Artist’s Spotlight: Dwane Powell

Dwane Powell

Congenital Cartoonist

by Liza Robers
photographs by Peter Hoffman

In a career spanning more than 40 years, nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist Dwane Powell has published more than 15,000 cartoons, won countless prestigious awards, and had his body of work archived at UNC’s Wilson Library.

But Raleigh’s hometown cartooning hero, who spent 34 years on staff at The News & Observer and continues to contribute cartoons many Sundays, is also more influential than many of us here know: His industry-leading colleagues will tell you that his commitment to state politics has actually kept him under-recognized as one of the nation’s biggest talents in a highly specialized field.

“Because the majority of his work concentrates on local North Carolina issues, he’s been overlooked, but certainly is deserving, of the Pulitzer many times over,” says Ann Telnaes of the Washington Post, one of Powell’s many Pulitzer-prize-winning cartoonist friends.

You know Powell’s work. With a sense of humor more absurd than malicious, and a drawing style that includes immediately recognizable caricatures, imaginative scenarios, madcap details, and a laser-like ability to cut to the heart of a matter metaphorically, his cartoons are hard to miss. From Gov. Jim Hunt to Rev. Billy Graham, from Gov. Pat McCrory and the current Republican-led legislature, Powell has taken on those in power, and he’s skewered issues of all kinds. He has a reputation for tilting left politically, but he’ll tell you his goal is broader: “to keep elected officials on notice.”

Powell says he is proudest of “ignoring contradicting advice and following my creative instincts.” Telnaes says he’s done that with a “lethal combination” of “a biting wit, being very well-informed, and having a constant burning outrage at hypocrisy and abuse of power,” she says. “Many cartoonists possess one or two of these attributes, but only the best have them all.”

Mike Keefe, another Pulitzer-Prize-winning cartoonist friend known best for his work at the Denver Post, agrees. “Dwane is perhaps the most congenital artist I know,” Keefe says. “He was born to be a cartoonist. It’s in his DNA. A lot of us got in the back door, we liked to draw a little bit … but his mind works like a cartoon. He’s a unique talent. He’s not like any cartoonist out there I know of.”

These people know each other well. There are only about 50 full-time editorial cartoonists working in the country right now, Keefe points out, and “at the peak,” in the late 1980s, there were only about 350, he says. “It’s a rarified area.”

The talented folks who populate it enjoy each other’s company, and Powell enjoys bringing them together – which might be an understatement. An entire room in the art-filled contemporary Raleigh house Powell shares with his wife Jan is covered with cartoons that his friends have drawn on the walls over the past 25 years, during weekend visits and at late night, music-jamming parties.

“Cartoonists are really a tight group, and they all play guitar and sing,” Powell says. The cartoon-covered “den of iniquity,” he calls it, is a testament to these friendships, many originally forged at cartoonist conventions all over the country, and to the community Powell has helped bind among them.

“I think cartoonists are drawn to Dwane because of his passion for what he does,” says Telnaes, who, after 20 years, assumes that Dwane would consider her “a more recent” friend. “He’s genuine.”

His enthusiasm is potent. With a twinkle and a grin, he’s an eager guide to all that he loves, and it goes well beyond cartooning to include music, which he writes and plays; photography, which he practices and collects; cycling; his daughter and grandson; and his constant companion, Jan.

“There are six Pulitzer Prize winners in here,” Powell says happily as he shows a visitor the cartoon-covered den. Ben Sargent is one; so are Michael Ramirez, Ann Telnaes, Kevin Siers, Gene Payne, and Mike Keefe. Bob Clarke’s Spy vs. Spy (of Mad Magazine fame) speeds around a corner; Dave Graue’s syndicated strip Alley Oop characters are there. Mad Magazine is also represented by Mort Drucker and Nick Meglin; other cartoonists including Bob Krieger, Cullum Rogers, John Branch, David Cohen, Roy Doty, Chris O’Brien, Bill Holbrook, Randy Molton, Sam Rawls, Marc Dabagian, the Powells’ daughter Devon Powell, and more than a few house guests and “wannabe cartoonists” have all put their Sharpies to memorable use.

Arkansas roots
It’s easy to picture Powell as the lovable, talented, distracted kid his friends recall, growing up on a farm in McGehee, Arkansas, more interested in football than schoolwork. At 72, his athlete’s frame and shock of thick hair don’t look much changed from the photos of him as a much younger man, despite a recent bout with cancer; his charm can’t have changed much, either.

“He was – he is – just an all around good guy,” says Powell’s best friend from high school, Robert Moore, who went on to become the speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives. “He was a leader in a lot of ways. I was in awe of his talent. Everyone liked Dwane,” he says. “He had a kind of charm that was irresistible to the ladies, and to everyone. It’s hard not to like him now, and it was hard not to like him then.”

Powell’s recollection is a little less rosy: “I doodled. I was a terrible student,” he says, grinning. “I guess I was an ADD kid. I couldn’t pay attention.” Schoolwork might have escaped his focus, but drawing did not. He was “notorious” for the doodles and caricatures that filled his notebooks, and for the scribbled-on napkins he left in his wake.

As the son of a successful businessman, farmer, and civic leader, Powell felt plenty of pressure to get his act together. Moore remembers those days well. “I still remember his father saying, ‘Drexel (Dwane’s formal name), why don’t you be more like Robert and make those good grades?’ ”

It wasn’t until a high school guidance counselor took Powell aside, gave him “a bottle of India ink and a speedball pen set,” and put him on the yearbook staff that Powell realized he might have something to offer. Seeing his work in print was a revelation: “There was some kind of rush.”

