Campus History

Creativity Is a Joke

Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison

What do you get when you combine a ragtag gang of irreverent students, a little cash, and a stack of sea green paper? The answer is the Octopus, the longest-running UW humor magazine, published from 1919 to 1959.

“The Octy” offered a space for student writers and artists to experiment with satire, and the result was a politically incorrect jumble of jabs at faculty, administrators, and fellow students. Initially, the Octopus was published erratically — only when the editor had enough content to fill an issue and enough advertising dollars to cover the cost of printing. The magazine grew in sophistication over time from its humble debut with, yes, green paper and an “office” in an apartment on North Butler Street.

The publication’s heyday came in the late ’20s and ’30s, thanks in part to three staff cartoonists who would go on to become directors of major university art departments. The one who stayed closest to home was the late art and art history professor James Watrous ’31, MA’33, PhD’39, whose mark can literally still be seen on campus: he created the large mosaic pieces that adorn several UW buildings and the Paul Bunyan murals in the Memorial Union. Watrous was also one of the major forces behind planning and fundraising for the original Elvehjem Museum of Art, which has expanded into the current Chazen Museum of Art.

In the Octopus, Watrous stretched one of his first tentacles into the campus art community. He drew twelve covers, including the one featured here.

Sometimes, funny things make a big difference.

Published in the Spring 2014 issue


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