We all love octopuses for their wondrous biological feats (changing color, using tools, generally being badasses). But another incredible thing about them is their versatility. They are becoming robots, art pieces, and, now headpieces for lesser-known political figures.
As a self proclaimed history nerd, Los Angeles-based artist Jonathan Crow decided to embark on a project illustrating all 47 of our vice presidents. But they needed a little something. An octopus hat, perhaps? And now, thank goodness, we have the Veeptopus. (More on his website. If you can’t choose one, you can buy them all! And celebrate Cephalopod Awareness Week in style.)
Crow explains just why octopuses and vice presidents make the perfect match. And why one vice president (I’m not telling you who) has eaten his octopus hat.
Katherine Harmon Courage: Is this the first time you have drawn political figures with animals physically attached to them?
Jonathan Crow: When I was in high school, I drew a giant flatulent dinosaur creature with the head of Reagan’s Attorney General Ed Meese. I called it the Meese Beast and published it in the school newspaper. I thought it was funny. No one else really did.
KHC: When and where did you get the idea for the veeptopus? Seriously, what were you doing?
JC: Last year, after I parted ways with a soul-crushing corporate job but before my wife gave birth to my son, my friend invited me to participate in the From Dusk ’til Drawn fundraiser at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Santa Barbara. Basically, it involved drawing for 24 straight hours. It sounded crazy. I was in.
So from there, it was just a matter of logic. I knew that I didn’t want to be casting around for something to draw at four in the morning. I wanted to do a series, so there would be no question of what to draw next. So I decided on vice presidents. There are 47 of them, I thought, so I probably wouldn’t run out over the course of the 24 hours.
Anyway, during Dusk ’til Drawn, I cranked out 22 in 24 hours. The series proved to be really popular; people, I was surprised to learn, really liked their vice presidents topped with cephalopods. Who knew?
So when I returned to LA, I vowed to complete the series. Then a funny thing happened; the drawings at the end of the series—Cheney, Biden—were a lot better than my John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. My drawing skills had simply improved with practice. So I redrew the entire series. And then, for the same reason, I had to redraw them all once again after that.
KHC: Why the veeptopus? By that I mean, why vice presidents—not presidents, baseball commissioners, or Swedish royal family members? And why with octopuses—not giant moths, sloths, or cuttlefish?
JC: The Vice Presidency is sort of an absurd job. It bestows all the pomp and import of the United States Government—the most powerful political body in the world—but the job itself, as defined by the Constitution, is vague and poorly defined. All it requires is for the veep occasionally preside over the Senate and check on the president’s health. Basically, the VP spends his term struggling to define himself while waiting for death. How existential can you get?
I added the octopuses because I thought they were funny. I could say it’s a metaphor for the morally corrosive nature of power or Capitalism or something like that. But the real answer is, I just think they’re funny. And they also drape so much better than wombats.
KHC: I love that each octopus seems to approach the role of headpiece with a very different attitude. How did you decide what the positioning would be? Was it partially dictated by the veep’s legacy?
JC: Sometimes the position of the octopus was a comment on the veep—see Hubert Humphrey and Dick Cheney—but more often than not, its position was determined by practical considerations. I didn’t want to cover distinctive features—Nixon’s jowls, Nelson Rockefeller’s glasses, Charles Fairbanks’s beard. So I figured out other places on the face and head to put them. On the flip side, tentacles can be really helpful for troublesome facial features. Al Gore has a really odd face that doesn’t really seem like it ought to hang together. He has a hawk-like nose, strangely full lips and really sparse eyebrows. I think I drew him six or seven times before I got him right and even then I made a point of covering much of his face with a well-placed tentacle.
KHC: After working on this project, did you discover a favorite VP? What about a favorite octopus?
JC: It’s hard to say. Teddy Roosevelt is pretty awesome but that’s mostly for a) being an excellent president and b) being a serious badass. This is a guy who tamed a badger as a pet, after all. Charles G. Dawes was a guy who won a Nobel Peace Prize and who wrote the melody for a number one pop hit along with being Calvin Coolidge’s veep. I have some affection for the guy, I guess beacause he was accomplished way more than most and yet he’s still completely obscure.
As for octopuses, I didn’t draw one, but the blue-ringed octopus is pretty cool. They rock the polka dot look and they’re lethal. They’re like a Marvel superhero for the cephalopod set.
KHC: Which vice president do you think would take the most offense to being portrayed with an octopus on his head? Well, obviously Cheney took care of his, but what about the others?
JC: I think Aaron Burr would have a real problem. He was prickly person who shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel because he besmirched his character. Not a guy who would enjoy looking the fool.
KHC: Biden actually looks pretty pleased in his drawing. Who do you think would be happiest to have been honored with an octopus hat? I hear Thomas Marshall had a pretty good sense of humor.
JC: One thing I noticed about this project is that it charted the evolution of the smile in official portraits. This wasn’t something that I noticed until after I almost finished. Up until WWII, vice presidents wore expressions of great seriousness in their portraits, trying to evoke, I suppose, the gravity of the office. But then somewhere around Nixon, a smirk started to sneak in. With the dawn of the new century, self-seriousness in portraits just went out the window. Cheney’s expression can only be described as a shit-eating grin, and Biden just beams like he’s on a Hollywood red carpet. There’s probably a pretty interesting academic paper that could be written on this subject, but not by me.
But yes, Marshall did have a pretty sharp sense of humor and he didn’t really take the position of vice president with the sort of grave seriousness that President Wilson would have liked. Marshall loved repeating a joke that went something like this: “A woman had two sons. One became a sailor. The other became vice president. Neither was heard from again.” That’s a guy, I think, who wouldn’t mind a cephalopod hat.
KHC: Did you learn much about different types of octopuses while working on the project? If so, was there a species of octopus you found that really seemed to be the VP’s true spirit animal?
JC: Going into this project, I knew next to nothing about octopuses. The mimic octopus strikes me as the obvious politician of the octopus world. They can change their appearance depending on context. Perfect for Washington.