An illustration of a Brooklyn street merged with a jungle. an elephant stands beneath a raised subway line while a woman bathes in a river
“Native New York” (Courtesy/Eric Drooker)

Berkeley artist puts politics front and… left

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If you ever find yourself face-to-face with artist Eric Drooker, expect politics to come up. More than once.

Drooker’s humble studio near downtown Berkeley houses several paintings and illustrations — some of which he has sold to the New Yorker, for which he frequently contributes covers.

He has made his living with his art since he was 21, and he has come a long way from the old days when he plastered his haunt in Manhattan’s East Side with political posters.

Today, at 58, Drooker’s work hangs in galleries the likes of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. He’s illustrated an album cover for the rock group Rage Against the Machine, and received an American Book Award for his 1992 book “Flood! A Novel in Pictures.”

Drooker, in short, is a giant in some circles.

Drooker leans against a drafting table; behind him sketches are pinned to a wall
Eric Drooker in his studio (Photo/Max A. Cherney)

The artist, who gave a noontime talk on “the art of political activism” at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in March, is unabashedly left-leaning and will happily expound on American national politics and why the Democratic Party failed to elect a president or re-take the House.

“America has drifted farther and farther to the right,” he said during a recent interview in his studio. “Look at Fox News propaganda, certainly, that’s where most Americans get their news, get their information … they get it on TV and the radio. They don’t read. Particularly with [Bill] Clinton ossifying that neoliberal model, and that was the model that the Democrats embraced.”

The Democrats, Drooker said, failed to win the votes of workers — and that, among other reasons, is why they failed in the 2016 election. Working people and famous radicals like anarchist Emma Goldman and beat writer Jack Kerouac who lived in his childhood neighborhood in Manhattan, have had a profound impact on his life.

Drooker remains thoroughly, and perhaps stubbornly, a New Yorker. “The city is in my veins, it’s in my blood,” he said. “I no longer need to live there, to be there in person.”

His Jewish identity formed as a result of growing up in Gotham. “I’m a practicing New York Jew, which means your religion is atheism,” he said. “New York Jews don’t get a bar mitzvah because, as far as I can tell, we’re pretty mainstream, we’re running the show in Manhattan. But my friends in Brooklyn did.”

the illustration on this New Yorker cover shows a couple cheerfully shopping for guns with a shopping cart
The New Yorker, Dec. 14, 2015 cover by Eric Drooker

Being Jewish, Drooker said, “meant being educated, and an enlightened person, and [who was] was not superstitious, who was not going to believe in God. That was something we grew out of, we left it behind in the old country. If we believe in anything, and get all passionate and quote scripture, it’s going to be, ‘workers of the world, unite, you have nothing to lose except your chains.’

“Radical, progressive Jews, trying to make the world a better place — that was where all the religious zeal was channeled, away from the shul and away from Israel, really.”

For Drooker, being Jewish means being part of a people, and religion or religious activity is only a part of that. “A Jew is an ethnic group that goes way back, regardless of what you believe in or don’t believe in,” he said. “I’m part of an ancient people.”

He ended up in the Bay Area because Manhattan had grown too expensive: Drooker landed in San Francisco but ultimately moved to Berkeley in 2001. “I’ll always be a city boy,” he said. “I wanted to explore other places around the country that had a little more oxygen. Moving from Manhattan to San Francisco was like arriving in a small town. And Berkeley was like the Amazon rainforest, or something, because everything is relative —but I feel like I’m living in the suburbs.

Drooker said he’s “more aware of my New York heritage since I’ve moved to the West Coast.”

In addition to his work for the New Yorker and other magazines, he has collaborated with film directors and poets — including the San Francisco beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who died in 1997. A neighbor of Drooker’s in New York City, Ginsberg collected Drooker’s early posters for years, and eventually suggested they collaborate, with Drooker illustrating dozens of Ginsberg’s poems.

That collaboration indirectly led to Drooker’s first animation project — for “Howl,” a 2010 film about Ginsberg that focused on the 1957 obscenity trial against S.F.’s City Lights Bookstore for publishing the book “Howl and Other Poems,” by Ginsberg.

“That was a departure for me, because I’d never really done animation before, and I’d never worked on a feature,” Drooker said. “Even just collaborating on a day-to-day basis with a team of people is unusual — most artists or writers tend to be fairly solitary, at least while we’re working. It was a new experience to work in a collaborative medium.”

At the moment, Drooker is putting the finishing touches on an “epic series that I’ve been working on for a couple of years.” Entitled “O, Muse!” — the first lines of Homer’s epic “The Odyssey” — the book is an exploration of nude themes.

max cherney
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a former J. staff writer.