KAL on Campus

Published: Jan 19, 2009

(Kal on campus with man staring at screen with statue on it)

When renowned political cartoonist Kevin “Kal” Kallaugher came to UMBC, he wanted to push his craft into the digital age. He did that – and much more – by spurring innovative research and prodding a new generation of students to get involved in politics and media.

By Richard Byrne ’86
Images courtesy of the Imaging Research Center

After nearly three decades in the political cartooning business, Kevin “Kal” Kallaugher was looking for new frontiers. Someone less energetic might have reclined on their laurels. After all, Kallaugher’s work for the Baltimore Sun and British magazine The Economist has made him one of the most-celebrated cartoonists in the English-speaking world.

KAL Online

Diary of “Digital Dubya”

Intro to “Digital Dubya”

The Choice

US Democrazy


Imaging Research Center

His style is instantly recognizable: highly-textural drawings and caricatures that brim with vigor and sharp wit. His work has won a place in art museums and numerous prizes – including three Thomas Nast Awards for political cartooning.

But Kallaugher was already pondering what the editorial cartooning of the 21st century might look like. And his success was shifting into restlessness, especially as the business climate for the newspapers and magazines where he’d forged his career grew chillier.

Kallaugher embarked on that successful career as a cartoonist in Britain at The Economist and other U.K. publications after graduating from Harvard University in 1977. Then, in 1988, he landed in Baltimore at the Sun. But three years ago, the cartoonist suddenly found himself on the sharp edge of print journalism’s cost-cutting frenzy when he was compelled to take a buyout at the Sun.

So he made a call in November 2005 to UMBC’s acclaimed Imaging Research Center (IRC) – which brings together artists, researchers, corporations and students to investigate new media technologies and create advanced works.

“My initial impulse was just to come and take some classes,” Kallaugher says. But when the university expressed interest in a deeper relationship, he took an “artist in residence” position at UMBC that he holds today. He’s used that opportunity at the university to create multiple projects combining animation, innovative web design and improvisational political comedy.

“There’s no doubt that the decision that I made that week back in 2005 was the right decision,” he says.

Dan Bailey, director of the IRC, says that Kallaugher is leaving an indelible impression on UMBC’s campus. Not only has the artist’s vision of political cartooning in a digital age spurred research, he says, but Kallaugher has been a valued teacher and mentor to the university’s students.

“It’s been a perfect match,” Bailey says.

Digital Dares

Talk to Kallaugher about his time at UMBC, and you hear about optimism and the future. It’s a much different atmosphere, the artist observes, than the newsroom of a metropolitan newspaper.

“The difference between a newsroom and a campus couldn’t be more acute,” he says. “You have a newsroom which is full of grumpy old cantankerous cynical folks – and maybe that’s part of the job description – who all believe the world was better 20 years ago generally.

“Then, you go to a campus, and it’s all about the future,” Kallaugher continues. “About optimism and hope. Possibility. And that’s such a wonderful place to be. For me, there’s no more exciting place to be than at a campus graduation. Because it’s like, for that golden moment, there’s this sense of possibility that is manifest in the air. And it’s spring, and there are all these youthful faces. We all remember our graduations. Of course, we’re all scared to death but as a society, we’re celebrating our future.”

Kallaugher plunged into his own future in his first collaboration with the IRC: an animated caricature of President George W. Bush that made its debut at an in-depth retrospective on Kallaugher’s work (“Mightier than The Sword: The Satirical Pen of KAL”) at the Walters Art Museum in June 2006.

The “Digital Dubya” project married Kallaugher’s aesthetic to the IRC’s capacity for cutting-edge research. First, the cartoonist molded a clay Bush head in his signature style as a model. Then, the model underwent intensive digital scanning, followed by the creation of a complex series of operations to make the image responsive to manual control gadgets such as joysticks and foot pedals.

By the end of the process, the digital image (with Kallaugher at the controls) possessed the ability to speak like Bush and make realistic facial expressions. A digital cartoon.

Participants also point out that the effort is even more amazing because of the high-stakes deadline under which it was created (three months) – and Kallaugher’s continual raise of the ante as the opening of his retrospective show approached.

Eric Smallwood ’03 visual arts, technical director of the IRC, was the center’s point man on the project. He recalls with a laugh the sprint to the finished animated “Dubya,” which was unveiled at a mock press conference with Kallaugher at the controls and a hired Bush impersonator to provide levity and contrast.

