Rocco Fazzari – Bar News Illustrator

Talitha Fishburn

Bar News has commissioned illustrations from celebrated career creative, Rocco Fazzari for the last seven years. You will recall many of his outstanding cover and editorial illustrations. One of Rocco’s recent Bar News illustrations depicting a referendum voting scene (Bar News, Autumn 2023, p12) is on its way to Old Parliament House on request of the Curator of the Museum of Australian Democracy.

Talitha Fishburn caught up with Rocco Fazzari in his home town of North Bondi.

Rocco is of Italian descent. He grew up in Adelaide in the 1960s. From the beginning, he was interested in art, creativity and ideas. As a 12-year-old, he read a book that changed his life: Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. It inspired Rocco’s dream to be an artist. Rocco wrote a letter to Bradbury addressed to a US based publisher (not the easiest feat back in the 1970s, let alone for a child to work out). Eventually, and to Rocco’s delight, a handwritten reply covered in Bradbury’s original drawings arrived in Rocco’s family’s mailbox. Rocco kept the letter. Still today he sometimes pulls it out to inspire his creative endeavours and to remember the joy of that auspicious childhood moment. Another early influence was newspaper art. At age 13, Rocco had a part-time job selling The Adelaide News. He remembers marvelling at the political cartoons and the clever penmanship of Ripley’s ‘Believe it or Not’.

In 1981, Rocco completed his four-year degree from the South Australian School of Arts. It covered most major areas, but his focus was drawing and painting. As a student, Rocco supported himself by drawing houses for the real estate section of various newspapers. At that time, all such images were drawings, not photographs.

Rocco Fazzari

Incredibly, just a week out of graduating, Rocco scored a full-time artist position as a layout artist for Streetbeat, a music magazine which advertised music gigs. Forever generous and highly productive, Rocco supplied little drawings in any gaps. A year or so later, Rocco relocated to Canberra to take up a job as a government artist for the Department of Education illustrating educational aids and workbooks, especially for ESL departments within Australian schools.

In Canberra, Rocco met friends who were journalists and political commentators. By the mid 1980s, Rocco was approached by The Canberra Times to be its first full-time illustrator of opinion pieces. At the time, major overseas newspapers, such as The New York Times, were illustrating major editorials. With his own daily column, Rocco occupied this important socio-political position for Canberra readers as its first ‘Op Ed Illustrator’. A major news event at the time was the Chernobyl Disaster which was extensively covered by media throughout the world.

Along with his passion for art, Rocco has always been a keen reader. He sets time aside each day to read, usually in the evening. He is interested in social issues and enjoys collaborating with commentators and writers. Given this leaning, an art career associated with journalism and social commentary was perhaps always inevitable for Rocco.

From The Canberra Times, Rocco became associated with other leading newspapers including Fairfax Media which, for close to three decades, published thousands of Rocco’s works. During that long relationship, Rocco keenly observed and illustrated the themes and important issues of the day. He captured a long line of political leaders including Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd, Gillard and Abbott, the last of whom he says was ‘one of the greatest gifts to a cartoonist’. He also worked closely with leading writers and thinkers including the economist, Ross Gittins.

Reflecting on his roles as newspaper illustrator and political cartoonist, Rocco states, ‘I learnt to utilise the metaphysical, the surreal, the visual puns, metaphors, analogies, the sudden twist from left field or just the plain absurd to hit that sweet spot – the perfect interplay between word and image.’ Looking at any one of Rocco’s cartoons reveals his thoughtful and deeply observant inner eye and brilliant creative execution.

At the Sydney Morning Herald, Rocco also occupied a very special position as its official court illustrator. He illustrated countless moments of courtroom drama, including significant criminal trials such as the trials of Ivan Milat, Sef Gonzales and Kathleen Folbigg. As to the last, he remembers the sadness and anger which characterised that seven-week trial in 2003.

Another significant nexus to art and law was Rocco’s portrait of Mercy Ashworth, one of the first women admitted to the Bar in the UK when she was called in 1923. The portrait was unveiled at Lincoln’s Inn in September 2023. It was commissioned as part of the ‘First 100 Years / Next 100 Years’ campaign which celebrates the journey of women in the law and aims to promote achieving equality for women in the law. Fitting with the theme, the image is made up of hundreds of photos of contemporary women lawyers. Relatedly, Rocco was commissioned to paint a portrait of Carrie Morrison, the first woman in 1922 to be admitted as a solicitor in England. It now hangs in the Law Society of England and Wales.

Rocco’s contributions to media have seen him win numerous awards and accolades. In 2013, he won the Kennedy Award for Outstanding Illustration and Cartoon’ for a particularly clever satirical political cartoon depicting ‘The Evolution’ of Tony Abbott’s candidature for Prime Minister as John Howard’s protégé.

In 2017, Rocco was awarded a Pulitzer Foundation grant for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. In 2021, Rocco was the chair of the Kennedy Foundation, a strong advocate for cultural and gender diversity in the media.

Unfortunately, many of today’s political cartoonists are threatened by the closure of newspapers or cost-cutting measures. Rocco has witnessed the change in personnel in the newspaper art department from being populated by master craftsmen and artists to coders and developers. Despite this, fortunately for Rocco and his followers, he continues to draw for media. For example, recent commissioned art for ‘The Examination’ and ‘The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’.

Historically, the media for Rocco’s works were pen and ink. In more recent years, Rocco has used a stylus and an iPad with drawing apps such as ‘Procreate’. He says that learning digital skills has been imperative to meet increasingly tight deadlines.

Nowadays, Rocco never leaves home without his digital device which has become his sketchbook. A dedicated user of public transport, his daily sketches often involve commuters on trains and buses. A few years ago, the Art Gallery of NSW commissioned Rocco to spend time at the gallery to create digital sketches of daily life at the gallery and to lead some drawing workshops. A colourful collection of Rocco’s sketches was published in Look magazine, the monthly publication of the Art Gallery of NSW in a feature article called, ‘Drawing the Line’.

Along with regular artistic employment, Rocco has freelanced for many years with painting, multimedia and animated film production. Some of his short film video animations have appeared for multiple media outlets including the ABC. He was nominated at the Australian YouTube awards for the best online animation category. In 2023, his animated video, Australian Mongrel which he co-directed with Belinda Lopez, won numerous awards, including the Best Documentary at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, and was a finalist at the San Diego Latino Film Festival – Migrant Voices Film challenge. You can see it on SBS On Demand.

For the past 20 years, Rocco has spent the first few hours of every day painting. He generates a sizeable portfolio which he exhibits about once every two years. Most recently, his fine art paintings were represented by Maunsell Wickes at Barry Stern Galleries in Paddington. The collection was inspired by the beauty of Sydney. Memorable subject themes included Sydney’s jacaranda season, autumn in Macquarie Street and other local streetscapes, including a colourful work showing The Rocks area of Sydney entitled, ‘Descending Mist 2023’ (pictured) now in the collection of Yves Hernot FRSN Chevalier, an eminent art patron in Sydney.

Bar News is grateful for, and proud of, the immensely talented, original and creative genius of Rocco Fazzari and hopes to collaborate with him well into the future. BN

Talitha Fishburn

Black Chambers