April 5, 2016

Meet the artist behind the cartoons fighting coal ash

      Up in the hills, hugging the North Carolina border, is another notable Georgian you wouldn’t recognize as easily as his down-the-road neighbor, Zell Miller. Zell, Young Harris’ favorite son, has worn many hats—editor, professor, lieutenant governor, governor, U.S. senator and senior statesman—in his legendary career.
      Standing erect in his cowboy boots, Zell’s strong stances—backed by strong, often sharp words—made him famous. Look no further than his gamble to launch a state-sponsored lottery, spawning the HOPE scholarship program and revolutionizing Georgia’s educational system.
      You know Zell.
      Now, meet another powerful Towns County communicator: Jim Powell. For decades, you’ve seen his name and artwork in this newspaper. And since mid-January, Jim’s been a stalwart in helping alert you to the dangers of burying toxic coal ash in our community. If a picture is truly worth 1,000 words, each of Jim’s editorial cartoons have equal value.

Two of Jim Powell’s biggest fans are former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller 
and First Lady Shirley Miller, also from Young Harris. When I talked 
with them this week, Shirley glowed, “Jimmy’s such a talented, nice 
man. His wife, Roxanne, wrote a wonderful children’s book, too.” And 
Gov. Miller laughed, “I’ve known Jimmy since he was a little boy. I 
knew his daddy. You can tell Jimmy’s from the country—the way 
his cartoons tell the story.”
      So how did an artist, who’s drawn about 5,000 cartoons, get started? Like many of us, Jim was a doodler. In 1964, a blank piece of paper and a pencil launched Jim. He said, “That was about the time LBJ became more that just letters in my bowl of alphabet soup.” While at Young Harris College, doodling morphed into sketching cartoons for Hiawassee’s Towns County Herald in Hiawassee and later a 15-year career as reporter. In time, his syndicated cartoons were appearing in several dozen newspapers, including The Press-Sentinel.
      Today, Jim’s day job is a telecommunications analyst and manager of a community TV station for a local cable station. At night, after visiting with his wife, Roxanne, and their beloved pointer-terrier, Charlie, Jim shifts to his studio. Nearby, Roxanne serves as an editor and member of the creative team. Jim laughs, “Even Charlie will bark or growl—showing his approval or disapproval—when I show him a sketch.”
      Lately, Charlie’s been busy growling at coal ash. So far, Jim’s drawn 14 cartoons on Wayne County’s coal-ash controversy. From the start, Jim jumped into the fight. Like us, he’s connected to his roots. People and their love of land have been a part of him since his growing-up days on his family’s farm. If you’ve detected a down-home flavor to Jim’s cartoons, you’re right. As a boy, he got a small-town education in his grandfather’s country store. Between sips of RC Colas and nibbles on Moon Pies, men of the community explored topics from hound dogs to taxes.
      My first hint that I was interested in journalism was my fascination with Thomas Nast, 1840-1902. I came across the “Father of the American Cartoon” in a newspaper class at The University of Georgia. Nast “kicked butt and took names” as he attacked government corruption. His cartoons brought down “Boss” Tweed and the Tammany Hall Democratic political machine. My fantasy about becoming a butt-kicking cartoonist was cut short when I realized that I was just another doodler with no artistic talent.
      That’s why I was pleased to meet Jim 25 years ago. He’s never too busy. I can call or e-mail Jim with an idea, and presto! Somewhere around midnight, a proof shows up on my screen. While The Press-Sentinel’s news team has fed anti-coal-ash suggestions to him, Jim’s been quick to offer us a plethora of ideas. His mind rarely rests.
      Wayne County is in a this-could-change-our-lives-forever fight to stop Republic from dumping toxic coal ash on us. And while Zell Miller is a household name, I wanted you to get to know Jim Powell, too. Even from 300 miles away, we couldn’t have a more concerned friend than Jim.
      Isn’t that right, Charlie?