“He kept coming in and saying, ‘Now we’re gonna do it live,’” Smallwood chuckles. “And then, ‘Now we’re gonna do it live onstage.’ And then, ‘Now I’m going to hire my friend who’s a Bush impersonator.’ So it’s going to be the most highly-pressurized situation possible. And not only do we have to make the deadline, we have to make it good.”

Shane Lynch ’09, computer programming, who programmed much of the animation for “Dubya,” says that Kal pushed for “more exaggeration” in the 3-D Bush, “which is like his cartoon style, really.”

Kallaugher calls the project “an astonishing first step” in taking the cartooning art into the new century. “It’s a salute to the innovation and energy and creativity of the people [at the IRC] that we were able to pull that off. What I love about these guys is they respond. That’s why they’re here. They’re forward thinking.”

Smallwood says that “we pride ourselves here on being a scrappy team that can get anything done.” Digital Dubya, he says, “was probably the most enjoyable project that I’ve worked on since I’ve been here.”

Dan Bailey observes that the project created valuable and boundary-stretching research on animation – and demonstrated its reach to a broad audience. The IRC’s work literally freed Kallaugher’s animation so that it could be done “live” – and respond almost instantaneously to news events.

“What the IRC does is pilot-based research,” says Bailey. “This was that sort of research, done in an artistic context. Maryland Public Television did a documentary [on the project]. The synergy was great. It was research. To me, that’s what a university research center is all about.”

Rhetoric and Role-play

Kallaugher’s fondness for graduations and his determination to push new directions has also propelled his other main activities at UMBC: teaching and mentoring.

“You have so much knowledge and specialty that you’ve accumulated,” says Kallaugher, who will turn 54 in March. “To just go off into the sunset with all that stored up in your head is a waste to you. It’s a waste to someone who could benefit.”

That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been some adjustments for Kallaugher in moving from the sketchpad and the op-ed page to the dry erase boards of the classroom.

At the suggestion of John Jeffries, dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Kallaugher taught a class in spring 2007 (“Political Rhetoric in a Media Age”) in tandem with Thomas F. Schaller, associate professor of political science and author of the much-discussed book Whistling Past Dixie: How the Democrats Can Win Without the South.

The class yoked together two political junkies with high media profiles. (Schaller writes a column for The Baltimore Sun and appears regularly in other publications, and on television and radio.) Together, Kallaugher and Schaller led the students in the class through various forms of political rhetoric and its expression in print, broadcast and web media. They also took field trips and forays into the real world of political coverage – visiting a local TV news studio and creating a group op-ed and political cartoon, published in the Sun, about why so many students are unprepared for college.

“It was terrifically exciting,” Kallaugher recalls. “We tried to take each of the different types of media and show the tools that the creators have, how they manage those tools, and how they manipulate those tools.”

Schaller says that “I’m a very left-brain person and he’s very clearly a right-brain person. But we were a good team in that I could explain concepts and he could demonstrate them. Literally, in some cases.”

Kallaugher also played the role of teacher, mentor – and provocateur – in a seminar offered to students in the Imaging Research Center’s Fellowship program in spring 2007. Along with David Stroud, an assistant research scientist at the Goddard Earth Sciences and Technology Center (GEST), Kallaugher guided the fellows through an ambitious project: the creation of a 3-D animated film that explored themes of voting apathy among young adults.

The political cartoonist brought an added bit of urgency to the course, however. Kallaugher was cast in the role of a demanding client who was hiring the fellows as a production team. (Stroud took the role of producer in the seminar.) The element of good cop/bad cop was intentional, Kallaugher explains. “We said, ‘Let’s create a real-world environment, where [the fellows] really understand what it’s like out there.’”

Students in the course credit the cartoonist with being a charismatic and inspirational leader. But they add they were challenged by Kal’s vigorous role-playing as a demanding client with hard-to-achieve goals. One of the fellows, Ivy Flores ’08 visual arts, says that the class had its “difficult and stressful” moments, some of which were related to Kallaugher’s unfamiliarity with “the painstaking, time consuming and technical process of digital animation.”

Megan Willy ’08 visual arts, who also participated in the seminar, concurs with the high degree of difficulty that Kallaugher brought to the class. “We had a really small IRC Fellows class for the amount of work we were set out to produce,” she says.

Flores and Willy both say that the resulting film, dubbed “The Choice,” was a major accomplishment. And the two students received postgraduate fellowships to rework the freeflowing film that mixes fantasy, nightmare and satire into a more polished version completed in time for the 2008 general election.

Kallaugher concurs with the students’ assessment of the finished work. “What they achieved in a 3-D movie in ‘x’ number of weeks was phenomenal. It is a salute to them.”

