Illustrator Edel Rodriguez on creating those famous Donald Trump magazine cover artworks for Der Spiegel and Time

The artist tell us about creating powerful cover illustrations that have been widely shared – and how growing up in Cuba made him want to use visual imagery to warn others about the dangers of US becoming a totalitarian state.

You may not recognise the name Edel Rodriguez, but you’re likely to have seen his artwork before and since the 2016 US elections on the covers of prominent publications such as TIME and Der Spiegel.

As a Cuban immigrant to America during the Mariel boatlift crisis in the 1970s, Edel says politics and migration have been potent his entire life – and art is a way to deal with them.

His prolific, emotionally-charged illustrations began depicting President Trump’s surprise election, and continued on to Trump’s responses following the Charlottesville riots involving Neo-Nazis, more recently Trump's comments towards North Korea leader Kim Jong-un regarding nuclear strikes and his response to US gun laws following the Las Vegas shooting. Edel's illustrations have been circling online among millions of viewers and appeared on pickets in the Women’s March in Washington DC – and he’s constantly vocal on his own Twitter account

Edel’s sharp, clear and colourful graphics resonated with not only Americans (as they searched for confirmation they weren’t alone with their fears) but the rest of the world as it looked on. His powerful – some might say courageous – artwork is a skill he’s been honing ever since learning history in high school.

Edel tells us what it’s like to be vulnerable with his beliefs, and realising the power of illustration in the realm of social justice.

Miriam Harris: Tell me a bit about yourself. 

Edel Rodriguez: "I grew up in Cuba and left for the United States with my family when I was eight years old. I lived in Miami until I left for college in New York City. I stayed in the city and began working as a designer and art director at TIME magazine in 1994. At that time, I started receiving regular illustration assignments for The New Yorker, The New York Times and other publications.

"I’ve always enjoyed illustrating and speaking my mind through art, it’s a form of expression and communication to me. I illustrated many things as a child, going as far back as some of my elementary school posters and covers for school publications and yearbooks. I was always considered the “art kid” by my teachers and they regularly encouraged my participation in art competitions and poster contests."

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MH: When did you start to realise the power of illustration in the realm of social justice?

ER: "I’ve been aware of the power of illustration in the realm of social justice going back to my years in high school I think. I studied World War II, the Holocaust, and the ideas of Martin Luther King back then. Illustration kept popping up in some of the materials I studied, from posters for civil rights marches, to book covers and other materials about the War. I also liked Francisco Goya’s and Kathe Kollwitz work, and much of their work involved the idea of social justice.

"My work in college, as a painter, photographer, and illustrator, often delved into my history as a Cuban and as an immigrant. I wanted to find out more about the various things that happened to my family, the concept of identity, and so on, and did so through my work. Politics and migration are things that have affected my entire life, so it was natural to delve deeper into art that dealt with these matters."

MH: You’ve illustrated for the cover of TIME, Newsweek, and Der Spiegel to name a few. Talk us through your creative process for these cover editorial illustrations. 

ER: "The creative processes differ depending on the magazine and cover. I usually get a call from the art director and they tell me that they are working on a certain topic, and would like me to create a cover. Much of the time, the story is not completed, as the writer is still working on it. I stay on top of politics regularly, so my knowledge helps fill in some of the gaps. I usually send a set of about ten sketches to the art directors and editors, and we discuss the ones that seem to make the right statement.

"Covers are a combination of word and image, and a distillation of all the bits of information that are floating around about a certain topic. There is a certain amount of inspired thinking, there isn’t a particular formula. I try to come up with ideas that surprise the viewer, that enlighten, or that enrage. I want the viewer to grab that magazine, to pick it up, and to get informed about the topic. Over the last couple of years, social media has given new life to magazine covers.

"Many of the covers I’ve done have been shared widely and are seen as a marker of what’s happening. I think people have things on their mind, but are not quite sure how to express them. When an opinionated and strong visual shows up in their lives, it gives them the encouragement to speak their mind, to share it, to feel they are not alone."

MH: Why was it important for you to create such powerful illustrations of Donald Trump for magazine covers?

ER: "I started making illustrations early on during the presidential campaign, almost two years ago, and began posting them online to my followers. I sensed Trump was a danger to our country and felt a need to inform people during the primaries.

"I grew up in a dictatorial system in Cuba and saw some of the similar behaviours here. Having that experience, I felt it was my responsibility to warn people about the dangers posed by this candidate. Magazines caught on to the work I was doing and began hiring me to do their covers. Through those platforms my work was then seen by millions of people."

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MH: Have you seen tangible impact from any of your illustrations?

ER: "I’ve seen my work show up at many protests throughout the world, including the Women’s March in Washington DC. Seeing someone expressing themselves with your work at a protest, or holding up a magazine is very powerful. Whether it has tangible impact is hard to know but I do think that what we do as artists influences public opinion to some degree.

"TIME magazine is seen everywhere, people discuss the covers on television. At the very least, it’s a bold statement that says to the nation that this behaviour is not acceptable. I think congressmen and senators do view these images, and it helps them take a temperature of where things are at. Some of them have commented on the impact of these covers."

MH: What’s been your favourite editorial illustration to date and why?

ER: "I like the Der Spiegel 'America First' cover. It was something I did as a gut reaction to the news of the Muslim ban. I made it, and posted it online. A few days later, the concept was picked up and published by the magazine. It reverberated around the world, and has been my most impactful image. I like its bluntness."

MH: You’ve been very open about your beliefs, how have people responded to this?

ER: "I came to America to speak freely. It’s the first thing my father said to me when we arrived: “We’re in America, and you can say whatever you want here.” People that haven’t lived in a totalitarian system do not understand the stress and angst caused by censorship. It affects your entire life, and often leads to psychological problems.

"I did not leave homeland, my friends, and my family to come here and stay quiet. Many people have been nasty, rude, and threatening, which has surprised me, especially in America. I will continue to speak up, because the idea of free speech, to me, is the best thing about this country."

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MH: Do you think it’s essential for illustrators to comment on politics in the current environment?

ER: "I feel it’s essential for illustrators to make the art that moves them, whatever that may be. No one should be compelled to do anything, they should do what compels them. Practicing the freedom to do whatever they want to do is the best thing that artists can do for freedom and democracy to thrive."

MH: What’s next on the horizon for you?

ER: "I’m working on an illustrated memoir about my life in Cuba, emigrating to America, and my current life and work."