At the age of 70, artist Walt Taylor is the Virginian-Pilot's sole local political cartoonist. He searches the news daily for inspiration. Twice weekly he rises early-ish in the morning to begin his process, starting with a quick, hand-drawn thumbnail sketch. Once a particular composition is set on the page, it's scanned into Photoshop to be refined and emailed to his editors. “They hardly ever complain about anything I do,” he explained. “I'm completely responsible for coming up with my own ideas. They once asked me not to use the word 'crap' in a piece. That's about the extent of the oversight I experience. It's pretty great!”
It wasn’t always so easy for Walt. Born in 1946 in the town of Leroy, New York—“The home of Jello!”—he discovered transience fairly early in life. “When I was eleven, we moved to Ohio. It was basically a stoplight and a general store in a place called Lisbon, near Youngstown. My father was a ceramics engineer. One plant would close right underneath him, and then we'd move to another state.” The influence of a relative gave him the initial nudge towards cartooning. “My Uncle Don drew cartoons. He was sort of the bad boy of the family. I was just mesmerized by that, so I started doing my own. He had dropped out of college. It was shameful to the rest of the family, but it seemed like a useful life path to me!”
Following his uncle's example, Taylor first attended college at the University of Maryland, majoring in Pre-Law due to a fascination with an at-the-time popular legal drama on television, “The Defenders.” By the second year he realized, to the detriment of a budding academic career, that attendance wasn't compulsory and, finding himself in class less and less, eventually flunked out. While contemplating his next step, Walt received a draft notice and promptly joined the Air Force to avoid patrolling the jungles of Vietnam. Four years of service afforded him the opportunity to resume scholarly pursuits, as he went on to major in Fine Art at Ohio University, finishing up at Ohio Wesleyan.
Post-graduation, Taylor landed a job with an architectural firm in downtown Norfolk. Employed as a liaison with the independent print shop located on the first floor, he quickly learned the ins and outs of operating a printing press. Capitalizing on this newfound skill set, he independently released a collection of his cartoons in 1979 entitled How To Pick Up Girls With Paper Hats. “Printing a book on your own back in those days wasn't anywhere as easy as it is now,” he remembered. “Everything was analogue. You'd have to work what we called a ‘stack camera,’ and photograph your drawn pages. I'd run the press and then trim and bind each copy.” The publication drew the attention of a reporter who penned a story on Taylor’s effort for Metro Magazine. “There was no internet back then. No Amazon. I had to pay for a post office box to sell copies. People would order it through the mail.”
In the mid-aughts, he was approached by a Virginian-Pilot editor interested in recruiting for sporadic full-page sketch collections for the newspaper. After a successful three-year run of those, the funding dried up, so they asked Taylor if he’d move over to the editorial section. "They wanted a cartoonist to cover the local scene. I wasn't all that into it, but I needed a paycheck so I said, 'Sure!'" After a period of time, he started proposing work with a more national bent. As political seasons wane and wax, many of his pieces are devoted to election commentary. Taylor's cartoons are notable for their unabashed liberalism, often drawing the ire of the community's more conservative readership. "People will write in, 'You ought to fire that guy!’ But I'm an independent contractor, always have been."
Taylor has published over six-hundred cartoons for the Pilot in the past ten years. He cites Mike Luckovich as an industry hero, alongside Herb Block and Pat Oliphant. His cartooning typically highlights a "man on the street" perspective as opposed to straight satirical caricatures of political figures. Asked to describe his particular hallmarks, he observed, "Stylistically, I've never settled into a particular signature look. This probably keeps me away from consideration for awards or syndication—they need to be able to recognize you in the cartoon. I tend to just draw whatever, however I feel like doing it at the time."
He often expresses frustration with the public's comprehension of the role of journalism. "I'm identified as a member of the 'Liberal Media.' I don't take it as an insult, but it annoys the hell out of me. There's a difference between reporting and opinionating. Newspapers have always, since days of Ben Franklin, had the agency to express opinions on the pressing issues of the day, but people read the editorial page and think that that means the rest of paper is biased!" When asked about the current election cycle, he grew contemplative. "It all hinges on the phrase, ‘lesser of two evils.’ I think the majority of us agree that it's really hard to think that you're voting for a candidate you love. You have to measure who can do the most damage in the next four years. For me? That's Trump, hands down."
Taylor finds it hard to stay within the lines, artistically. "I consider editorial cartooning to be on a low level of artistic endeavor, to be honest. It serves a purpose, socially. But as art? It's not my favorite medium. I periodically get the itch to do a good oil painting. I try every year and then give it up in disgust."
His favorite creative activity, unsurprisingly, is the one that offers him the most freedom of expression. "I call it 'reportage,'” he enthused. “Get out there and draw real life right on the street. I love the immediacy of that. For the most part, I get to do whatever I feel like doing in any given moment. The work I value the most is the work I totally do for free. Without expectations or demands. That's not a bad way to live out the day, you know?"
Photography by Jeff Hewitt