He insists, however, that the real lesson of the seminar was found less in the “very creative and very ambitious” finished project than in the experience itself. “It was a crash course,” he says. “I mean, you can crash by yourself when you’re studying. But when you have to rally everyone else as a group, and show leadership, and keep going…If they’re left with anything at the end of that exercise, it’s what they’re capable of doing.”

Crazy for U.

Kallaugher’s latest project also mixes his distinctive style and wit with research and pedagogy. And it also showcases his role as a creative goad to artists, researchers and students at UMBC.

The US Democrazy Web site is interactive and interdisciplinary – drawing on students, faculty and staff with backgrounds in the social sciences, visual arts, and web design. The goal is to provide a dynamic (and funny) portal for students and others to enter into the very serious world of the democratic process and the very individual states that make up the American Electoral College.

“We wanted to make this a fun and enjoyable package,” says Kallaugher, “that will be useful to people not just during the election season, but continuously after that.”

Click on one of the states on the colorful US Democrazy Web site and you find a dizzying array of information and entertainment that captures unique elements of each state. Scroll your mouse over “Maryland,” for instance, and you see that Kallaugher and his team have renamed it “Crabcake.” Go deeper, and you find the state’s capital, population, state motto and date of accession to union.

There are also little surprises tucked away in the folds of the site. On Maryland’s page, you can click to see Kallaugher’s pop-up sketch of notable Marylanders John Wilkes Booth (actor and assassin of Abraham Lincoln) and John Waters (filmmaker). Booth holds a pistol; Waters a video camera. The drawing is titled: “Maryland’s Notorious Shooters.”

Schaller says that US Democrazy “is classic Kal: very cheeky, very fun, very visual, and very colorful. Anyone who’s been around Kal for five minutes knows he’s all those things.”

Constructing the site took much more than five minutes, however, and Kallaugher credits the team that assembled it with making the Web site seem at once organic and organized.

“This is just a huge amount of work,” he says. “But it’s amazing when, through a division of labor, the vision comes together.”

Bonnie Crawford-Kotula ’08, M.F.A., was the site’s main designer. Her experience was like many others who’ve worked with the moving target of Kallaugher’s ambitions for a project. “After moving into production stages,” she says, “Kal’s ideas kept coming! It was hilarious, because any day that Kal came in to meet with me, I never knew what the project would turn into by the time the meeting was over. He was constantly challenging me to try things I hadn’t considered, particularly in regards to user interaction.”

Another alumnus, Jamie Nola ’08, visual arts, was responsible for taking Kallaugher’s drawings and making them come alive for the Web, writing the codes and interfaces that make the site truly dynamic. “Kal has so many great ideas, and trying to keep up with him can be exhausting.”

Crawford-Kotula says that getting the site to reflect Kallaugher’s personality was a challenge that forced them to scrap a considerable amount of Nola’s initial hard work on the site – “the site was well-designed and had a cool, funky feeling to it, [but] it wasn’t Kal” – and get Kallaugher more involved in drawing.

“I felt very strongly that this project should have the flavor and feel of Kal’s illustrations,” she says, “because that’s what made our site different from other sites discussing politics – it was from the perspective of a political cartoonist. His drawings are beautiful. So, we used a lot of scanned images of Kal’s hand drawn work, and layered them into the site. The colors on the home page were mostly taken from blobs of color Kal had scribbled onto scraps of paper. We scanned those paint splashes, and sometimes changed the color of them in Photoshop, and then filled the states with the color.”

As the Web site grows and progress, she adds, it has the capacity to absorb all of Kallaugher’s brainstorms: “Whenever Kal gets a new idea, he can draw a funky cartoon, and it can be layered into the site.”

Kallaugher’s ideas seem to keep coming. He’s hoping to take US Democrazy “to the next level, even making it a dynamic community.”

There’s little doubt that Kallaugher has made UMBC a more dynamic community through his presence on campus. Part of that, says Dan Bailey, comes from Kallaugher’s easy rapport with all levels of the university hierarchy – ranging from UMBC’s Board of Visitors (to whom he demonstrated US Democrazy last autumn) to prospective undergraduates. “He really is egalitarian,” says Bailey, “from VIPs to high school students.”

Kallaugher’s even become a bit of an evangelist about the UMBC experience. “I’m very fortunate,” he says. “I travel a lot. I do a lot of public speaking. And I do get a lot of people who say, ‘You’re at UMBC.’ I am happy to tell them what an amazing place this is.”


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