LC alum details success with political cartoons

Photo Courtesy of Matt Wuerker

Matt Wuerker ’79 has been a political cartoonist for over 40 years and began freelancing for newspapers and magazines while attending Lewis & Clark.

Shortly after graduating with a degree in international affairs, he worked in claymation at Will Vinton Studios, a now famous Portland animation studio. He experimented with murals and commercial illustration while he was there, but continued freelancing political cartoons as well. In 2006, Politico brought Wuerker on as a founding staff member and he has been producing cartoons and other content for the news company ever since.

Wuerker’s interest in drawing developed early on. In middle school, he got involved in his school’s newspaper, which sparked his curiosity about political cartooning. He knew that he could pursue it as a career after meeting an inspiration of his.

“There was sort of a turning point for me in high school, in that I got to meet a very famous and successful political cartoonist, who was the cartoonist at the LA Times,” Wuerker said in an interview. “Paul Conrad was his name — he won three Pulitzer Prizes.”

In 2012, Wuerker won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning after being nominated in 2009 and 2010, following in the footsteps of Conrad. Wuerker vividly remembers receiving the award and the imposter syndrome he felt at the time. 

“It’s such a cliché thing to say, but it was completely surreal,” Wuerker said. “I never dreamed it would happen to me, and when it did, it was sort of a strange out-of-body experience.”

Professor of International Affairs Bob Mandel taught Wuerker at LC, and they have maintained a friendship over the decades. Mandel nominated Wuerker for his 2010 Distinguished Alumni Award and refers to him as one of his favorite students. He said he always expected Wuerker to be successful.

“He really hasn’t changed much since he was a student here,” Mandel said. “He’s just been blessed enough that he’s in a situation where he can do the kind of political commentary he wants. Doing so, he’s one of a kind. I really, really feel special to have known him.”

While at LC, Wuerker served as the chief editorial cartoonist at The Pioneer Log. He recalled how newspapers used to be laid out using Exacto knives, hot paraffin wax and paper. Wuerker has seen the industry rapidly change as things have shifted to a digital format.

“Technology kept sort of pushing you along, and you just had to keep up,” Wuerker said. “You had to just embrace every little new thing.”

Wuerker has had to adapt throughout his career. As part of his current job with Politico, he produces and edits a weekly video series called “Weekend Wrap” that includes a cartoon wrap-up and satire from the week. Despite learning digital technology over the years, Wuerker still does his illustrations by hand.

“I work on paper with pen and ink, and I’m an analog,” Wuerker said. “I’m a bitmap guy in a crazy vector digital world, but I figured out how to get by.”

Although the industry has changed, Wuerker comes up with the concepts behind his cartoons in the same way as when he first started. His extensive time in the industry and his background in international affairs has given him the tools to develop multiple ideas every week. 

Sometimes inspiration strikes when Wuerker is not expecting it.

“I actually, a lot of the time, will dream up my cartoons,” Wuerker said. “I wake up in the morning with an idea and it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, there it is.’ My subconscious works away for me at night too.”

Most recently, Wuerker has been working on an illustration for Mandel’s sixteenth book, which is slated to come out in June. The collaboration came about after the two recently caught up. 

“I was talking to him about this book I was writing and talking to him about how difficult it would be for the publisher, Stanford University Press, to figure out how to do a visual image on the cover,” Mandel said. “On each of my books there’s a visual image that relates to the topic, and this topic was really difficult. We were talking and then he said he would be interested in doing it and I was all excited.”

Wuerker feels honored to work with Mandel in a professional sense. He credits his success to people like Mandel, his mentors that have guided him throughout his life. 

“I owe it to people like Bob Mandel, and Paul Conrad and a lot of people who helped me along the way,” Wuerker said.

Mandel said that students should look to Wuerker as an example of what is possible after graduation.

“He really is the kind of person, and student and graduate that Lewis & Clark should be proudest of,” Mandel said. “I think he represents so many things that flourish our institution, and models for our current students.”

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