Cartoonist and author Jo Sandelson

Jo Sandelson created the first ever daily topical strip cartoon to appear in The Times. She’s also had a weekly arts cartoon strip in The Observer, illustrated advertising campaigns for agencies like Saatchi and Saatchi, and written and illustrated a children’s book, The Barmies. She’s now created a new blog, Heir Raising. We found out how much of her work is inspired by her own experiences as a mum.

How did you get started as a cartoonist?

I was good at drawing and really couldn’t think of anything else I could do! I remember drawing a cartoon of a rather grumpy and unpopular teacher when I was about 8 or 9. It was passed from one child to the next around the classroom. There was much hilarity until she intercepted it and quivered with barely suppressed fury. However, I’d managed to make everyone laugh so I don’t even remember the punishment.

How did you get your first break?

Working for an Australian free newspaper called TNT in London about 30 years ago. Then I did a series of strip cartoons which were a spoof on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Desert Island Discs’. I called them ‘Wreck of the Week’ and sent them to all the broadsheets. A couple of weeks later, I got a phone call from ‘The Times’ asking me to come in and talk with them. They were looking for topical/political cartoons and luckily I’d prepared some ahead of time. A few weeks later I was working there full time.

Around that time I was also drawing storyboards and caricatures for advertising agencies, as well as city firms who had recently been unshackled from legislation forbidding them from advertising. There was plenty of work but I’d always wanted to draw something that had a real message about how we live in the world.

What’s it like working for papers like The Times and The Observer?

It was very hectic in the sense that I was working on The Times to a tight deadline – needing to come up with a finished cartoon by late afternoon for publication the next morning. Five days a week. I would wake very early to go and buy the papers, speed-read and make notes of the stories I might cover. Of course, there was the radio and TV news too so I was very caught up in world events – although things weren’t so instant in those days as there were no mobiles or any sort of personal computers! It sounds like the dark ages doesn’t it! At least we weren’t interrupted every other minute with a request that required an ‘urgent’ response though. Email had yet to be invented.

After dashing across London into News International, I would attend the main editorial meeting with the editor-in-chief and all the section editors. They decided what the paper would be covering the next day and therefore which topics would be most relevant for a cartoonist to satirise. I would go back to the design studio on the floor below where political cartoonist Peter Brooks still works as far as I know, and draw at the table that the now late, great Mel Calman also used when I wasn’t in. I’d spend about three hours sketching up several ideas and after discussing them with the editor-in-chief, would decide on the best one.

Once again, without a computer, if I wanted to draw one of the politicians or any other public figure, I’d have to go to the photo archives. This was a huge library taking up most of the downstairs floor level where I would have to put in a request for photographs of the person or people I needed to draw for reference.

The librarian would disappear and come back with a cardboard file which would hopefully have at least two or three photos of that person from different angles. If it was someone like the Prime Minister, there would be loads of bulging files of them grouped according to years as far as I can remember. (Of course, nowadays, thanks to the computer server’s image pages, I can see hundreds of photographs at the click of a key.) Then I’d spend another two or three hours sketching up, revising and drawing the finished cartoon in black pen which would be taken down to the printers by 6.30pm at the latest.

Only once did I draw a blank and get writer’s block for most of the day. Eventually I had an idea which I finished just in time. What possibly spurred me on was finding out that if I didn’t produce a cartoon, they’d just put an advert in my column instead!

Once I got a scoop as a result of one of the news agencies sending out a report late in the afternoon GMT. There was a famous sprinter who’d just had his Gold medal confiscated when he tested positive for a drugs test after the 100m Finals at the Seoul Olympics. I ran downstairs, found a photograph of the athlete, ran back and started sketching up an idea immediately. The cartoon got to the printers just in time, and the next day, it was the only one on this subject in any of newspapers. Very satisfying!

Who are your heir raising characters inspired by?

The Heir Raising characters have been inspired not only by some of the parents I’ve met over the years, but also by observing my own reactions on becoming a mother. Of course we’ve all been children too, so I draw on those memories of being a kid and of some of the memorable adults from my early life!

Your parenting cartoons are very well-observed. How many are your own experiences?

I’m thrilled if people connect with them, though I believe if you just say stay true to what you observe, it’ll attract at least a few others who view life through a similar lens. Drawn from my own experiences? Well as I said previously, yes, I think that many of them are. Although I’ve got no experience of being Serial Mum with her enormous brood, I am one of four children so can draw from those memories too!

However from one day to the next, I can become a little like most of the other Mums; I may roll out of bed at the last minute without time to brush my hair or wear anything that remotely matches on the school run, so that is my inner Pyjama Ma; sometimes I’m so fixated on my work I forget to focus on something that needs to be done at school. Sometimes I find myself helicoptering around my son’s homework and become like Mission Mum. Most parents like me seem to veer between one extreme to another, sometimes managing several at the same time.

I’ll give you an example – the other day, I was channelling Plummy Mummy in my Betty Jackson jacket and Armani jeans. About to rush out of the door to collect child but couldn’t find the car key. Walked smartly to catch the bus but when it came it said NOT IN SERVICE. Began to run as by this time would be very late. Broke into an all out ‘glow’. Nearly went flying as I called the school on my mobile. Spotted a neighbour who drives a very beaten up version of Ma Ramotzwe’s little white van and begged him for a lift.

