by Sally Scott Moore
SILVER WORLD readers have long been entertained by the quirky caricature, cartoon renderings drawn by artist Rob Pudim. His one-frame drawings appearing on editorial page may have led readers to think they must be the work of a reclusive local artist because they so cleverly capture funny Lake City-isms, or made you chuckle at the ridiculous root of a divisive town issue. Pudim is talented, prolific and clever, but he’s not a Lake City, home-town artist.
Editorial cartoonist Rob Pudim lives nowhere near Hinsdale County, but is based, way out-of-town, in Longmont, Colorado. This mysterious talent has carved out a serious creative niche spanning multiple decades.
In an out-of-the-box business plan, this Wizard behind the Cartoon Curtain pens insightful satirical cartoons for untold dozens of local newspapers across the western United States.
Thinking that others may have wondered about the prolific SILVER WORLD cartoonist, I set about arranging an interview at his home north of Denver.
Energetic and interesting are poor words to describe the athletic octogenarian. I met him as he was unpacking camping gear, just returning from a weekend environmental restoration project in the mountains. He rides a serious bicycle, has participated in some 180 environmental rehab projects, sits on the boards of the University of Colorado Natural History Museum, Longmont’s Park and Recreation, and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. “Growing up in a coal mining town had a big impact on me. I saw first-hand how the land was devastated, and it made a definite impression. I do all I can now to improve what has been lost or damaged.” Pudim has been deeply involved and committed for many years in efforts to restore native plants, eradicate noxious weeds and preserve and collect native seeds, as well as reseeding fire and flood damaged areas of Colorado.
He recalled always having had a proclivity for drawing. Pudim’s father considered his doodling a hobby for children and encouraged him to “get a real job” and Rob did. The grandson of Prussian and Lithuanian immigrants, Pudim was the first in his family to break away from the grueling life in the Northeastern Pennsylvania coal mines.
As the first Pudim to graduate from high school and then from college, he nurtured a real love of learning. Studying at Rutgers and then Tulane Medical School, he received multiple degrees in Chemistry and Math. Interrupted by the war in Vietnam, Pudim relates that he found himself in a class by himself as the first conscientious objector- not for religious reasons. After seemingly endless appeals, he eventually did go to Vietnam, having volunteered for the draft and served in the Medical Corps. He is proud that those efforts later served as a legal precedent in the New York Circuit Court for other non-religious, conscientious objectors.
After his hitch was up, Pudim left the Army at Ft. Carson near Colorado Springs. “I had never seen mountains like these where I grew up, so I decided to stay.” He settled in Boulder and, attempting to make sense of his war experiences, enrolled in Colorado University and obtained an undergraduate degree and then a Master’s in Philosophy. “It didn’t answer any of my questions, but it was very interesting,” Pudim said with a wry smile. Calling himself a fallen scientist, he adds, “I never thought of myself as an artist,” he stated. “I began drawing funny political cartoons for the COLORADO DAILY – the CU campus newspaper- when I was enrolled there. Most of my friends didn’t realize that those little daily cartoons paid for my books and tuition.”
Later, working in research labs and medical facilities, Pudim began to do the odd cartoon for house publications or trade journals. He was soon answering calls from CU journalism friends who wound up at various area newspapers. Recalling Pudim’s sharp wit and ready pen, they contacted him to create the same pithy pocket cartoons they had seen from him at the university.
With a humble shrug, Pudim admits, “I never went out and pitched or promoted myself to newspapers. It just grew from word of mouth. One day I realized that I was making more money from my drawing than I was at my real job.” He motions to his computer and the drafting table in his studio overlooking Spangler Park in Longmont, “This funny niche I fell into has allowed me the freedom to travel and do what I want – on my schedule.”
And travel he does.
His home is a veritable travel log of a long and adventurous life. Impressive collections comparable to any museum of Natural History line his walls and shelves, revealing his deep, passionate curiosity and a search for that elusive something, never quite captured. Butterflies, Indian pots and artifacts, Indigenous tribal masks from every point of the compass are interspersed with casual artfulness with his own original abstract paintings.
Rivaling the Most Interesting Man in World of the iconic Dos Equis Beer commercials, Pudim also knows his way around the kitchen and raises his own organic, heirloom tomatoes. The artist was as comfortable discussing current politics and 18th Century Laissez-faire economics as he was Navajo nouns or the lack thereof.
