Edel Rodriguez has been a leading illustrator for more than two decades. He counts among his clients The New York Times, TIME, The New Yorker as well as a myriad book publishers. He is also the creator of several children’s books and exhibits internationally. This year alone he has been featured with profiles on NBC, CNN and The Washington Post, among others, and recently won the the American Society of Magazine Editors’ Cover of the Year award for his TIME “Trump Meltdown” cover.
Born in Cuba, he emigrated with his family in 1980 by boat to the United Sates when he was just 9 years old. I interviewed Edel Rodriguiz recently about his continuing success and the impact of his images.
You certainly have taken on the anti-Trump mantle. How did this come about and how are you handling the negative pushback alongside the accolades?
I’m working now similarly to how I’ve worked in the past on topics about dictatorships, communism and extremism. The difference is that the times have changed. People are paying much more attention to current events and this administration because this affects them directly.
A couple of years ago, when ISIS was spreading throughout the Middle East, I made images about those events and began posting them online. The images went from the internet, to street posters that I created and posted around New York City, and eventually to magazine covers.
When the election primaries began, I went through a similar process. I made images about what I saw in the news and started posting them online. They received a lot of interest and I soon started receiving some assignments on the topic of Trump. TIME was the first magazine that hired me to do a strong cover on the topic. That was the “Meltdown” piece, which quickly went viral online and was all over television newscasts. I made sets of street posters of that image and several others and began posting them around the city. TIME asked me to do a follow-up cover titled “Total Meltdown.” Later, Der Spiegel asked me to do the “End of the World” cover, which published the week after election day, and the “America First” cover, about the Muslim Ban. All of these got incredible press coverage and internet activity. I wrapped it all up into poster campaigns by offering my work for people to download and print as posters for protests. The images appeared at the Women’s March and many other protests afterwards. This is still an ongoing project, and many more things are coming up.
The funny thing to me is that I don’t consider myself a political activist, though I’ve become one in a roundabout way. I’m an artist that feels something is not right at this time in our history. Having grown up in a totalitarian state, I see things happening that others may not. I feel that my art is the best way I can communicate my urgent point of view, as directly and to the point as possible.
Regarding the accolades, the main thing I like about that is that people are talking about these issues. Anything that keeps the conversation going is a good thing. The worst thing would be silence and people getting used to this situation and just humming along. Regarding the negative push back, I welcome it as well. It’s as if my work at times holds up a mirror to some of the darkness in this country. When they see my images, all of this venom gets spewed at me, and people are able to see for the first time what was hiding there all along. I’ve always thought that the best work is one that elicits emotion, and my work has done that, from many directions.
You recently returned from Germany, where your Der Spiegel Trump covers are as well-known as your TIME covers here. What is your sense of the reaction to Trump and our current situation there?
One of the saddest results of what is occurring here is the reaction overseas. When I used to travel before, people spoke well of the United States and looked forward to traveling here. No one I spoke to while in Europe this time wants to visit the United States now, and worse than that, they are afraid to.
Any thoughts on the power of images and whether they can actually effect change?
I think images have the power to galvanize people and give them something to rally around. Images can sometimes speak for people that don’t have a clear idea of how to say what is on their mind. Nowadays, images can be shared widely and be the catalyst of many conversations, on television, the web, and in life. That, I’ve clearly seen, as people have held up my work on TV shows, at newsstands and at rallies. Whether images can effect real change remains to be seen. I think change happens at the ballot box. Images are one part of the process.
This one is for my students: How did you make the transition from full-time art director for the international edition of TIME to full-time freelance illustrator?
I had been painting and working as an illustrator for many years while I was an art director. I stayed very busy back then, working on my illustrations at night and on weekends while art directing during the day. By the time I had decided to do illustration full-time, my career in that field was fully developed. I had done many editorial illustrations, Broadway posters, stamps, and had illustrated about six children’s books. It was a very easy transition and made my life much simpler.
On a lighter note, any children’s books in the works?
I am illustrating a children’s book biography about the life of Jimi Hendrix and working on an illustrated memoir about my life in Cuba and emigrating to America.
What is your hope for the future?
Hope is kind of an abstract concept that keeps popping up in politics. Bill Clinton was “The Man from Hope,” a town in Arkansas. Obama had his “HOPE” campaign with the great Shepard Fairey posters. Where did all that hope get us though? I don’t know if there is any hope in any of this work I’m doing now. It’s really about directly standing up to something and encouraging others to do so themselves. Probably better that we stop hoping, confront the deep societal issues that surround us, and start focusing on the hard work ahead.
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