East Chicago Artist Co-Creates Bilingual Cartoon
By: Hilary Powell
April 25, 2014 — Donna K. Upshaw’s daily hard work is the maker of giggles and grins.
“D.K. Upshaw is my professional name,” she says. “I call myself a toner; a ladytooner.”
As a child, Upshaw, a lifelong fan of the funnies aspired to do the doodling.
“I just drew and made up my own characters. Growing up, I watched Saturday morning cartoons like everyone else; I realized people make cartoons.”
Those people are an historically monolithic pool. Cheryl Lynn Eaton founded the Ormes Society, named after Jackie Ormes — the first African American woman cartoonist — to chronicle diverse cartoon artists. She says statistics show fewer than 100 cartoon creatives are African American women.
“Black women are not only capable of telling all kinds of stories, when you look at the women on the Ormes Society list, it shows that black women are not a monolith. Social media has been a wonderful gift to black women who are interested in publishing because we can circumvent those avenues that are closed to us.”
“i even had visions of being the first black female cartoonist to be under contract to The New Yorker.”
Upshaw started small — sending clips to several dozen minor magazines.
“In Gary’s The 411, my cartoon ‘Our Follies’ appears,” she says.
After a decade working locally, she popped her drawings online. A thousand miles away in Florida, a United States Navy captain clicked on her animations and found a future collaborator.
“I read one of her blogs and I could tell in the way she wrote that she just had a great heart,” says Edward Zellem, a captain with the U.S. Navy.
What started as a hobby is now a daily habit.
“It’s called Afghanistoons — the world’s first Afghan proverbs cartoon,” she says.
Upsahw’s traded in her markers for a computer mouse to digitally animate her creations.
“Everyone should be looked at with the same eye,” she says, describing her latest toon. “An afghan way of saying all men are created equal.”
At 54, the young girl who once dreamed of drawing for the New Yorker now has an international following from her home in East Chicago with the online bilingual cartoon depicting Afghan proverbs.
“I can reach more people,” she says. “I get Tweets from Italy and Afghanistan.”
“We tweeted the Afghanistoon, and that was re-tweeted around the world,” Zellem says. He has a passion for proverbs. He spent more than a year in Afghanistan, picking up the language.
“As a Dari speaker, I found that Afghans have a long history of speaking in proverbs,” he says.
Zellem needed the right pair of hands to illustrate a cross-cultural exchange. He found them in Upsahw.
“I draw the cartoon and he puts the Dari and Pashto proverb,” she says.
Upshaw’s crafts do more than cause laughter; they also help Afghan children learn English.
“Cartoons are a universal language, too,” Zellem says. “By bringing those two universal languages together, proverbs and cartoons, that attracts people. It makes them look at the pictures, especially people who aren’t literate. The literacy rate in Afghanistan is only about 30 percent, so when Afghans see the cartoon, they want to know more.”
Upshaw says she’s motivated by the purpose.
“Helping Aafghans learn to read English, using their proverbs,” she says. “I thought i would have to draw afghan characters and i was afraid of stereotyping. But he said i could use my American characters.”
The first Afghanistoon was released this month. D.K. is not compensated for the non-profit work.
“Somebody made the remark that, huh, you should support education in America,” she says. “When I told them that Captain Zellem was promoting afghan education with these books, he said, ‘someone should support American education.’ There’s nothing wrong with Americans helping out people in other countries.”
“Afghans are not that much different from us. They’re a normal person. And no matter what their culture, language, ethnicity, they want the same basic things out of life.
“Learning is tough, but it’s always rewarding when I succeed,” she says.
Two storytellers, whose works help others to do one more universal task: learn.
STORIFY: East Chicago Artist Co-Creates Afghanistoons