Superintendent Cat:
A Cartoon That Became a Political Weapon

Natalie Linn
Guest Columnist

When I was a senior in high school, our school art club got together to draw and sell a coloring book. Over the course of three club meetings, we assembled a series of pen and Sharpie marker drawings, which our teacher photocopied and stapled to form makeshift books. We sold the coloring books outside the trophy case on the second floor for $2 a piece. I contributed five line drawings to the book: three comics, a horse drawing, and a drawing of our superintendent as a cat, rolling in money.

Our school district was not financially well-endowed. Our teachers were forced to buy their class’ materials out of their own pockets; substitute buckets for trash cans, ration paper towels, and split books between two or even three students at a time.  Meanwhile, our school superintendent received a 13% annual raise for being a “Superstar.”

The average family in Montana at the time boasted a modest annual income. My own family’s annual income was half the state average. Every year our school budget suffered another blow, while our superintendent rested on a cushy salary that was five times the Montana norm. The atmosphere at school was one of bitter perseverance. Teachers hung up cut-out stars on their doors that read, “Students are the real superstars.”

There were picket lines. The protest reached its zenith when hundreds of students, teachers and parents swarmed a school board meeting. Community members addressed the superintendent directly, asking him to turn down the raise. The rally went on for over four hours, dozens of students and teachers cycling through the door as the superintendent looked on with little reaction. In the end, the superintendent disregarded the community’s opinion, and the school board went forward with the raise.

The art club coloring book came to fruition two years after the local newspapers announced our superintendent’s pay raise. I was still full of teenage salt, as my superintendent cat drawing showed. After we sold our first round of coloring books, the trouble began.

Students at my school referred to my art teacher as “a national treasure who must be protected at all costs.” My high school experience was a bit like chemical warfare, and my art teacher helped guide me out of the subsequent rubble. He was fundamental to my development as an artist and as a person, so when he asked me for permission to recall the coloring books because of my superintendent cat drawing, I obliged.

Actually, my art teacher hadn’t seen my superintendent cat drawing until after we’d set up shop. If the coloring books circulated, people would assume that my art teacher condoned my message. I’m sure my art teacher disliked the superintendent as much as I did—but he was averse to this type of conflict, and I respected his desire to retract my content. Regardless, most of the coloring books had already been sold.

A second art teacher owned one of the first-edition copies. This teacher wanted me to print out more pages of my drawings and post them around town. I don’t think he was aware of my other art teacher’s position. One day, soon after the first few books were released, my second art teacher summoned my third art teacher. They stood reading the art club coloring book, glancing back and forth between myself and my superintendent cat drawing. They laughed a little, and they reminded me of kids with a Mad Magazine propped up behind a textbook. I shared a moment of rebellious spirit with those two teachers; I felt like I’d defaced a portrait of a dictator under the cover of darkness.

Then, I was approached by a student from the school newspaper. He wanted to run a story on the superintendent cat drawing, and I really wanted to let him. I knew I wouldn’t be the only one affected by the story, though, and I took a day to consider my options. I had the viewpoints of my art teachers to consider as well as my own. School newspapers frequently wandered off school property, and ended up under the thumbs of curious parents. My first art teacher could face some hard questions if my superintendent cat drawing found the wrong readers.

Ultimately, I declined permission to run the story. I graduated later that year, and our superintendent left the district soon after. It’s difficult to say what would have happened, had I let the situation escalate. I don’t think the article would have caused much of a stir, but I also hadn’t expected the superintendent cat drawing to kickstart a conversation about free speech and social change. I saw how people rallied behind my art, but also how people both feared and anticipated the consequences of my art. I was baffled. After all, to me, it was only a silly cat drawing. I hated making my first art teacher worry, but I loved the camaraderie I shared with the people who laughed at my superintendent cat drawing; who pointed at the page and said, “yeah, %$#&@* that guy!” I felt the shared resolve of my peers and teachers, as strong as the day our superintendent’s raise was announced.

I’ve always wanted to use my art to promote representation and spread goodwill, but my superintendent cat showed me the real power of art. Simple cartoons can kickstart political discussions, which can trigger action and social change. I learned that I had to be careful with my art, since real people—both people I cared about and people I wished to tear down—could be seriously affected by my work. Since “superintendent cat,” I’ve proceeded carefully with my political works.

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7 responses on "Superintendent Cat"

  1. Profile photo of Alexander Rowe

    That’s such a beautiful example of how much art can impact and affect other people, positively and negatively. To one degree or another, even non-political pieces have the power to impact people one way or another – how the viewer relates or reacts to your work is entirely up to them, based on their past experiences.

    Just as much as you have to look out for and be aware of that, an artist also has to know when to let it just roll off your shoulders! I think you acted so well with this past story of your work, and who knows what will be right when you make another “superintendent cat” to spread across the world. Knowing if your piece will shock, comfort, challenge the viewer is a great skill to have!

  2. Profile photo of Casey Roonan

    Wow, what a great piece! I applaud your maturity in handling this situation the way you did, and the perspective you’ve gained will surely serve you well as you continue to come into your own as an artist.

    That said, I really don’t want for you, or any other emerging artists your age and younger, to feel pressured into self-censorship! I think because we live in such public times it’s easy to feel like certain topics shouldn’t be touched on in your artwork, but it’s so important – especially at a young age – to challenge yourself to step beyond your comfort zone and find where the boundaries really are…

    You should always be mindful about what work you make public and where you do so, but at least in regards to your private art practice feel free to tackle anything you want! If you try to “edit” too soon in the process, you can really hinder yourself, creatively.

    • Profile photo of Natalie Linn

      Thank you so much for commenting!! I’m lucky to be going to art school right now, so it’s the perfect time for me to experiment with more boundary-pushing pieces. And by god, the political tension is so high right now you could cut the tension with a knife… Rough times, but certainly a good opportunity to use art for good!

      • Profile photo of Clara Lieu

        Yes, as nightmarish as the political climate is right now, I do think that many artists (including myself) are really taking a hard look at what they can contribute to the various political movements and concerns right now. When they are talking about ELIMINATING the NEA, it’s horrifying, but I do have hope that arts advocates and arts will join forces and push to either stop that action, or find a way to compensate for it.

  3. Profile photo of Lauryn Welch

    This is such an incredible story! As politically charged and potentially negative as this experience was, I think you had a really valuable experience that not many artists your age have had yet. It could have the potential to really define your work.

    I think a wonderful, defining feature of our country is that we have the right to free speech. But especially in our current political environment, both locally and nationally, this can be a dangerous, double edged sword. When does our right to express ourselves infringe on others’ rights? And is it okay to overreach those boundaries in pursuit of something fair?

    It would be great for you to look at other political artists, from Dr Seuss to Ai WeiWei. Art and politics are so intertwined, it’s hard to see where one stops and the other begins sometimes!

    • Profile photo of Natalie Linn

      Thank you so much!! And I love Dr. Seuss’ cartoons! I’m such a fan of how he owned up to his former racism, and made works like Horton Hears a Who to promote the rights of minorities…hell yes! I’ve never heard of Ai WeiWei; I’ll definitely check them out!

      I do consider myself very lucky to have encountered this issue early on. I’ll take advantage of my time at art school and experiment with different types of political art!

      • Profile photo of Clara Lieu

        I was so surprised when I discovered how much political artwork Dr. Seuss created before he started illustrated children’s books. I love hearing about artists who had entire careers before doing what they are now known for. Children’s book illustrator Leo Lionni had an entire career as a graphic designer, and didn’t start creating children’s books until much later in his life!

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