Animated: Brian John Spencer


Artist, writer and political cartoonist Brian John Spencer discusses his early career with David Whelan, finding his muse and dealing with criticism.

Early years

“Art was always a hobby”, explains Spencer when I meet him in a café close to his south Belfast home. “Initially I went down the white-collar route, the career that was expected of me upon leaving school. However, in hindsight it was like me trying to jam my size 10 feet into a pair of children’s shoes. It was an unnatural feeling, but I clumped around in those shoes for a while.”

Despite describing it as “like reading Russian” Spencer graduated with an LLB and LLM in Law from Queen’s University Belfast. And he’s proud of his ability to finish what he started, believing that portrays character-defining traits such as discipline and resilience.

The break

Resilience was a key trait for the 30-year-old, who explains that trying to establish a career in the post-crash economy was a challenge for many people his age. Art, he says, was his therapy but also a chance to earn some cash through small commissions for friends and family. He describes caricatures and cartoons as “artistic shorthand”, explaining that not only were they the foundations of some of his later work but also a form of escape.

It was one of these cartoons, of chef Michael Deane, which earned Spencer his first ‘real’ pay check. After seeing Spencer’s work on social media, the restaurateur got in touch and asked to use the image on the label of his signature wine. Since then, other Spencer work has also featured on the walls of Deane’s various restaurants.  “It was a major moment for me because I grew in confidence in my work. It was a significant step up from doing bits of work for friends and family to having my art associated with such a huge brand.”

Political cartoons

Asked whether he describes himself as a political cartoonist, Spencer says: “I’d like to but ultimately I feel very inferior to the established and most recognised figures.” That’s because he believes the political cartoon is “one of the most challenging disciplines I’ve ever engaged with”.

“I don’t think people fully appreciate the level of skill it takes to process the events of a day or a week and distil them into an image that’s going to portray your point with one glance. People like Ian Knox of the Irish News helped fuel my passion for the political cartoon and I’m still amazed at how these guys manage to be on the money day after day.”

Spencer has dabbled with daily cartoons, producing content for well know outlets like Slugger O’Toole, EamonnMallie.com and on his own blog outputs, but ultimately, believes his best work are ideas that have struck him, rather than something he has been searching for. “Starting with a blank page can be maddening,” he exclaims.

Getting it right

“The formula I found works best for me is the merging of two topical themes into a humorous clang. That may sound simplistic but when you get it right, people take notice,” says Spencer. Asked what he believes the political cartoon achieves and where he finds his muse, he adds: “I think the political cartoon adds a bit of relief to the hard news but it also adds value. The political cartoon is given more licence to be critical simply because of its nature.”

Spencer says that highlighting “hypocrisy” where he sees it is often his reason for forming a political cartoon. Most recently, the artist came in for heavy criticism after he produced a cartoon in the context of Sinn Féin announcing their redlines for a return to the Assembly, which showed former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams standing on several streaks of blood. The cartoon was eventually removed after a request was made by the families of some of the victims of the Kingsmill Massacre. Asked whether in hindsight he now believes the cartoon went too far, he says: “I don’t regret it. I believe I was doing what I always do, point out hypocrisy where I see it.

“As with most cartoons, it got mixed reactions. I took the opportunity to highlight hypocrisy – something I do whether the subject is nationalist, republican, loyalist or unionist – and I think it achieved that.”

Following the cartoon, Spencer appeared on local radio and was accused by some of being unionist-leaning. He admits to being unprepared for the question but answers in hindsight: “What I should have said was I have no political master. I was born into a Presbyterian/Protestant/unionist background but I am an independent thinker who, as an artist, aims to be counter-mainstream. I’m extremely Irish but proudly British as well.”    

Future

Having recently completed a crowd-funded 32-day trip to every county in Ireland, Spencer has outlined ambitions to bring his work to the Irish diaspora in America. In the short-term he is working on establishing himself in various galleries across Belfast and Dublin, while his long-term ambition is to own his own gallery in his home town.

 

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