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From pen to computer

Ariail tapped for state's top arts award

Posted: February 23, 2012 5:13 p.m.
Updated: February 24, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Robert Ariail, a Camden resident and nationally syndicated cartoonist, has been named a recipient of the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award, South Carolina’s highest honor for the arts.

Ariail said he has loved Verner’s artwork ever since he first saw it and was “very proud” to receive an award associated with her name.

“She is one of the most well-known and loved artists in South Carolina history. I’m honored to have won this,” he said.

Verner was one of the key figures of the Charleston Renaissance, a dynamic period of art and culture that flourished in the city from the 1920s to the 1940s.

Ariail noted that while cartoons aren’t always considered part of the fine arts, his artistic technique parallels the way Verner created her world-famous etchings.

“The styles are extremely similar with the use of black on white and in capturing the moods and the scenes of a period,” Ariail said. “Her work is iconic. This is a big event for me. I’m very grateful for it.”

He explained that at times his drawings rub people the wrong way, especially if somebody is portrayed in a negative light. He said he’ll even hear back sometimes from the person depicted in a cartoon, or, as he added with a laugh, “their wives.”

“That goes with the territory. I’m dealing with opinions and everybody’s got an opinion. While I hope people will understand mine, I’m not trying to convince them that mine’s right. I’m just putting it out there,” he said.

But even people who have been skewered in Ariail’s cartoons call up now and again and ask for a copy. One in particular was S.C. Sen. Jake Knotts of Lexington, who grabbed news headlines after calling Gov. Nikki Haley a “raghead.”

“I did several on him last year and he said he actually wanted the originals. That’s sort of the other side of the coin. It sometimes doesn’t matter what you say about them, they want that cartoon on their wall. It’s really a phenomenon. Not everyone is like that. It’s interesting to see how that works.”

Ariail’s editorial cartooning career began in 1981 with the Columbia Record. After graduating from the University of South Carolina, he became the full-time cartoonist at The State newspaper in 1984.

Budget cuts in the newspaper industry led to him leaving The State in 2009, but soon after he landed at the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. His cartoons are currently circulated in over 600 newspapers, including the Chronicle-Independent.

“I remember in the early days, I’d just be spinning my wheels if I couldn’t find an idea,” he said. “But there are so many ideas out there that as I’ve done this job, it’s become easier to see the issue and see the idea for the cartoon very quickly.”

Ariail indicated there’s typically no shortage of ideas, but that one of his top goals is to always be original.

“The way I look at something may not be the way other cartoonists or other people look at it. Sometimes cartoons end up being similar mostly because it’s in the same news cycle and everybody’s thinking about the same thing,” he said. “But I like to be out-front and have an idea that nobody has thought of. That’s what I strive for, something different.

According to Rusty Sox, senior manager of the South Carolina Arts Commission, Ariail was chosen as the state’s top individual artist by the organization’s board of directors.

“The category is open to artists that practice in any kind of artistic discipline, so it’s wide open. To rise to this level one must be quite accomplished in the work that they do,” Sox said. “The people who win these awards carry on Verner’s legacy. They’re doing great things in their communities and statewide to make South Carolina a great place to live, work, and visit.”

Other recipients of this year’s awards are:

• Lifetime Achievement: Dr. Lillian Quackenbush, Columbia;

• Individual: Sam Wang, Clemson;

• Arts in Education: R. Scot Hockman, Columbia;

• Business/Foundation: The Self Foundation, Greenwood; and

• Organization: The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art with special recognition for Mark Sloan, Charleston.

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