“He took some time fooling around,” Moore recalls, “but when he found his talent,” it took off. “Obviously the guy is really smart and perceptive, and able to take the events of the world and make a statement on the issues.”

Also, and unsurprisingly, Moore says Powell has always been funny. “He always had a great sense of humor. We could cut up real good together. We never did anything mean, and I can’t say that about everyone I knew. We sure had some fun.” Powell says that early on, his drawings became a way to connect: “Drawing was always something I got attention for. I couldn’t tell a joke, but I could draw a cartoon and get a laugh.”

He was able to keep his grades up enough to stay eligible for high school football, and then to earn a spot to study agri-business – and play football – at Arkansas A&M (now the University of Arkansas at Monticello), where he was soon drawing for the campus paper. But when a shoulder injury ended his football career, his grades slipped, he left college, and made a short-lived stab at operating his own farm. It was enough to motivate him to get back to school. Back to “drinking and drawing,” as his wife Jan puts it, laughing. Powell grins: “I really had a reputation.”

Early days
A visit to a local stationery store – which doubled as the newsroom of the local newspaper – resulted in a conversation with the paper’s editor, who’d seen Powell’s napkin doodles. The editor asked if he’d ever thought of drawing a political cartoon, and offered him $5 to give it a shot. “I figured, hell, it might buy a six-pack or two,” Powell recalls.

But he found himself stumped at what to draw: “I didn’t have a political point of view.” So he followed the editor’s advice and “read up on the news.” A move in the Arkansas legislature to hold a constitutional convention captured his interest. “I thought: Do we really need to do this? And I did something of them trying furiously to iron out something that didn’t need ironing.”

“Remember,” Jan prompts, “You had liquid paper and a Flair pen.” And an evolving perspective on current events. That first cartoon was picked up by the Little Rock Arkansas Gazette. “I went home that weekend,” he recalls. “And my Dad picked up the paper. And he said, ‘Dwane, did you draw a cartoon for the Arkansas Gazette? There’s a cartoon here with your name on it.’ From then on, every Sunday I had a cartoon in the paper.”

But when he graduated in 1969, he didn’t know where his future would take him. He drove a Mack truck for his father’s oil business. He gave a half-hearted stab at becoming an insurance agent – he was hired, told to read several handbooks and come back in a week, and “then he put the books on the top shelf and never went back,” Jan laughs.

Jan fills in several details as Powell unspools his life story. By his side for almost half a century, the two met in McGehee when she was 17, a winner of the American Legion orator award, and unafraid of wearing hot pants; he was 23. She was with two of her friends, both of whom had already dated Powell, when he asked her out. On their first date – July 4, 1968 – a policeman at the Mississippi state line asked Powell what he had in his car, and saw Jan: “Just one sweet little petunia, I see,” the policeman said, and the nickname stuck. “We just had the 49th anniversary of our first date,” Jan says. In the intervening years, Jan’s own career took off with a successful promotional marketing business called Ad Infinitum that she sold in 2007, after 30 years in business. “It’s still going strong under the original name,” Dwane Powell notes proudly.

His own career eventually took him to newspapers in Hot Springs, San Antonio, and Cincinnati, and eventually, in 1975, to The News & Observer, where he worked full time until 2009. Much of the work he created during those years is the subject of a comprehensive retrospective exhibit of his work at the City of Raleigh Museum, on display through 2019.

Powell’s N&O editor and good friend, Steve Riley (a Pulitzer Prize finalist himself), fondly recalls working with him. Powell’s unique “ability to personalize a character” – like Jim Hunt, with a comb and poofy hair, or Jesse Helms, with his darting eyes – combined with Powell’s sense of humor to make for remarkably memorable cartoons. “He can find humor in almost anything,” Riley says. “Life just oozes out of him, oozes through him…He just makes it fun for the rest of us.”

Powell’s daily routine at the paper, Riley says, would be to read the news in the morning, germinate an idea, kick it around, run a sketch of it by everyone in the newsroom to see who laughed, and then race to complete it by deadline, five days a week. That kind of salaried job as a daily editorial cartoonist almost doesn’t exist anymore, and Powell says he’s grateful he had the chance to do it when it did. But he’s also optimistic for the future of editorial cartooning. “The art form will remain,” he says, “because there will always be individuals driven to comment through their art. The rub comes in how to get eyes on that art, and the big rub, how the hell to make a living off of it.”

These days, Powell is doing less ‘making a living’ and doing more plain ‘living’ – as fully as he can, which is something his friends all say defines him. Riley, for one, has a storehouse of tales of extracurricular adventures he’s had with Powell over the years – like serenading people at Duke Gardens, staying up till all hours with cartoonists, going on ski trips, cycling. Powell “finds fun pretty much wherever he is.” Still, “he can be serious, almost to the point of bitterness, when he starts talking about current national issues,” Riley says. “A good cartoonist needs some anger and some righteous indignation, but he’s never let it spill out too much into the rest of his life.”

Since 2013, Powell has been tapping into some of that energy, indignant and fun-loving, most Sundays. Getting back in the cartooning groove has been gratifying, he says. “I think I’ve always thought metaphorically. I think visually. When something’s going on, the first thing I start thinking is: How can I show this? How can I say this without using a word?”

It’s a question Powell says he’s privileged to be able to ask and answer. “I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to speak my mind for cartoons for forty years,” he says. “Just achieving the opportunity to be a cartoonist is probably the high point.”