Steve Breen Creates Editorial Cartoons with BP Oil from Spill

By: Shawn Moynihan

The Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill has been a target of editorial cartoonists for weeks now, but San Diego Union-Tribune/Creators Syndicate Editorial Cartoonist Steve Breen has taken his artistic criticism of the subject a step further.

Breen has created five cartoons painted with actual oil from the spill.

“I was surprised by how well it turned out, because I just wasn’t sure I’d be able to work with the oil,” he told E&P. “I’d never worked with oil before, actual crude. Who has?”

The cartoons will be featured this Sunday in the U-T on a special color page, and Breen’s video journal of the whole experience, shot with his iPhone, is slated to appear on the paper’s Web site Friday.

Six weeks ago, Breen decided he “wanted to do something powerful, and I thought, what’s more powerful than ink?” he said. He pondered visiting one of the polluted beaches and spreading out bed sheets on the sand, scooping up some of the oil in cups and squirting it onto the bed sheets to create cartoons.

“So obviously, it wasn’t thought out very well,” he jokes. “Drawing a cartoon that big would just be too challenging.”

Still, Breen, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, remained attracted to the idea. Since he works in black India ink on Bristol board after penciling his cartoons, working in oil wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. “I wanted to step it up a notch,” he said. After some consideration, “I realized tar balls were the way to go.”

The cartoonist contacted two AP reporters in the Gulf, Brian Skoloff and Cain Burdeau, and asked them to direct him to a location where the oil could easily be found. They directed him to fly into New Orleans and then drive east to Alabama and Pensacola, Fla., Breen said, where beaches were getting hit hard. He also asked for guidance from Dr. Ping Wang, an associate professor and geologist at University of South Florida, who suggested traveling east or west of Pensacola Beach if he wanted to strike oil.

On July 3 Breen arrived in Santa Rosa Island, west of Pensacola, where one of Dr. Ping’s graduate students, 55-year-old Rip Kirby, met him packing a UV lantern. There, said Breen, “My fears of not finding any tar balls were unfounded.” Scattered across the sand were “tar balls and tar patties everywhere. Some were the size of the floor mats in your car.”

Breen scooped some oil up in Tupperware and brought it back to California, where he discovered that he could create a palette by thinning it with different amounts of gasoline. “It was exciting, because [the gas] instantly turned it into a brownish solution, and when I held it up to the light, and I saw that it would go well on paper. I was able to get different tones of brown, depending on how much gasoline I added.”

The resulting cartoons were slightly larger than his normal creations, at 11 by 14 inches — and highly flammable. The cartoons, though, are not entirely BP-centric, a move that Breen said would be an oversimplification of the issue.

“Cartoonists love villains, because we love going after evil,” he explained, “but sometimes you have to look beyond the obvious villain at the supporting players, too.” While one cartoon depicts the BP logo spelled out in oil-smeared animals of the Gulf Coast, others tackle “America’s addiction to oil, and the culpability of the Interior Department in all this.”

Breen’s biggest take-away from the experience? “The extent of the damage to the ecosystem in the Gulf,” he said. Under ultraviolet light, he said, you can see how much oil is embedded in the sand of the beaches it’s tarnished. “You have pollution that’s naked to the eye, but that’s really intense and extensive. And that sand is blowing off the beach and into the bay, so who knows what kind of impact that is going to have on the ecosystem?”

And beaches, he adds, are easier to clean than the far more niched areas of Louisiana that have been polluted, where “the oil is literally going to be there for decades.”

Editors interested in running the cartoons can contact Creators Syndicate.

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