"Drawn to Purpose" Book Launch at the Library of Congress Tackles Gender Bias in Art

Nobody ever says "men artists." Females in the creative arts, however, are often described as women painters, women cartoonists, or women illustrators. Why not just call them artists, illustrators, or cartoonists? 


Drawn-to-Purpose-Book-Cover copy.jpgThat question came up at a panel discussion yesterday at the Library of Congress honoring the publication of Drawn to Purpose: American Women Illustrators and Cartoonists by Martha H. Kennedy (University Press of Mississippi, 2018). The book complements and expands on an exhibition of the same name currently on view at the library and curated by Kennedy, curator of popular and applied graphic art in the library's prints and photographs division. 


"When we say 'women illustrators,' we create a separate category that's problematic," said panelist Whitney Sherman, illustrator and director of the MFA in illustration practice program at the Maryland Institute College of Art. 


The "Drawn to Purpose" exhibition and companion book can be seen as part of a larger push to make the work of female cartoonists and illustrators more visible. In the commercial publishing sector, identity has become more and more marketable--which gives some artists pause.


"It's a burgeoning industry of recognizing women," Sherman said. "I don't want to be a trend. I want to be part of the whole."


Barbara Brandon-Croft, creator of the strip "Where I'm Coming From," talked about her experience as a black female cartoonist. "Where I'm Coming From," a groundbreaking strip that featured a group of African-American female friends talking about their lives, made its first appearance in 1989 in the Detroit Free Press and ran until 2005 in national syndication. When Universal Press Syndicate was trying to sell the strip, Brandon-Croft recalled editors would say "But we already have 'Cathy,'" as though there was room for only one cartoon about women and their lives--even though it was fine for the same papers to run both "Heathcliff" and "Garfield." 


Being black and being female, Brandon-Croft said, makes a historically uneven playing field even harder to get traction on. "If you want your point of view heard, you have to make yourself heard, and nobody likes a loud woman, it seems," she said. 


Jillian Tamaki, illustrator, comic artist, and co-creator of "This One Summer," graduated from the Alberta College of Art and Design in 2003. Working in the largely female field of YA and 'kidlit' illustration, she said, she still sees gender bias play out in who gets book deals, money, awards, and the kind of attention that builds high-profile careers. "It's a matriarchy in some ways, but inequalities persist, especially when power comes into it," she said. 


Tamaki said, "There's a reason the canon is the way it is and looks the way it does. I think you need to aggressively reshape it." Publishing, she said, needs "to be more intentional and more aware" of existing power structures that promote some artists at the expense of others. "There's a lot of questioning of those structures" now, she said, especially by up and coming artists and readers who want to see their own experiences valued and reflected by the industry.


Social media has accelerated that process, and boosted careers, by building communities and putting illustrators and cartoonists directly in touch with people who appreciate their work. The Internet has its dangerous corners--stories of online abuse directed at women abound in almost every field--and raises some complicated arts-versus-marketing questions for artists of any gender, who can feel pressure to brand themselves as part of their work. 


"It can be really scary," Tamaki said. "But I can't imagine my career without it."


Many cartoonists and illustrators use Instagram and Tumblr as platforms for sharing their work now, the panelists said. That's where a lot of the action is--and it's one of the biggest challenges for curators thinking about how to present and preserve the contemporary work being created by cartoonists and illustrators of all genders.


-Jennifer Howard is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She wrote a feature story on the "Drawn to Purpose" exhibition for FB&C's spring 2018 issue. Follow her on Twitter: @JenHoward


Image: Courtesy of the Library of Congress

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