Alumni Corner: Matt Groening

Many believe this sidewalk sketch on Southwest 18th Avenue was drawn by Groening, but, in reality, it is cartoonist Matt Wuerker's commemoration of Groening's time at Lincoln.

 Each year, many people enter Lincoln High School and walk down the busy corridors and hallways, bustling to their next classes. But not everyone goes to high school, graduates, and then creates one of the world’s most recognized entertainment icons of all time.

Former Lincoln student Matt Groening did just that.

Groening (GRAY-ning) cared little for school, but drawing always fascinated him.

After graduating with the class of 1972, his art was discovered, which led to his fame. After being nationally recognized, his work led to the birth of The Simpsons and Futurama, which today are considered two of the world’s most recognizable and enduring icons in the entertainment industry.

Groening, who now lives in California, grew up in Portland’s West Hills with his family, including his father,  local artist and filmmaker Homer Groening.

The Cardinal Times made several attempts to reach Matt Groening for this story, but his representative, Susan Grode, said he couldn’t be scheduled until next year. With that in mind, the Times borrowed the work of several other publications in the writing of this story.

A young Groening attended the nearest schools as a child; Ainsworth and Lincoln High School.

Taking after his father, Groening developed a like for storytelling and cartoons. He won a story contest at the age of 8 with the tale a little boy who died and became a ghost. Then Groening discovered his passion – art.

Sadly, his father apparently didn’t approve of Groening’s drawing style. As he described in an interview with The Telegraph:

“I just don’t think he believed I had the talent. And like a lot of parents, he didn’t want me to be hurt.”

But Groening continued to draw despite his father’s opinions.

“The nice thing was that he would leave his pens out for me to play with. But then he was not particularly approving of what I came up with,” Groening added.

At Lincoln, Groening served as student body president, and he also swam at the Multnomah Athletics Club. He described how he embraced his artistic side in an interview with Smithsonian.

“Back in high school I wrote a novel about a character named Bart Simpson. I thought it was a very unusual name for a kid at the time. I had this idea of an angry father yelling “Bart,” and Bart sounds kind of like bark—like a barking dog,” he remembers.

After graduating from Lincoln, Groening created a comic strip called Life in Hell, which told stories and introduced ideas that explored love, work, sex, and death, and it featured a one-eared rabbit and a gay couple. His work was then seen by a producer by the name of James Brooks. Brooks got Groening on the Tracey Ullman Show, which was a comedic entertainment program, and then his first cartoons were born. Life in Hell continued being printed until 2012.

You know, I drew my comic strip Life in Hell for 32 years and, uh, then I got fired by too many papers and I stopped …” mentioned Groening in an interview with The Guardian.

Following the success of his first comic, he went on to create the world’s most recognized cartoon – The Simpsons.

Groening described his process of creating the world famous show.

“When I came up with The Simpsons, that was a very deliberate attempt to follow in the footsteps of Walt Disney. For instance, I made Bart like Mickey Mouse in the sense that he would always be recognisable in silhouette,” he told The Telegraph.

Many wonder why the characters from The Simpsons were drawn in yellow.

“At first, I didn’t like the idea,” said Groening, “but then it occurred to me that if anyone happened to be idly watching the television and they caught a glimpse of this very distinctive yellow, they’d know exactly what they were looking at.”

The Simpsons is still on the air.  Inspired by the famous show, a movie was created several years later- The Simpsons Movie. It was released in 2007, and since then, The Simpsons became more popular than ever.

Nowadays, it is common to find Groening’s work all over the world. An example is right here near Lincoln. Just west  of Lincoln’s football field is a sidewalk, and along it there’s a variety of artwork. If you look closely in the concrete, there lies an etched doodle of Bart Simpson.

For many, a mystery lies in this doodle. Most don’t know who the creator of the drawing is. Many Portland residents assume that after his big debut, Groening came back to Lincoln High and etched Bart into the freshly set sidewalk.

It has also been said that Groening never actually drew Bart. This left many people confused on the matter. Who actually etched the doodle?

Matt Wuerker, former Portland resident and 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner cartoonist, cleared up the issue in an interview with the Cardinal Times.

Back in the 90’s, I lived in Portland and was drawing political cartoons as well as an assortment of freelance art gigs.  One of them was a public art project for the new Max line that was being built.” he explained. “My project was to document in the cement being poured for the sidewalks the history of Goose Hollow. Of course that had to include Matt Groening. I got in touch with his people and they gave us permission to use Bart Simpson.”

Needless to say, Wuerker was careful when creating the carving.

“There was a lot of care taken to make sure I kept it close to the ideal Bart image and not venture into an “interpretation” of Bart,” he said. The ongoing mystery about the unknown artist of the drawing has finally been solved.

Groening has become one of the most iconic cartoonists of all time. People all over the world recognize his art right away, and enjoy his shows. He’s grown drastically from the moment he stepped out the Lincoln halls for the last time in 1972. Since the success of The Simpsons, Groening’s life has changed in ways he never knew it would.

“The success of the show,” he explained in an interview with, “has gone beyond my wildest dreams and worst nightmares.”







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