Oliphant's Archive to Live at UVA

May 2, 2018

Comedian Michelle Wolf is catching lots of flak for her caustic words at the National Correspondents’ Dinner, but she is not alone.  Long before Wolf was making headlines, Patrick Oliphant was drawing harsh and sometimes hilarious political cartoons.  Now, a massive collection of his work has come to Virginia.

Pulitzer Prize winner Patrick Oliphant drew American politics for half a century.
Credit University of Virginia

For much of her adult life, curator Molly Schwartzburg has had a thing for editorial cartoonist Patrick Oliphant.

“I would open up my New York Times or whatever newspaper, wherever I was living and go immediately to the editorial page, and there I would see my Oliphant and other cartoons," she recalls.

So she was thrilled to learn that Oliphant, a resident of Santa Fe, was planning to send more than 6,000 drawings, sketch books and scrap books to the University of Virginia where students of history, art and politics will be able to study his unique take on America from the mid-60’s to 2015.  Alas, Schwartzburg says, that’s when he retired.

“And I think he really regrets not being able to represent Trump, and I think we all wish that we had Oliphant’s take on Trump of all presidents.”

To give you a sense for the Australian-born artist’s low-key but caustic wit, listen to this conversation he had on stage at Yale.  As historian David McCulloch spoke with him, Oliphant drew pictures of politicians on a massive white wall.  Among them, Richard Nixon’s Vice President, Gerald Ford who was reputed to be a clumsy man, and Nixon himself.

McCulloch: Did you ever meet him? 

Oliphant: No, I never did.  That’s okay.   I usually stay away from presidents or politicians in general. 

McCulloch:  Why? 

Oliphant:  “Because I might like them. There was one I did once meet, and that was his vice president. He was a very good fella, a nice fella, but he used to bang his head on things.”

He recalled being invited to entertain at a party the accident-prone Ford was hosting for his staff:

“So they were all there – Kissinger and those awful people – and I don’t know why I did this, but I took the charcoal, and I walked over and drew a Bandaid on his head.  Y’know you can get wrestled to the ground for that sort of thing.”

You’ll see band aids wherever Oliphant drew Ford and you might catch a glimpse of the tiny penguin he called Punk.  Here again is UVA Curator of Special Collections Molly Schwartzburg.

“I think that he’s Patrick’s alter-ego," Schwartzburg says. "He’s there to add just one more layer of commentary in these already layered cartoons.  He’s often sort of surprised and appalled by what’s happening, and shares his thoughts either with his actions or words.”

In addition to drawings, the collection contains correspondence from Oliphant’s  many fans, from Hunter Thompson and Walter Cronkite to Gilda Radner who signed her note Roseanne Roseannadanna.  And there are 22 bronze sculptures of politicians, including Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan on their horses.  

“Another wonderful sculpture," Schwartzburg adds, " is a large piece showing Patrick, the artist, in a chair, looking at naked Nixon – Nixon exposed, and it’s called Artist and Model."

That and other pieces are likely to be on display when the university opens a major exhibition of Oliphant’s work in the fall of 2019.