By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
Great editorial cartoonists have been part of the long tradition of journalism in America. While the profession has fallen upon tough times that parallel the struggles of newspapers, there remain some true geniuses able to distill the essence of issues pictorially through characters, attitude and sparse use of words.
When John Potter came out of retirement last winter and launched a new series of nature-related spoofing, “It’s All Relative,” for Mountain Journal, many knew him better for his career as a fine art painter of wildlife and Western landscapes.
Potter, who for years worked as an editorial cartoonist at The Billings Gazette and where one of his pieces was once nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, divided his youth between Chicago and the Lac du Flambeau (Ojibwe) reservation in northern Wisconsin.
Be it his provocative cartoons or his fine art, Potter himself is, by his own admission, shy when it comes to being in the limelight. As a socially awkward and introverted kid, he says he spent most of his early years away from people and in the embrace of the forest and its wild inhabitants.
“My family likes to joke that I was raised by wolves,” he notes. “I should be so lucky.”
Eventually, he spent much of that time in the wild with a sketchbook in hand. Drawing and sketching the mammals and birds that came to him as he sat motionless was both a source of solace and an obsession. “They were not just ‘subjects,’ they were more like family,” he explains.
Potter eagerly pursued art in high school and afterward headed west to attend Utah State University where he earned degrees in illustration and painting. Following graduation, he spent 19 years as a staff artist and cartoonist for The Billings Gazette, drawing everything from illustrations to courtroom sketches, and his editorial cartoons that were reader favorites.
However, feeling restless and pulled by a desire to paint full time, he gave up job security, went through years of struggle and emerged as artist whose work today is found in private collections around the world and in the permanent public collections of several museums, including the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, the Brinton Museum in Big Horn, Wyoming, and the Montana Historical Society Museum, the same place that has works by one of influences, Charles M. Russell.
Here’s part of a chat I had with him recently.
TODD WILKINSON: Cartooning is its own fine art form. In journalism, cartoonists can win awards and one of yours was nominated for a Pulitzer. How did cartooning get on your radar screen and who are a few of the others who inspire you?
JOHN POTTER: My first inspiration for cartooning was Charles M. Schulz (I copied “Peanuts” cartoon strips obsessively when I was a kid). I loved “Peanuts.” Got an autographed letter from Mr. Schulz once, too. Cartoonists that have inspired me include the great Walt Kelly (“Pogo”), Bill Watterson (“Calvin & Hobbes”), Garry Trudeau (“Doonesbury”), and political cartoonists Bill Mauldin and Pat Oliphant.
T.W.: You worked at The Billings Gazette as their editorial cartoonist and graphic artist for years. How did you get that gig?
J.P.: Someone on the hiring and firing committee at The Gazette had a serious lapse in judgment. Actually, a fellow cartoonist named Craig Curtiss, who was also a former lettering artist for Stan Lynde (“Rick O’Shay”), helped me get that job, giving me a great referral.
T.W.: You have serious concerns about the fate of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as a region where wildlife can still persist and where indigenous people can be reconnected. What do you hope your cartoons dealing with contemporary social and ecological issues will accomplish?
J.P.: I’ve heard it said that a cartoonist’s job is to make people laugh while you’re calling them out on their s**t. Sometimes you gotta get their attention first, though. I hope to awaken people to the notion (i.e.: belief) that Yellowstone, the larger ecosystem and all land is sacred. We need to view the Earth as a scared being, not just a rock to be exploited. We have a responsibility to our Earth, and to our great grandchildren, whom we are borrowing the land from. We can do it with a smile.
T.W.: You and a friend were there in the winter of 1995 when wolves were restored to Yellowstone and you offered them an honoring prayer in the Lamar Valley. When you look back at that moment, what sticks out in your mind?
J.P.: My brother, Scott Frazier, and I were asked by Yellowstone to perform welcoming and adoption ceremonies for the wolves when they were returned to the park during both phases of reintroduction, in 1995 and ‘96. These remain as some of the best moments and memories of my life.
T.W.: You were raised on and off the Lac du Flambeau Chippewa Indian Reservation in Northern Wisconsin. What do you like about the West?
J.P.: Our people have cultural ties to these Beartooth Mountains. I felt a sense of belonging to these mountains the first time I saw them, as a teenager, without knowing about our relationship to them at the time.
Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He also authored of the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by Thomas D. Mangelsen, about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399. Read his latest article on renowned actress Glenn Close in the summer 2021 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine.