Mawson Toons

Mawson carpenter, Nick Cartwright, is as adept with the coloured pencils as he is with construction materials. As official cartoonist on station, Nick has captured the mundane, the unusual and the dramatic moments of station life in humorous weekly sketches. He spoke to Wendy Pyper about the inspiration and rationale behind his work.

A cartoon showing the organised chaos of the annual maintenance of Mawson station's kitchen.
Organised chaos during the annual maintenance of Mawson station's kitchen.
Photo: Nick Cartwright
Why do you draw cartoons?

Cartooning for me is that opportunity to portray 'what we all know' in a humourous way. While there is an abundance of filmic record of Antarctica, the drawn image has as an advantage in its rarity and therefore, novelty. There are other defining advantages. Primarily, that it is created after the fact, so there is no mechanical device required to be on hand at any precise moment, and the moment is experienced and enjoyed without interruption. Then in recreating the moment on paper, there is license to stretch the truth and represent the physically impossible, the surreal and the absurd. This is where the cartoon comes into its own. It is where, apart from representing an actual physical incident, it can extend to include anything from simple moments of humour to flights of pure fantasy, often from fellow expeditioners just sitting around the dinner table.

Cartoon showing a scientist trying to catch a penguin.
Scientists at Mawson have been studying disease in penguins at Auster Rookery. Despite years of experience, catching penguins is still tricky.
Photo: Nick Cartwright
Where did you learn your craft?

I have always drawn. My mother still laughs at her early attempts at 'teaching' me, and comforts herself in the notion that by completely disregarding everything she said, I have done alright. Along the way there have been a couple of mentors that have assisted me with advice and 'challenges'. And there was the period I spent with three female art student friends taking it in turn to strip and pose for each other, which was not the most unpleasant way to get an education. I have sculpted and painted, but through it all have maintained a fascination with the drawn line. In the early days it was the likes of Beano, Captain Hurricane, the Marvel Comics, and later, Heath Robinson, architects' and designers' sketches, the nouveau lines of Aubrey Beardsley, Heavy Metal comics, Manga, and the work of Shaun Tan.

Cartoon showing expeditioners losing a lettuce in the wind.
The Home of the Blizzard lived up to its name when expeditioners, carrying bundles of hydroponic produce, lost two lettuces in the wind.
Photo: Nick Cartwright
Have you produced cartoons for other purposes?

Over the years there have been numerous isolated creative projects, but the only steady illustration has been reserved for technical or construction works. This recent spate of cartooning was borne out of the predicament faced by the resupply voyage to Mawson last summer. A huge iceberg blocked the entrance to the harbour and numerous ideas were put forward by the ship's crew to obviate the problem. This spawned 'The Plan' series of drawings, several of which were printed onto t-shirts to mark that voyage. (Nick has also produced cartoons for a run of t-shirts for the Antarctic Division's 'Walk Across Antarctica' challenge and the same for the Davis station 'Bar & Café').

How did you end up in Antarctica?

Carpentry has allowed me to pursue my great love of travel, and I have been involved in building works from Melbourne to Sydney, Alice Springs, Central and Western deserts, and immediately prior to coming to Antarctica, the Tiwi Islands north of Darwin. I came close to applying for Antarctic work some years ago, but circumstances intervened.

More recently when I was close to finishing a contract on Melville Island the opportunity came up again. The transition from the tropical north to Antarctica was easy – I find the contrasts in life are what living is all about. I do sometimes get a strong desire for lush, green grass under my bare feet, or the feel of flicking the mangroves for a 'bite'.

But, I relax in the knowledge that it will happen again in the future, as will a return to this continent.

This page was last modified on 4 December 2008.