Hundreds of students, professors and Ann Arbor community members packed into the Michigan Theater to hear renowned artist Edel Rodriguez speak at the last “Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series” of the semester on Thursday. Rodriguez is a contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker, and has created numerous book, magazine and film covers and posters over the years.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, director of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series, Chrisstina Hamilton, detailed what the series is and how Rodriguez represents an artist in the field.
“When it started, the idea was to bring real practitioners working out in the world in art and design so that students would be able to … learn from people who are successful practitioners rather than just academics,” Hamilton said. “(Rodriguez) is highly successful, very well published and a highly regarded illustrator and graphic designer, and graphic design is a big pursuit of a lot of our students, as is illustration.”
The lecture began with a 15-minute film that detailed Rodriguez’s immigration to the United States, his upbringing in the United States, his Cuban heritage and how these factors have informed and inspired his art over the years.
At the age of nine, Rodriguez immigrated to the United States as a part of the Mariel boatlift — a mass immigration in 1980 of Cubans who departed from Mariel Harbor for the United States — and grew up in Miami, Florida. He then attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Rodriguez said his struggles earlier on in his life defined what kind of artist he was, and that he has overcome those struggles.
“When I was in college, I was always told you have to pick a focus,” Rodriguez said. “What are you? Are you a painter? Are you a designer? Are you an illustrator? What are you? … And you’re always pressured to choose a decision about who you are … and for the past 25 years, I’ve done everything.”
In recent years, Rodriguez has gained fame and notoriety for his politically charged magazine covers, specifically the covers for TIME and Der Spiegel. Covers depicting Donald Trump’s face melting, or Donald Trump holding the head of the Statue of Liberty in one hand and a knife in another have drawn widespread media coverage and international attention. He spoke about the influence he has seen his covers have on the general public.
“I’ve done probably about 150 magazine covers,” Rodriguez said. “The first time I noticed a magazine cover could have a lot of impact was when I did this cover for Communication Arts. … It became a very big cover worldwide and started a lot of discussions. … People in Cuba used to put it in a paper bag and pass it around because they could not show it in public.”
He then talked about his controversial covers portraying Donald Trump and why he decided to take such a strong political stance in 2016.
“What I saw in Trump as a candidate was, from what I had experienced in Cuba and the type of language Fidel Castro had used … these were the same things that Trump was saying as a candidate, and it freaked me out,” Rodriguez said. “Both of these covers ended up everywhere.”
The depictions of Trump that Rodriguez created have been seen at political rallies and protests all over the United States, from New York City to Denver to San Francisco. He has been covered by CNN, MSNBC, and was even dubbed “Trump’s most hated artist.” While these covers have given Rodriguez attention, not all of it has been positive. He showed the audience pictures of hate messages he had received on Instagram
“This guy asked me if I was illegal, and I’ve been here for almost 40 years,” Rodriguez said. “And I’ve never been asked this question … I get direct emails, threats, all sorts of things.”
Throughout the lecture, Rodriguez was interrupted by laughter, cheering or a mixture of both despite the grave nature of many of his subjects. As it ended, the auditorium broke out into raucous applause.
Art & Design junior Gwen McCartney related to Rodriguez’s relaxed approach to his artistic endeavors, even when dealing with heavy topics.
“In my art, I don’t like to take myself too seriously,” McCartney said. “I think with his work, I found that he had very serious subjects, but I felt like he was kind of nonchalant about the stuff he did … which I really appreciate.”