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Meet the Meme-Maker Who’s Kellyanne Conway’s Worst Nightmare

3 minute read

The first thing Tim O’Brien did after seeing the photo of Kellyanne Conway on the couch was search the internet to see if anyone else had the same thought he had.

They hadn’t, so O’Brien fired up his Mac and in about 10 minutes Photoshopped Conway’s casual kneeling on an Oval Office couch into the famous Andrew Wyeth painting “Christina’s World.” The hardest part was painting over the dress to make it a lighter shade of pink.

“It’s not complicated,” he said. “It’s really having a good idea that’s the magic of it.”

He posted the image on his Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages Tuesday afternoon and then went about his day. Within a few hours, it had been shared a thousand times on Facebook, picked up a few hundred likes on Instagram and, stripped of his name, circulated on tweets with thousands of likes and retweets. In short, it had become a meme.

For O’Brien, a freelance illustrator whose work has graced the covers of TIME and other publications, the image was a professional calling card — a way to remind editors that he does good work between assignments — and also a chance to express his progressive political views.

It was the third time he’d memed Conway, Trump’s former campaign manager and now a White House advisor.

When she appeared at Trump’s inauguration wearing a Revolutionary War-inspired outfit, he mimicked an old Simplicity sewing pattern in such a convincing illustration that many people believed it was real. And when she defended the White House’s used of “alternative facts,” he drew up the cover of a “Little Golden Book of Alternate Facts” that went viral.

The Brooklyn resident said he has nothing against Conway. He salutes her for running a winning presidential campaign and shut down Instagram commenters who went after her looks. But he said she’s perfect for memes.

“Trump’s too easy,” he said. “But Kellyanne, her alternate facts statement seemed to be a terrifying thing to say through a smile. I think it will end up being the catchphrase of the year.”

O’Brien is part of a vast army of illustrators, both professional and amateur, who use Photoshop and social media to put their spin on the news of the day. Conway’s couch moment alone produced a flurry of memes, which have become the 21st Century take on political cartoons.

For O’Brien, the key to understanding this new ecosystem is watching his 17-year-old son scroll through BuzzFeed and other sites on his phone.

“There’s a million Photoshops going on every five minutes,” he said. “A lot of them are not very good, either technically or thinking-wise. But when the thinking is right and the rendering is done just good enough that everyone can understand right away what’s funny or hilarious or frustrating about an image, they can quickly share it without having to write an essay and feel like part of the conversation.”

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