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    Award winning political cartoonist Dennis Draughon — whose illustrations will be on display at Gallery 208 beginning Jan. 22 — says his career path was strewn with peanuts.
    “When I was in the fifth grade I used to draw Snoopy and I would mail the drawings to Peanuts creator Charles Schultz,” said Draughon via a telephone interview from his Raleigh home. “He sent me letters encouraging me to keep it up. I kept one of those framed letters hanging on my wall for years.”
    Though Draughon never met the late, great creator of Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy and Pigpen, Schultz’s early interest in the artist as a young man paved the way for Draughon to produce biting, satirical cartoons that have appeared in countless newspapers. You probably know him best by his illustrations that appear regularly on the editorial page of The Fayetteville Observer. His work is also published weekly in The Durham News and other media outlets affiliated with the Capitol Press Association.
    {mosimage}Despite being known as a “cartoonist,” Draughon’s work should still be considered art, said Tom Grubb, executive director of the Fayetteville Museum of Art.
    “This is an important exhibit because it is a way to point out that cartooning is part of the visual arts,” said Grubb. “Political cartoons show what is going on in the world around us.”
    While Draughon earned his early illustrating chops with drawings of the “famous World War I flying ace” battling the Red Baron from atop a doghouse, Draughon attributes his success to a specific failure: Draughon failed the physical exam for entrance into the Air Force Academy, which led him to enroll at North Carolina State University, where he studied aerospace engineering, history and visual design. While enrolled at State, he first dipped his feet into the world of ink and political satire, spending eight years as the editorial cartoonist for the student newspaper, The Technician.
    And, in a stroke of pure synchronicity, the man who sponsored Draughon in his failed attempt at joining the Air Force would later become one of the cartoonist’s favorite targets when he put pen to paper: the late Sen. Jesse Helms.
“I’ve had friendly relations with many of my targets,” said Draughon. “Senator Helms was a great help to me. And even though we could not be further apart politically, after we met I found that I really liked him a lot.”
Draughon says he never allows personal feelings to come into play when he draws one of his politically charged cartoons.
    “When I worked for the Scranton Times Tribune in the ‘90s, I made the city’s mayor a frequent target,” said Draughon. “I liked the guy personally, but I felt he had no business being a mayor. I drew him with really big ears ... a very goofy persona. But we had lunch together all the time. It’s never personal ... It’s just business.”
    Closer to home, Draughon has made Fayetteville Mayor Tony Chavonne his target more than once.
For his part, Chavonne — former general manager of The Fayetteville Observer — says he enjoys Draughon’s caricatures.
    “It comes with the territory,” said Chavonne. “I enjoy his work, even when I’m the brunt of it. We’re lucky to have such a talented cartoonist drawing for The Fayetteville Observer.
    Draughon says folks with exaggerated physical features are easier to draw. His all-time favorite subjects include a couple of presidents — Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
    “Pretty people are usually harder to draw,” said Draughon. “If they don’t have a big nose or big ears, then those characters don’t come easy to me.”
    While Draughon says he has “no regrets” about anyone he’s ever lampooned on the editorial page, he says that a certain President-elect causes a pause in the pens of many cartoonists.
    “A lot of cartoonists are hesitant about how they draw Obama because of the racial connotations,” said Draughon. “Mainly because most of them are white. There aren’t a whole lot of women or minorities in this business.”
    Actually, there aren’t a whole lot of cartoonists in the editorial cartoon business. Draughon says the proliferation of the Internet and other mass media has reduced the number of full-time political cartoonists from 300 to about 80.
Despite the slim odds of achieving success as an editorial cartoonist in the current climate, whenever aspiring illustrators send him samples of their work Draughon remembers the early guidance of Schultz — and other mentors such as well-known cartoonist Doug Marlette.
    “I always offer these up and coming cartoonists encouragement,” said Draughon. “Just like I received from Schultz all those years ago.”
    And despite the limited number of cartoonists currently harpooning political figures with a sharpened quill, Draughon feels there may be more opportunities for cartoonists in the future, thanks to the same device that has submarined many of his contemporaries: “The Internet may provide an outlet for more and more cartoonists,” said Draughon.
    However, Draughon advises would-be cartoonists to follow their art with their heart, not their wallets.
    After all, he started out working for peanuts.
    The premiere party for the Draughon exhibit will be Jan. 22 from 5-7 p.m. at Gallery 208 in the Up and Coming Weekly offices, 208 Rowan St.

Contact Tim Wilkins at tim@upandcomingweekly.com 

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