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Omaha Magazine

Illustrating History to Build the Future

Sep 22, 2023 04:24PM ● By Kim Carpenter

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Listen to this article here. Audio Provided by Radio Talking Book Service.

The cartoon reads like the set up to a joke. A docent leads a group of curious school children through a museum to identify artifacts and objets d’art as she deadpans: “Now we’re leaving the hall of stuff we stole from other cultures and entering the hall of stuff we paid too much for.”

The work appeared in The New Yorker in August 2018, and its punchline, a one-line indictment of museum practices, was simultaneously amusing, accurate, and devastating. It also aptly encapsulated the witty, erudite work of Caitlin Cass—a cartoonist, installation artist, and assistant professor of illustration in the College of Communication, Fine Arts, and Media at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

That the 36-year-old takes a scholarly approach to creating cartoons isn’t surprising. In 2009, the Chicago native received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, where “great books” by history’s most lauded writers and philosophers comprise the liberal arts curriculum. She then earned her master’s of fine arts in studio art from the State University of New York in Buffalo in 2012.

While there, Cass developed The Museum of Failure, an installation that explored harboring “hope in the face of failure.” People like Franz Reichelt, who plunged to his death from the Eiffel Tower in 1912 after trying to prove that his wearable parachute worked, fascinated the artist and appeared throughout what she later developed into her Great Moments in Western Civilization series.

After earning her MFA, Cass became a member of the art faculty at Buffalo Seminary, a private all-girls’ high school in New York. The experience prompted her to create work that additionally focused on people of color, oppressed groups, and women’s history.

“I became more interested in history in that context,” reflected Cass, who often folds fantastical elements into the history she’s chronicling. “There is a line on which all history is myth making. We pretend it’s objective, but history is active.” 

Scott Propreak, the then curator and now executive director of Buffalo’s Burchfield Penney Art Center, had been following Cass’s work online. When the museum decided to celebrate the centennial of the 19th amendment, he approached Cass to create illustrations commemorating the occasion. With an assist from the National Endowment for the Arts, the artist developed Women’s Work: Suffrage Movements 1848-1965; bimonthly illustrations that appeared on the center’s website for a year and culminated in both a book and exhibition to mark the 2020 anniversary.

Often laconically witty in her approach, Cass distilled the time period into comics that captured its complexity. For example, on one page she depicted Suffragettes like famous athletes, their faces and relevant “statistics” listed as if on trading cards. On another, she created a close-up view of a voter application form marked with one word in bright red: “DENIED.” 

The project lit a fire for Cass. 

“I just didn’t stop,” she confessed. “I kept going. Now I’ve doubled it. A new book, around 250 pages, will come out in 2024—Suffrage Song: The Haunted History of Gender, Race, and Voting Rights in the US.” 

An exhibition timed to coincide with the publication will take place at UNO.

At about the same time as the Burchfield Penney project, The New Yorker also began featuring Cass’s work. Over a dozen of the artist’s cartoons have appeared in the venerable magazine’s pages, a career pinnacle for many illustrators that’s not easy to reach. The publication receives at least 500 submissions a week—all vying for the same 12 to 20 slots. 

For all these achievements, her role as an instructor at UNO, a position she started in 2021, is what excites her—particularly because illustration is a new concentration beginning this fall for students interested in comics, cartooning, surface pattern design, animation pre-production, and illustration for children's books, editorial content, and advertising.

“It is relatively rare for state schools to offer a full-on illustration concentration,” Cass explained. “Most just have a class or two. This concentration allows students to see how they can make a living from readable images and visual storytelling.”

Amy Morris, professor of art history and director of UNO’s School of the Arts, is thrilled to have Cass head up the new concentration.

“Caitlin is an amazing hire,” Morris said. “She stands out in terms of teaching, research, and achievements. Her work is so genre-bending and smart. It really straddles the line between literature and art. And Caitlin is already very accomplished. Being published in The New Yorker is very elite, yet she is so unassuming.”

Morris has been particularly impressed with how Cass structures her curricula to challenge UNO students on a variety of levels.

“She has her pulse on students and goes so far above and beyond to create opportunities for them outside the classroom,” Morris explained. 

For example, Cass initiated “Comics and Coffee,” a regularly scheduled Zoom session open to all UNO students that invites professionals like cartoonist and author Bob Mankoff, The New Yorker’s cartoon editor for 20 years, to share insider industry insights.

For her sketchbook courses, Cass also brings students into the community to places like parks, museums, and restaurants where they can hone their observational skills and have broader conversations about what they’re seeing and experiencing. One trip was to the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, where an exhibition featured work by many LGBTQ artists.

“It opened up a conversation about trans rights that was at times difficult to navigate, because there were a lot of differing intergenerational and cultural views,” Cass said. “I was really impressed with how my students handled it. It’s reassuring that these types of conversations are happening. The media tells us that we are increasingly divided and insulated in our communities, but the classroom is a place where cross-cultural conversations still happen.”

Those conversations are as important for the artist as they are her students. 

“Just the opportunity to engage with students from all over Nebraska and the midwest has expanded my sense of the world,” Cass reflected. “From first generation students, to working moms, to retirees returning to school after a long career, I truly value being exposed to people's different world views and perspectives.”

Ideas that will, no doubt, continue to inform, impact, and influence Cass’s work 
going forward. 

For more information about the artist, visit

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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