In second grade, the principal at New Yorker artist Eric Drooker’s elementary school recommended to Drooker’s parents that he receive anger management therapy, not because he had been a bully or had broken school property, but because of his doodles during class.
In the Round Room on Friday, equipped with a banjo, a harmonica and a projector, Drooker told this and numerous other quirky stories of his experiences as an artist growing up in Manhattan.
Even as a child, Drooker had a way of capturing the dirty, the inhumane, the violent and the disastrous. But perhaps what his elementary school principal did not see was the fact that the world around him, plagued by the Vietnam War and racial tensions, was not all that different from Drooker’s sketchbook.
“What the grown-ups were overlooking was the fact that this seven-year-old kid was not born in a vacuum … you can’t make this stuff up,” Drooker said, putting up a slideshow of crayon drawings of vicious creatures, demented robots and headless bodies.
Drooker admitted that much of his ability to draw on his environment in this way came from growing up in New York City.
“Each window in each one of the buildings tells a story, so if you have any imagination, it’s enhanced by this environment,” he said.
As a result of growing up in this setting, Drooker’s art has a distinctly urban, modernistic flavor — skyscrapers dwarfing human forms and vice versa, the natural weaving with the manmade. It was this flavor that got him his job as an artist for The New Yorker, although not without some patience.
The first painting that Drooker submitted to the magazine was of two homeless people burning garbage underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Since the painting was submitted shortly after an ordinance from the mayor forced many homeless people to the outskirts of the city, it was initially rejected due to the controversy surrounding the subject matter.
While the painting was eventually accepted, the event was one of the many that disillusioned Drooker’s view of mainstream media.
To show how he’s dealt with these disillusionments, Drooker shared his ideas of “how to infiltrate mainstream media.”
“Either make it really beautiful or make it really funny, and they might print it,” he said.
Drooker suggests that when you make it funny, editors don’t seem to notice the subversive content. One look at Drooker’s art can tell an observer that he abides by this notion, whether it is beautiful depictions of horribly polluted urban centers caked in smoke or humorous characterizations of heady intellectual businessmen.
Drooker went on to show, however, that his artistically satisfying accomplishments are not printed on magazine covers. For example, his long-term collaboration with the poet Allen Ginsberg led him to be asked to animate a graphic novel and film of Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl.” The poem’s beginning line appealed to Drooker’s, as well as Ginsberg’s, biting and critical outlook of the world: “I saw the best minds of our times destroyed by madness.”
As Drooker became more involved in his work with Ginsberg, he became increasingly interested in art serving a political purpose: art as a weapon.
“Artists can’t afford weapons, but they can afford a paintbrush,” he said.
This principle was never more apparent to Drooker than in his visit to the Gaza Strip, where he gave Palestinian children paintbrushes to paint pictures on the barrier between Israel and Egypt.
The barrier is a symbol of the tense and violent history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the oppression of the Palestinian people. While he was there, he also drew on the same wall murals honoring multiple Palestinian children and adults who were martyred in the conflict.
Drooker suggested that art could be even more powerful and persuasive than a physical weapon, as it tugs at people’s heartstrings in a way nothing else can.
“Art is good at raising consciousness … you can use art to grab people’s emotions,” he said. “That’s why people see it as such a threat.”
The story of Drooker told through his art is a social commentary on war, sexual and political oppression, environmental degradation and what he calls “the confusion of tongues,” but it is also beautiful. This beauty captured in ugly things is what makes his art more than just paint on a canvas: it truly makes it a weapon to be reckoned with.