Jim Hanna: Pett's three decades of provocation a noble calling

June 19, 2014 

  • If you go

    Gallery Hop: Joel Pett cartoons

    When: Friday, June 205 p.m. to 8 p.m.

    Where: Herald-Leader, 4th floor 100 Midland Ave., Lexington

I've known Joel Pett for several years, and not just as a reader of the newspaper. He and I have had a few conversations, mostly by chance meeting, so I'd say we're friendly acquaintances, if not friends. What Pett isn't acquainted with is the time I suffered for his art.

After Pett was announced as winner of the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning back in 2000, the paper printed a two-page spread of some of his cartoons from that year.

Because my dad had worked at the paper, and because I had occasionally written items for the paper, I felt a pride in the Pulitzer that exceeded any civic pride that a resident of our city would perhaps experience.

The next day, I took the pages of cartoons to my classroom at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, stapled them to the bulletin board and told my classes about the award's significance, urging them to check out the cartoons on their own. I probably spent 10 minutes of class time on this, and didn't think I'd give it another thought.

A few days later, I got a letter from a parent, expressing disappointment that I'd mentioned Pett's cartoons to students, and explaining her confusion and anger that he had received an award for his work, which included, she pointed out, work that criticized the church she and her daughter, my student, attended.

The woman just could not understand why a person who did such things could be rewarded, or why I would mention it to my classes.

I wrote her a suitably diplomatic note in response, and heard no more about it, although I did share her letter, and concomitant chuckles, with some colleagues.

Pett would've loved to have seen this letter, I'm certain. His work has been a lightning rod for writers of letters to the editor for 30 years, and it's got to be gratifying to him that his cartoons elicit such response.

As Oscar Wilde once said, "the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."

For my part, I reacted to my letter writer by making a point to include Pett cartoons in my classroom activities from time to time.

One favorite was his cartoon from shortly after 9/11/01, which showed the Statue of Liberty standing defiantly.

Another was his Martin Luther King Day cartoon in January 2011, just days after the shooting of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, which depicted the little girl killed in the shooting entering heaven.

Both cartoons were subjects of angry letters about what their writers saw as Pett's misuse of material and subsequent letters in his defense. These became good fodder for classroom discussion about art and interpretation. Students were pretty quick to pick up on how some folks misunderstand the cartoons, but opinions were by no means unanimous.

I've always thought that Pett and his editorial cartooning colleagues are poets of a sort.

The English Romantic poet Percy Shelley wrote that "poetry makes familiar objects be as if not familiar." Editorial cartoons, in a back-to-front way, are a visual poetry that makes the unfamiliar be as if familiar.

Pett takes issues and ideas that are new and puts them together with images that we are used to seeing in another context, in order to help us, or force us, to think about new things.

That's a noble pursuit, worth taking some heat over (for me) and worth celebrating (for our community), as Pett hits the 30-year mark at the Herald-Leader. May he hit many more marks, and targets, before his career is over.

Jim Hanna, a retired high school teacher, now teaches at Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

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