Having grown up in a multi-lingual home and neighborhood, Pudim has an aptitude for languages. “I try to learn a little of the language wherever I go and it comes to me pretty easily. I was raised a Lutheran, and my family spoke German growing up in Pennsylvania. All the kids I played with spoke different languages…growing up, I thought every family had their own particular language – I really did! My friends and I developed our own language out of all of that, that even our parents couldn’t understand,” he recalls with a fond smile. “My grandmother spoke Polish, German, Yiddish and Russian. She never learned English. I think it hardwired in me that proclivity for that type of thing.” He smiled and then went on to outline several Native American Indian language examples which defied this theory.
The business which supports Pudim’s free-wheeling life is equally fascinating yet simple. His creative process begins with a great deal of reading. He subscribes and reads (mostly now, with electronic newspaper issues) a huge number of local newspapers, just like Lake City’s SILVER WORLD. When he hones in on the local issue or funny idea, the artist sets to work on a pencil sketch.
Once perfected, this is inked over the pencil with a Sharpie. After scanning the sketch into his computer he can then proceed with Photo Illustrator to color it to his desires.
Once upon a time he had to make copies and mail each cartoon off to various editors. Now, in an instantaneous, electronic world, Pudim sends each pocket cartoon as an email attachment which saves him time and postage. The lanky illustrator codes the various elements and which publications receive which cartoon so no image is ever replicated. “Many small towns are dealing with similar issues, so it’s not unheard of for me to replicate various elements or characters from a particular cartoon and personalize it for a specific area market.”
Not a one-trick-pony, Pudim has been commissioned to design many book covers and magazine cover art. However, his bread and butter is the art of the single block editorial cartoon. Calling editorial caricatures a dying art, the illustrator cites the death of big city newspapers and once large circulation magazines as they fall victim to a society now content to glean the headlines from an always handy cell phone.
At one time major magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, The New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post were famed for their satirical, editorial jabs at political parties or personages and larger-than-life issues. In our earliest American history, cartoonists made fun of King George III, Ben Franklin notoriously penning his famed Don’t Tread on Me drawing which, ironically, today elicits a visceral response from our own government.
Years later, Democrat pundits and Southern sympathizers made hay in newspapers vilifying the long, lanky Republican, Abe Lincoln. In the late 19th Century, German born caricaturist and editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast not only gifted us with the modern day version we hold of Santa Claus, but also made a career of satirizing the existing graft and corruption of the Democratic Party machine in New York City. By regularly lampooning Boss Tweed and his Ring of Thieves at Tammany Hall, the small, powerful political images eventually created a movement that led to Tweed’s political downfall.
Recent headlines have shown us just how powerful a medium the political cartoon still is today. In 2015, the French Satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s offices were attacked by Islamist gunmen who did not see the humor in recently published cartoons satirizing the Prophet Mohammad. When the smoke cleared, 12 employees had been murdered, including five staff cartoonists for the magazine.
Glad his niche was framed in small town papers, Pudim adds philosophically, “Things change. Society has changed. The big newspapers are dying now. Advertising has moved away from the print media.” He pauses for dramatic effect, then adds with a grin, “The small local papers are flourishing.
The people in small communities still need that connection. Small business owners in town need that advertising outlet, and people always want to find out what is happening, who was born or died, in their own community. I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt who once said ‘People are more interested in a dog fight on Main Street than a war overseas’.”
Pudim gives a short laugh, “I’ve certainly found that to be true in my line of work.”
Pudim, the artful entrepreneur, starts every morning reading small town papers from through-out the Rockies, all the way up the western coast to the San Juan Islands in Washington State, then captures the heart of a local struggle, issue, or heart-string and soon returns it to the editor as a concise, flaming arrow, prodding viewers to think about a subject in a different way or laugh aloud with their morning coffee.
Showing me the file drawers of a lifetime of cartoon work, Pudim concedes this art-form is unique in its brevity. A fleeting, savvy commentary, these are gems that are enjoyed for a moment, soon tossed and forgotten.
Nevertheless, Pudim enjoys the challenge and is having too much fun to consider retiring. Waxing professorial, he recalls that the ancient Greeks had no word for ‘Artist’. Whether dramatic actors from the amphitheater, sculptors, painters or weavers or pot-makers; all were called “Makers”.
“That’s the way I consider myself.”
The artist’s eyes crinkled into a handsome smile as he spoke of his life-well-lived.
“I don’t think of myself an artist. I am just a Maker.”