When Making Art is a Moral Dilemma

Illustration Edel Rodriguez for New York Times Op-Ed article, “Do We Have the Courage to Stop This?” Nicholas Kristof, Dec 15, 2012

Just hours after a gunman forced his way into an elementary school in Newtown, CT, killing 20 children and 6 adults including himself, Edel Rodriguez, a prolific illustrator, received a call.

The caller’s request was simple: Would Rodriguez illustrate a New York Times Opinion column on the topic of gun control and gun violence in America?

Before becoming an illustrator, Rodriguez had worked for Time Magazine as an art director. He told us,

“I became accustomed to concentrating on work even when covering some of the worst news imaginable. There was always a magazine to get out and we had to focus on telling the story.”

But, how, he wondered, could he tell this story?

With friends with children in Newtown and his own young daughters, running in and out of his studio unaware of their father’s assignment, Rodriguez struggled emotionally. Was it too soon to make art of the tragedy, he wondered. Was creating a piece of commercial work taking advantage of the victims? He considered doing something he had never done before—at the last minute, calling back the art director and turning down the work.

As Cuban immigrants Rodriguez and his family were constantly pressed with hard moral questions. They had to deal with family members at sea on rafts, friends disappearing on the journey to America, loved ones in Cuba, living through hardship and suffering at the hands of the government. He said:

“We ended up having to do a lot of things with a knot in our throats.”

As an artist Rodriguez’s response has been to document the plight of his relatives by drawing and photographing what was happening in Cuba. Married to a woman whose family died in Auschwitz, he realized that the stories and documents that survived from that time are due to survivors keeping their stories alive. Rodriguez interviews them to learn as much as possible. He says,

“Everything they say is gut wrenching but it’s the facts and those facts need to be on record to try and avoid the same mistakes again.”

Rodriguez asked himself: Would doing this artwork for the Times on a day of such tragedy help the cause of gun control and maybe help other children in the future?

His answer was, yes.

And so, he drew.