He had another passenger in the front seat, so I climbed into the back which was just a rusty metal base covered in a hessian cloth and half full of straw as he keeps livestock nearby. Bumped along the usual potholes till we spotted a bus that was headed in the right direction. Jumped out of the van and ran for the bus stop. By the time I turned up at son’s classroom, I was a sweaty, goat-scented, straw-covered wreck. I haven’t drawn a Mum who looks quite like this but maybe that’s on the cards!

Do you ever suffer from ‘cartoonist’s block’, and how do you get round it?

Good question. The answer’s ‘Yes’ sometimes. If I have to come up with an idea within a short time frame, I can pull the rabbit out of the hat, but at other times it just doesn’t happen.  Perhaps you can imagine it best if you think of someone asking you to tell them a joke. You may know fifty from those awful Christmas joke books, not to mention at least ten passable ‘Knock, Knock’ ones once you get going. However once you’re on the spot, the only thing that ever comes to mind is “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and for the life of me I can never see why it falls into a ‘joke’ category!

So if I do have a ‘block’, what I do is leaf through my old sketchbooks where I’ve written and drawn things over the years to see if it it sparks off any ideas. My other method of breaking through a block is the long walk back from drop-off (about 45 minutes). Great for thinking, and if this doesn’t work, there are a couple of good cafes with state-of-the-art coffee machines en route where I can use some hard hitting caffeine to kick-start the grey matter. That and an almond croissant or a Pastéis de Nata (Portuguese custard tart) will usually do the trick.

How has your career changed after having children?

I gave up work entirely and decided to devote myself to being a full-time, full on mother. I was quite old for a first time mum so the whole pregnancy, giving birth and weaning possibly took it out of me more than it would a younger woman, and I had no extra energy for anything else. I was also extremely lucky that I was financially stable and could do so.

I remember a cousin saying that when I did go back, the work would be richer for having had the experience of becoming a parent and I’m sure this is true. The strange thing is that I seem to have even more energy and wider interests than before and am open to exploring many areas that I wouldn’t have considered in the past.

For instance, I wrote and illustrated my first children’s book last year. I’d never really had any thoughts about children’s publishing but all that changes with bedtime reading, library visits and school books. Suddenly there’s a world that’s open for exploration. I created a town inhabited by ordinary people but with a magical river running through it where different adventures happen. The first in the series is called The Barmies. There are two more books in the offing and if I ever spend more than a couple of weeks without writing and editing these, my son reminds me that at least half his year at school are waiting for the sequel! No pressure then!

I am also very fortunate that I can work in my studio which is in our house. When school finishes, I can show everyone what I’ve been doing during the day and even welcome suggestions! Children are nothing if not honest about what they see and won’t hesitate to give it to you straight and with none of the diplomatic pussyfooting around that we adults do. I’ve learnt to be much less thin-skinned about criticism.

You’ve got a book coming out this Christmas?

The plan was for the ebook of Heir Raising to be out this Christmas as well as the sequel to The Barmies, which was published last December. As I’ve now got three projects on the go as well as looking after the family, we’ll have to shelve this until next year.

What else are you doing?

I’ve decided to sell Limited Edition Giclée prints of the Heir Raising cartoons from my Blog after visitors to the site expressed an interest in buying them for presents. Apart from creating and drawing new cartoons every week, this is now taking most of my time: I had to find a high quality printers who were able to make archival quality prints on top grade paper. The first batch have just been printed and it is very exciting to see my work presented as exhibition quality.

I am coordinating this with my lovely marketing people and need the website designers set up a cart to sell the work online. It’s an exciting and busy time and am constantly having to reassure my husband that I’m not burning the candle at both ends. I think if there was a ‘Mindfulness for Cartoonists’ course on offer, he’d have me spirited there in a flash!

Slowly but surely my work is attracting more attention, and I was honoured only last Saturday night to attend an auction where one of my cartoons was bought by Will Gompertz, the BBC’s Arts Editor.

I think the best advice to anyone going back to work post children is not to be dejected by setbacks. Whatever happens, keep going, don’t give up, spend time with friends and family as much as possible, and whatever you do, DO NOT waste any time looking to see how many people are following you on social networking sites!

We hear you’ve recently launched a new comedy career?

After completing a comedy workshop on a Greek island led by top comedian Arthur Smith last September, he suggested I do a stand-up performance at a well known comedy venue in Islington, London.

With only one week to prepare, it still went down a storm. I had my easel on stage and audience members cartooning. No one walked out and everyone laughed (you can watch an excerpt from the gig here). Now I have several dates in my diary for a UK tour including a couple of top regional theatres!

My stage name is Jeff which was a nickname that stuck when on the course – my son had written a story about a crazy chicken called Jeffrey and I identified with it! I really don’t know where this is going to take me, but it feels like a natural progression from my drawings – bringing the cartoons to life on stage.

You can see more of Jo Sandelson’s work on her blog, Heir Raising, and buy her book, The Barmies, from Amazon.