his legs, as a page would a king’s robe. I didn’t like Miller, for all sorts of reasons, and his alpha response, emanating dead-eyed from his not yet fully formed yet prematurely bald physical being, made me laugh and spit up. I had the idea, and I decided to draw it. I liked what I drew, and posted it to my personal Facebook account. I liked the immediacy of being able to post almost in real time, as events had unfolded. I kept drawing as I would read about the absurd palace intrigue and the egomaniacal drama that unfolded. It became like morning calisthenics.
What role does humor play in these drawings?
Humor is the reason I make the drawings. I realize that there is a whole lot of outrage regarding the Trump administration, and a lot of the response is just that: outrage. There is also a humorous absurdity in the daily workings of the administration, pointed out often in editorial discussion and opinion, but which I think is more effectively expressed through illustration. It is the humor of the obvious. I try to refrain from words (besides a title), and just let visual metaphor do its thing, with no superlative adjectives to grapple with.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I listen to NPR in the morning, and I read The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker. Sometimes my inspiration is lifted directly from the news or a combination of news bits. An example is the drawing of Bannon (as Thomas Cromwell) feeding Trump (as Henry VIII) well-done steak as he squeezes ketchup. Timothy Egan had written an op-ed in the NY Times regarding the similarities between Bannon and Cromwell, while another story popped up (somewhere) about Trump’s eating habits (well done NY strip and ketchup). The visual combination seemed more powerful than the individual parts.
Sometimes my inspiration comes from left field. An example is the drawing of Melania Trump in bed reading Kafka. Both the book, and the New York skyline outside, are upside down. I was listening to a public radio interview with, perhaps (my memory is not clear on this, but…) a climate scientist who worked for the EPA. The interviewer described the situation as “Kafkaesque”, at which point I thought of Melania alone in Trump Tower. Mostly, though, I make up my own absurd situations (or metaphors) that push the topic: Trump putting a banana in an ambulance tail pipe; Flynn as the “Boy in the Bubble” after asking for immunity; McConnell as Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove riding the bomb, after the nuclear option was exercised to confirm Gorsich; Trump and Putin crossing streams etc, etc. You’ve produced a number of album covers over the years. What bands have you done work for?
Hmmm. Mudhoney, Love Battery, Flop, The Fall-Outs, Supersuckers, Joe Henderson, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, and Bob Dylan. Sometimes covers, sometimes elements, once just a back cover (Dylan’s awesome Christmas record). I’ve done quite a few fluffy Xmas packages for Starbucks, too. If a call comes in, I say yes mostly. I have kids.
Do you have a favorite Mudhoney story?
Not really a favorite story… I went to college with singer Mark Arm, and have known guitarist Steve Turner for as long. My experience with them is on an old friend level, which makes it easier for them to make fun of me when trying to come up with covers. Back when they were originally on Sub Pop they asked me to do the cover art for Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. I lived in a house with Steve at the time, and he would look at a cover idea in my room and say something like “pretty good, but how about…” and I would come up with another, to which he would say the same, and on. If you have the CD package, you’ll notice they used all three versions. Bastards.
It’s as different as night and day. Commissioned work is usually quite collaborative, the subject matter coming from the outside needing to be visually solved or complimented, and involving a stable of overseers (editors, art directors, clients etc.). Conversely, the current crop of my Trump cartoons are done by me, edited by me (so to say, not), and published by me. I’m not always sure of the quality level of what I’m putting online. I don’t bounce anything off anybody else. I think there are some high points and some not so high points, but I don’t mind that I don’t hit home runs all the time. I also do children’s books, and similarly like the waxing and waning of images and intent along a linear narrative. I think it’s more like life.
Do you have any stories of album covers you’ve done that didn’t turn out so well?
The Thrown Ups, for reasons not just visual. That was my band, and we are legend for what can only be described as “Alternative Quality.”