"Visual Commentary" In Cleveland Plain Dealer Creates A Stir


CLEVELAND, OH – A "visual commentary" about the presidential candidates that ran in the Sunday, September 28, Opinion section of the Cleveland Plain Dealer has created a bit of a reader controversy.

The artwork was created by Plain Dealer staff illustrator Andrea Levy, a consistent winner in the National Press Photographers Association's Best Of Photojournalism contest for her computer-aided conceptual illustrations.

Levy's illustration that generated this week's reader buzz is titled "A Bridge to Somewhere," and it's a black-and-white full-page illustration that ran on the back page of the Opinion section on Sunday without any editorial copy surrounding it.

The text across the top that serves as a headline says, "There is a bridge to somewhere, but can we cross it?"

The drawing is a mix of illustration and original photographic samples, and beneath the headline it shows Senator Barack Obama on the left, holding in one hand scissors and in the other a noose that's been cut down from an overhanging, dangling rope.

On the right, the drawing shows Senator John McCain peaking out from behind a mask of Gov. Sarah Palin. Her mask face is much larger than his face, is flat, and is suspended on a stick handle McCain is holding. The only element of the illustration that's not black-and-white, that has color, is an American flag lapel pin on McCain.

The text across the bottom of the illustration says:

Or instead, prop-politics? Paperdollitics? The voting booth is a very private place. It's been said that this is not a race about race. But of course it is, and it's about our bodies, our partners, the earth and its faiths (plural) as well. or are these just props too? is the flag an accessory?

An online .PDF file of the illustration is here.

In an online chat on Cleveland.com this week, Levy talks about the illustration and how it came to be, and what her thinking was in its creation.

She said that some time ago, "the Editorial department came to me and said they might want an Op-Ed piece from me for the election. I've done other Op-Ed pices before, they are opinion pieces where I'm asked to express my own opinion. It's one thing to express your opinion, but it's a whole different ball game to put your opinion out in front of 300,000 people."

The illustrator says that at first she started working on two separate illustrations, one about Obama and once about McCain.

"I was reluctant to express my own opinion, so I made them generic. But after a while I realized I wasn't saying anything," Levy told the online chat. "I went back to them [the editors] again and said I was concerned about expressing my own opinion. They said, 'This is an opinion piece. People understand what opinion is.' That's when I started to make images that were two separate images. But when it came around time to run it, the space changed. They didn't want two, they wanted one [illustration] on the same page. That threw a different dynamic on onto the page."

Levy says that's when she started to put the two illustrations together into one.

"It was very interesting to me the way the two images started to speak together. It brought up a split that was serendipitious, not as it has been interpreted to be about race but a split in our country about the way people are divided on the way they're going to vote. So it's a slit down the center, black-and-white down the center."

She says the overall statement the illustration delivers is a simple statement based on her own observations.

"After watching Hillary [Clinton], now there's a woman but she was sequestered, and not speaking for herself, after what I thought was such a strong female candidate we come to have another female candidate who is sort of a prop, and McCain is recessed into the background. She [Palin] was big, and in the way, and McCain was behind her but she wasn't really speaking for herself."

Levy says despite readers' initial reaction in thinking that the piece was an advertisement, it was not.

"This is not an advertisement for Obama. I do a lot of work for the Plain Dealer and I don't know if the readers have seen my other work that I've done, but I've done other things that 'push the envelope' in the Plain dealer, that's part of my style of working. So I think what happened is that this back page didn't have any editorial copy on it, and often an Op-Ed illustration is boxed in by the copy. It's so seldom that art gets through in thrown in on a free page, and this was not properly labeled 'This is editorial art, this is an editorial opinion.' And because it was on the back page of a section people thought it was an advertisement. It think that was an oversight on our part."

Plain Dealer ombudsman Ted Diadiun called Levy's Op-Ed piece "A thoughtful, fascinating piece of work by one of the most thoughtful, fascinating people who work here."

He also said, "The reaction we got from a distressing number of readers was stunning in its ferocity."

"Clearly, to me at least, the illustration emphasized the importance of Obama's presidential candidacy as an emblematic separation from a time when black men were lynched for being 'uppity,'" Diadiun wrote to readers.

In its discussion of Levy's Op-Ed "visual commentary" the paper pointed out to readers that Levy has won many national and international awards for her work and points to an online gallery of some of her past winners in the National Headliner Awards here.