Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Cartoonist Stevie Lee: Art of the matter

Belfast Telegraph cartoonist, Stevie Lee pictured in his studio at his home in Saintfield

After years of being a civil servant, he’s now one of the Belfast Telegraph's biggest draws... with his hilarious take on life here.

He may have been a reserve team player with Crusaders, the football club who famously revel in the nickname of the Hatchetmen, but popular cartoonist Stevie Lee insists he has no axe to grind with the politicians or personalities at whom he pokes fun today. Hatchet jobs aren't his style.

"I would never do a cartoon to hurt someone. And I never have," says the prolific Belfast Telegraph contributor who even as a youthful civil servant was using his skills - his masterstrokes - with a pen to draw colleagues and record humourous happenings for posterity.

Now anyone and everyone in the public eye anywhere and everywhere in the world is a potential target for Stevie's wry and carefully observed cartoons but his daily animations aren't just a laughing matter.

One minute his incisive and satirical wit will be lampooning an Assemblyman for an injudicious word or action up at Stormont and the next Stevie will be demonstrating his compassionate side by paying an emotional tribute to a prominent figure who has passed away or by focusing on victims of horrific massacres or natural disasters.

One powerful example of his versatility and his ability to achieve a perfect balance was the way he dealt with the tragic demise of his hero George Best whose penalty he once saved in a street kick-about when he was a child and George was a talented Manchester United teenager back home to visit his grandparents who lived close to Stevie's home in east Belfast.

Around the time that George was perilously ill with liver problems brought on by alcohol Stevie portrayed a haggard-looking Best holding a bottle of booze, shaped like a gun, to his head.

It was a picture which said more than the millions of words which had been written about the Cregagh man's despair and decline.

And after George's inevitable death two years later, Stevie again captured the mood with a simple but deeply moving cartoon showing Best in a Number 7 Red Devils shirt being welcomed to heaven.

"It broke my heart to do the one of George with the bottle," he says illustrating that there's a softer side to the Co Down based cartoonist than the thick skins and hard hearts often associated with his counterparts.

And there's also no mistaking Stevie's sense of grief as he reflects on his pain last year of losing Annie Shaw, the woman who reared him - his guardian mother he affectionately calls her.

He also finds it difficult to talk about the sudden death in 2012 of his friend Alan McDonald, the Northern Ireland World Cup star, who went on to manage Glentoran, the team Stevie has supported all his life.

He fights back the tears as he recalls playing golf in the same event at the Temple club as Alan and trying to resuscitate him after he collapsed. "It was awful. Alan was a real gentleman," he says.

Stevie designed an evocative logo for a foundation set up in Alan's name - just one of many charitable causes he has helped ever since he started to fully utilise the artistic gifts which he discovered in his youth.

Stevie attended Nettlefield and Euston Street primary schools before Annadale Grammar where he wasn't exactly a star pupil, but his natural aptitude for art became blindingly obvious to three of his teachers who were instrumental in keeping him at his studies.

"I had been into art from no age," says Stevie. "I learned that if you could draw, you could become a god with kids who needed a little bit of assistance with their homework."

Stevie was particularly fascinated by cartoons and living above the family shop in Cherryville Street was a blessing in disguise for the youngster who was fanatical about the comics on the shelves like Superman, Batman, Spider-man, the Hulk and Green Lantern.

"I would take them home and read them in bed for hours and that's probably where my love of cartoons came from."

In the Seventies, Stevie saw the first real fruits of his labour after he won a council competition to create an illustration for a 'Keep Belfast Tidy' campaign - a Doc Martin boot kicking a crushed Coke can.

The ease with which he achieved his success made Stevie think seriously about a career as a graphic designer though he had no idea about how to make that a reality.

After leaving school with his O-Levels, however, he ended up in the civil service. "I was in the Department of Looking out the Window because I did nothing apart from going in early and staying till late to build up my flexi-time for days off," he says.

Eventually, Stevie did get his break as a graphic designer with a firm in University Street in Belfast and he was acclaimed for the boxing programmes, tickets and posters he designed for Barry McGuigan's first professional fights. Then, after going freelance for a time he returned again - for a variety of reasons - to the civil service.

He was to stay in the employ of the Government for another 17 years but more and more of his downtime was devoted to cartoons, caricatures and illustrations, most of them inspired by what was going on around him.

"If someone dropped a cup, a colleague would ring me and ask me to produce a cartoon about it. There were thousands of them. I was also contributing cartoons in a feature called The View From the Hill for the Glentoran Gazette, the match-day programme at the Oval."

Increasingly, people told Stevie he was wasting his time - and more importantly his potential - in the Civil Service. So he decided to try his artistic hand at newspaper work and in the mid-80s pioneered a cartoon strip called Leaving the Boot Inn about characters in a pub and it was published in the old Ireland's Saturday Night sports weekly.

