Art of the Poison Pens

A former USF dean puts his collection of political cartoons on display in time for the RNC in Tampa.


Video: Katy Hennig | USF News

By Katy Hennig

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Aug. 21, 2012) – The Tampa Museum of Art is hosting Art of The Poison Pens: A Century of American Cartoons, through the middle of September. The display coincides with the Republican National Convention, which will be in Tampa from Aug. 27 to Aug. 30. 


Charles Mahan, the former dean and professor emeritus at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health, donated his personal collection of original political cartoons, animations and comic strips to the USF Libraries in 2006.


“The exhibit is really some of the best original ones that I’ve collected over the years.  I started out drawing some in high school and one of mine is in the collection in the exhibit.  As a kid, I collected animation and comic strips and political cartoons and I did almost all of that just by writing to the artist.”


The Mahan collection includes originals drawn with pen on thick paper, and also includes color and computer illustrations that have become more prevalent with new technology.


“Because they are visual and lots of people are more likely to be visual rather then dig in to the editorial pieces that are written, they can be pretty powerful,” said Mahan.


There are works by famous cartoonists who helped to shape the political landscape in America over the last century.


“I think the most recognizable icons, again Thomas Nast, 115 years ago; he’s the one that invented the Republican elephant and the Democrat’s donkey.  He illustrated the night before Christmas with Santa Claus as we see him now. So a lot of things people can pick up fast because it’s an image or an icon that they know is supposed to mean that and so that helps move along the whole idea of the thing,” said Mahan.


The influence that the political cartoons have had on American society over the last century is evident in some of the illustrations in the exhibit. Cartoon Historian Larry Bush says the cartoons depict parts of history that may have otherwise been forgotten.


“What the cartoons do is instead of talking about or demonstrating the facts of history, they demonstrate the passions of history. How people felt. They depict that part of history that is so often lost in our history books,” said Bush. “We can go back and look at these political cartoons and understand more about the political process and political feelings and the competition.”


Charles Mahan said people respond well to the cartoons and the historical lessons they hold. 


“One of the cartoons in the exhibit, it’s contemporary shows this giant chasm in Washington and shows the elephant standing on one side and the donkey standing on the other side and they are both essentially trying to kill each other. And it sort of represents the uncompromising state of affairs that we’re in now, which is pretty unusual,” said Mahan.


The exhibit will be on display at the Tampa Museum of Art through mid-September and could be displayed in other museums across the country. The Charles Mahan Collection including the political cartoons, animations, and comic strips will then be stored in the Special Collections section at the USF Tampa library.


Katy Hennig can be reached at 813-974-6993.