by Edward M. Gómez

Some people spend a lifetime trying to figure out what, ideally, they would like to do to make a living or at least to pass the time.

However, for John Kascht, who grew up in Waukesha, Wisconsin, a town located to the west of Milwaukee, his future profession seemed to have found him just as much as, even as a youngster, he discovered it.

John Kascht, “Samuel Beckett,” 1993, pastel on paper, 46 x 37 inches (116.84 x 93.98 centimeters). Photo courtesy of the artist

Kascht became a caricature artist, a contemporary master of a genre whose most familiar media outlets were, for decades, print newspapers and magazines. Today, many of those publications are struggling to survive in the digital age.

Now, the artist’s caricature portraits of well-known performers and cultural figures are being featured in “Turning Pages: Art by John Kascht,” an exhibition on view through June 15 at the gallery of the Wayne County Arts Alliance in Honesdale, a town in northeastern Pennsylvania. There, admirers of an art that blends humor with a super-sharp eye for detail can examine a diverse selection of Kascht’s creations from a career that has spanned four decades.

The exhibition includes the artist’s portraits of the British rockers Amy Winehouse and Keith Richards, the actress Diane Keaton, and other celebrities, each one cleverly highlighting a gesture or physical detail that inescapably captures what is well known or widely perceived about its subject’s public persona.

John Kascht, “Amy,” 2021, India ink and watercolor on paper, 26 x 18 inches (66.04 x 45.72 centimeters). Photo courtesy of the artist

“Turning Pages” also features works from The Mysteries, a graphic novel authored and produced by Bill Watterson (the creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip) and Kascht, which was published last year and has been described as a fable for adults about forces and phenomena that lie beyond normal human understanding.

To benefit the Wayne County Arts Alliance, a community-based cultural organization whose exhibition and visual-arts programs serve artists and art enthusiasts across the northeastern-Pennsylvania region, two copies of The Mysteries, both of which have been signed by Watterson and Kascht, are being made available via online auctions.

Cover of The Mysteries (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2023), the book John Kascht co-authored with Bill Watterson, the creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip

An auction for one signed book will end on June 12 at 11:55 p.m., Eastern Daylight Time. The auction for the second signed copy of the book will end on June 15 at 11:55 p.m., EDT.

Click here to learn more about the auctions and to take part in them.

Kascht recalled the origins of what would become his abiding interest in the art of caricature, which began with an ability to accurately mimic other people. He said, “As far back as I can remember, I’ve been slipping into other people’s skins and sharing my exaggerated impressions of them. A bit weird, I know. My parents said that, as a toddler, I would stand in front of the television and act out whatever was happening onscreen. I followed friends and family members around, walking and talking like them. I was a mimic.”

Kascht’s performances took a big turn when, as a middle-school pupil, he discovered caricatures in magazines and newspapers. Remembering how he savored such drawings, which exaggerated their subjects’ most recognizable or distinctive traits, and how he began producing his own, he said, “My instinct for mimicry came together with my knack for sketching. I realized I could draw impersonations rather than act them out. It was my Prometheus moment.”

John Kascht, “Toni Morrison,” 2022, India ink, watercolor, and colored inks on paper, 14 x 23 inches (35.56 x 58.42 centimeters). Photo courtesy of the artist

At the age of fourteen, Kascht began drawing political cartoons for the Waukesha Freeman, his town’s local newspaper. He explained, “Not because I was interested in politics, but because political cartoons incorporated caricatures and, for all I knew, caricature freaks like me were supposed to make political cartoons.”

Kascht contributed drawings to the Freeman throughout his high school years, then worked as a summer intern in the art department of a larger metropolitan newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal. After earning an undergraduate degree, he worked for various large newspapers and, in time, began contributing his drawings on a freelance basis to national magazines.

For a long time, Kascht was based in Washington, D.C., but 23 years ago, he moved to northeastern Pennsylvania. For many years, he created drawings on assignment for various publications. He told butjournal, “Now, though, I’m in a new phase of my career. My recent collaboration with Bill Watterson on The Mysteries marked a page turn from my career as a deadline illustrator to [pursuing] self-directed projects.”

John Kascht, “Bowie,” 1997, India ink, watercolor, and colored inks on paper, 20 x 15 inches (50.8 x 38.1 centimeters). Photo courtesy of the artist

We asked Kascht to tell us how an artist may begin creating a caricature portrait. Once a prospective subject’s pronounced, visible particularities have been identified, then what?

He observed, “Some people are more extreme in appearance than others, but we all have something, and capturing any likeness starts with noticing. Consciously or not, an artist making a portrait compares the person being drawn against a template of ‘average’ features and proportions. Each of us differs from the average, and the ways in which we differ is what makes us unique, and uniquely recognizable.”

“A caricaturist takes these identifying features and amplifies them, creating an intensified picture of precisely what makes a person individual. That’s why a carefully observed caricature can seem more like its subject than a traditional portrait or even a photo.”

Kascht’s work can be found in such public collections as those of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. About the distribution of his work over the years, he noted, “Most of my stuff was made to be published. I never imagined a life for it beyond printed pages or posters. The originals I’ve sold have gone primarily to celebrity subjects who saw and liked my drawings of them.”

The youthful mimic who turned a knack for skillful copycatting observed, “I never decided to get into this type of work. It got into me somehow. The impulse was always there at my core. It’s still there.”

John Kascht, clay heads created for the illustrations in the book The Mysteries, which the artist co-authored with Bill Watterson, the creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. Photo courtesy of John Kascht