"That gave me my first taste of it - and it was the first time I got paid," says Stevie, who took redundancy from his job in 2000 after deciding that the climate and the time were right to go full-time, accepting commissions for regular cartoons and illustrations from magazines and several daily and Sunday newspapers in Belfast.

But Stevie didn't rest on his laurels and jumped at the chance to move into a totally new environment as well ... as an art teacher. Not in a school but rather in a juvenile justice centre in Bangor.

"It's the old Rathgael in Bangor and I really enjoy working with disadvantaged young people aged between 10 and 17," says Stevie, who had no experience of teaching before he went to Woodlands. "It's a demanding job but the youngsters have certainly bought into the whole art idea."

Stevie had scaled back on his output for newspapers but six years ago all that changed after he was approached by the Belfast Telegraph to draw a daily cartoon.

"My answer was 'Let me think about it - okay' because it was a dream come true. It had always been my ambition to be a daily cartoonist," he says.

Stevie had been a huge fan of the legendary Belfast Telegraph cartoonist Rowel Friers. "I admired him because he made people laugh through the darkest days of the Troubles. He probably had the hardest job of us all."

The Telegraph's brief to Stevie was to sketch full-colour topical cartoons basically with a comical aspect to them.

"But they can't always be funny," he says. "The guys who do that on a daily basis aren't really political cartoonists.

"They are putting only humour into their work. To try to keep it topical is a wee bit more difficult because sometimes you have to be more sensitive."

Stevie quite clearly takes an intense pride in his drawings, especially when some of his poignant homages and images strike a chord with the families of his subjects.

"I like to think some of them can help people cope with difficult times in their lives," says Stevie - but as he remembers how one caricature of a dying man brought comfort to his friends and relatives, he adds: "It can drain you emotionally.

"That man's daughter asked me to draw him because he was facing his last Christmas. She eventually told me that her father who had been in and out of a coma smiled for the first time after he saw the caricature.

"The priest at the funeral urged the family to put the framed image on a wall above his coffin and they and the mourners smiled as they walked past it."

But it's not all plaudits and letters of praise. "You do get criticism, too." says Stevie

"You can't please all the people all of the time. But most politicians don't mind my cartoons because if they're in them, it means they're in the news and their profiles are being raised."

Proof of that particular pudding is the regularity of the requests from the politicos for copies of the cartoons in which they feature. For Stevie, juggling his full-time work with his part-time passion can be tricky.

But after he returns home from Bangor, he heads into his studio to put pen to paper on ideas he has already discussed with the Telegraph's editorial staff during his breaks at Woodlands.

"I have become a news bore," he says. "It's almost like a drug where I have to know what's happening in the news."

But it's the world and not just Ulster which is his oyster. For inspiration. It all adds up to a hectic life for Stevie, who's 51. But he's been maturing as a screenwriter as well and he's also directed a short movie called Snooze which was well received at the Cork Film Festival.

And as if that wasn't enough, Stevie is also a third of the way through a novel. "It has been influenced by what I know about -- and that's my life. There's not much point me trying to write anything about an astronaut's life, is there?" he says.

For relaxation, Stevie enjoys a round of golf with the world's smallest society. "There's only two of us in it. I am the captain this year after moving up from vice-captain 12 months ago!"

He and his wife Karen have two sons, one of whom is a chef in Dublin while the other is a computer game artist in Scotland.

Eleven years ago they dared their dad to enter The Weakest Link TV quiz and he took up the challenge, emerging as the strongest link, winning a cheque for £2,280.

Hard-nosed presenter Anne Robinson tried consistently to give Stevie a hard time on air but his brain was as sharp as her tongue and somewhat appropriately for a cartoonist, he had the last laugh...

People who felt mighty power of the pen

Mark Durkan MP SDLP

"I have appeared in Stevie's cartoons. Sometimes I've just heard about my appearances and other times I've pretended I haven't seen it! Stevie doesn't flatter but he is always fair.

All good cartoonists can disconcert their subject and Stevie has a real knack for reflecting the mood of politics at the time. None of us in politics particularly like these things when they're pointed at us but they add colour to the political process. Sometimes they're more interesting that the political process itself."

Alex Maskey MLA SF

"I've been in Stevie's cartoons - they don't seem to be very complimentary! Someone like him has a real talent and can hit their mark spot on.

Even if you don't agree with the point they're making, you have to admire the way they make their point is very clever.

I tended to appear in those cartoons when I was having some kind of argument with someone.

Stevie would have me as a boxer as I have a boxing background."

Sean Hall, chairman of the Hillsborough Oyster Festival

"We had no idea that we were going to be featured in the cartoon. It was on the lead up to the festival and I was so busy I didn't even see it.

At the time, though ,we were delighted - anything that draws attention to the festival is a good thing.

I think the cartoon, which features Mr and Mrs Oyster being advised not to go on holiday to Hillsborough, is bang on though. There were 8,000 oysters eaten at the festival this year."

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