National Portrait: Sharon Murdoch, the late cartoonist

Fairfax cartoonist Sharon Murdoch at home with her cats La Luna, left, and Munro.
ROSS GIBLIN/STUFF

Fairfax cartoonist Sharon Murdoch at home with her cats La Luna, left, and Munro.

You'll know Sharon Murdoch's work even if you don't know the name.

It might be her image of Peter Dunne with only his bouffant visible above a cloud of cannabis smoke. Or Anne Tolley trapped inside a uterus. Or John Key having a tattoo of his ill-fated alternative flag removed.

Murdoch only published her first political cartoon four years ago. But these days, her new illustrations flame around the web as soon as they've been printed in a newspaper, pushed along by a legion of fans for their wit, moral urgency and brilliant, distinctive execution.

The Salvation Army's Foodbank Project helps to equip low-income girls and women with sanitary products.
SHARON MURDOCH/STUFF

The Salvation Army's Foodbank Project helps to equip low-income girls and women with sanitary products.

And the honours have come too. Both this year and last, she was crowned "cartoonist of the year" at the Canon Media Awards. In November, a 150-page book devoted to her work was published; it topped Unity Books' bestsellers list. By May, Massey University College of Creative Arts had inducted her into its "Hall of Fame", alongside the likes of the artist Len Lye.

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Yet you could easily miss all of this hoopla, to meet Murdoch.

 

I've sat next to her for much of the past three years in The Dominion Post's Wellington offices, where she also works as a graphic designer.

Her deep commitment to her art has always been obvious – the rare dip pens that arrive from obscure internet auctions, the desk decorated with beautiful, sombre drawings by early 20th-century Europeans and others.

But she doesn't come off like a cartoon superstar. When she first won the big Canon award, she didn't even make it to the ceremony in time to collect the honour, so certain was she that she hadn't won.

A dying woman's wish. October 18, 2015.
SHARON MURDOCH/STUFF

A dying woman's wish. October 18, 2015.

"I always function with such a high degree of doubt about practically everything – like everything," she tells me over a pot of extremely milky tea at the Wellington Central Library cafe. (She went to the library cafe on the night of the awards too – keeping to her regular Friday night routine with husband Geoff and daughter Stevie.)

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The doubt might go back to her childhood, an often difficult one in Invercargill, a place she's compared to "Iceland without the epic poems".

Her dad had undiagnosed bipolar disorder. The family moved around constantly: before she was 15, she had lived in 10 different South Island houses, including one built from old railway carriages on the outskirts of Invercargill – blisteringly cold in a Southland hoar frost.

The alphabet for needy children. November 21, 2015
SHARON MURDOCH/STUFF

The alphabet for needy children. November 21, 2015

"It felt like – a lot of the time – just getting by."

So Murdoch always drew. It was a relief for her. She remembers hearing the author Jonathan Franzen say that some people read because they enjoy it – but some people read because they are compelled to.

"And I think reading's like that for me, but also drawing's like that for me.

Peak  cow, June 14, 2017.
SHARON MURDOCH/STUFF

Peak cow, June 14, 2017.

"It was something I found a lot of solace in as a child. It was like being in your own world and then you had this thing you'd made at the end of it."

As an adult, Murdoch studied design at Wellington Polytech (now Massey), and worked as a designer at newspapers including The Evening Post, as well as the social justice-minded Wellington Media Collective, where she did design work for unions, theatres, the city's Community Law Centre, and art galleries; later she worked for a year with a Xhosa women's community development group in South Africa.

During those years she sometimes got the chance to draw – a comic strip on young people's legal rights, for instance, or drawings for the School Journal.

Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire, June 21, 2017.
SHARON MURDOCH/STUFF

Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire, June 21, 2017.

Her former partner and fellow political cartoonist Trace Hodgson encouraged her to have a go at political cartooning, citing a dearth of women in the field, but she says she lacked the chutzpah at the time to try it.

It was only years later, with age and more experience, and less concern about what other people thought, that she made her first forays into cartooning proper.

It began with Munro, the endearing orange cat (based on her own pet) who now appears daily on the Dominion Post puzzle page.

Reproductive politics, September 30, 2015.
SHARON MURDOCH/STUFF

Reproductive politics, September 30, 2015.

About the same time she began doing illustrations to go with Tracy Watkins' political columns, and realised there was more she wanted to say. When Tom Scott took leave for six months it gave her the opportunity to show her political work to editors, who gradually began publishing it.

Today she has weekly slots at the Sunday Star-Times and The Press in Christchurch, both owned by Dominion Post publisher Fairfax Media.

Incredibly, she is the first woman to hold a regular political cartooning spot in this country. She's still sometimes mistaken for the cartoonist's wife at functions.

She feels grateful for the break in her 50s, given a widespread workplace prejudice against middle-aged and older people.

Actually, the idea of being "past it" hangs over women in many spheres of their life, she says. People used to tell her to get moving with marriage and children or miss out.

"But in fact I married late, and I had a child quite late, and I came to cartooning very late, and they've all been really happy things for me."

Murdoch's cartoons are rich, layered drawings. They're often funny, though she disagrees with the common belief that by definition a cartoon must be, saying, "Some things just aren't funny, no matter how you look at them."

She's also confounded by the thought, expressed by many to her, that her cartoons ought to be somehow balanced and objective. That's never been the cartoonist's role.

Instead, she views her work, which often tackles environmental and social justice themes, as a kind of activism.

New Zealand, she feels, might be in "fiscal good health", but it has problems that go far deeper than that. She's seriously troubled by the country's vast prison population, suicide statistics, housing woes, racial divides, and the environment.

"You can't look at what's happening here and not think something's going really wrong."

She's convinced, above all, of the supreme role of luck and good fortune in people's lives – in their opportunities, their relationships, their talents, their wealth. The country they are born into and the family.

It infuriates her that people believe those who are struggling are doing so because they "just haven't tried hard enough".

"Today I'm lucky," she says. "I have work, a partner I love, a daughter and stepdaughter who are healthy, a mother and sister who live nearby. And I've lived in the same house for 14 years. I am very grateful for all these bits of good fortune. And very aware of its fragility.

"That idea keeps me alert and looking at the world through wide eyes. It also reminds me to remain compassionate, which probably sounds odd coming from someone who does what I do for a living."

Murdoch says the unique licence that cartoons have to lampoon people sometimes makes her nervous, and she won't use it on everyone. But she does feel that a cartoon can be a form of redress – when a powerful person has behaved in an especially arrogant way, or when a government has started to go rogue.

"Apart from the actual election process, and lobbying, people have very little control over what happens once a government's in power. It's like a train."

It is not all so serious though. One of Murdoch's favourite things is to chance across a startling quote from someone in public life – a minister who blurts something brilliantly odd on the radio – and know she has today's cartoon.

"People are endlessly strange, so the material's all there … You'll be listening and you won't believe how wonderful it is, that thing you've just heard. There's something quite joyful in it."

 - The Dominion Post

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