SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM AND THE RENWICK GALLERY

New Comic Series Presents Ten Visionaries and Rule Breakers in SAAM’s Collection


Three covers of comics: "Mickalene Thomas: Portrait," "Berenice Abbott: Picturing a City," and "Underneath the Holly Tree: The Story of Alma Thomas"
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What happens when you pair ten emerging illustrators with ten rule-breaking, visionary women artists in order to tell ten remarkable tales?

In spring of 2021, the Smithsonian American Art Museum entered a collaboration with the Ringling College of Art and Design to create Drawn to Art: Ten Tales of Inspiring Women Artists, a project informed by graphic novel storytelling.

We wanted to use a digital format to tell—and show—the stories of ten women artists with work in the museum’s collection who may not have gotten the attention they deserved in their lifetimes. For this series we chose the artists Berenice Abbott, Anni Albers, Romaine Brooks, Maria Oakey Dewing, Carmen Herrera, Corita Kent, Edmonia Lewis, Kay Sekimachi, Alma Thomas, and Mickalene Thomas. Their stories span a century or more, a variety of media, but are joined together by a glimpse into defining moments in their lives and artmaking.

Living in downtown DC, not too far from Alma Thomas’s house (and in the neighborhood near Howard University where she taught), made me wonder how many young people knew about this artist’s transformative work. What would be the best way to open their eyes? I’m also interested in children’s literature, particularly picture books, and have increasingly come to see the value of visual storytelling and letting the pictures do the heavy lifting. A visit to the 2019 Library of Congress’s Book Festival gave me the inspiration I needed: a presentation by graphic novel superstar Raina Telgemeier addressing a crowd of cheering tweens and their adults that could have filled a football field. Cheering!

To get started, I worked closely with senior intern Allison Carey, who led the research effort. We drafted scripts together, shared them with the students, and began the process of melding word and image. Unfortunately, the pandemic nixed any plans of getting together in person with the Ringling students. Through the course of the spring semester, we’d check in with them via Zoom and watch ideas become sketches and sketches become realized comic pages.

a black and white image of first a darkroom and a woman developing prints while a man stands near and then of the same woman with a camera on tripod.
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What stands out for me is how much each student brought to the project. To give one example, in the story about weaver Anni Albers, illustrator Emily Fromhage created a thread that runs throughout the piece, a literal narrative thread. When Anni marries her husband Josef, that thread wraps around their wrists and unites them to form a heart—a detail that was not in the script, but in what Rachel brought to the project. All ten comics are filled with such inspired moments.

Two illustrators created behind-the-scenes process videos that you can link to from the Drawn to Art landing page. Kippy Sage gives us a glimpse into the making of the Maria Oakey Dewing comic, while Madeline Kneubheul, who illustrated the Berenice Abbott comic, shares her artistic methods. Madeline’s video is like a glimpse into a favorite old black-and-white movie. The comic, albeit without a soundtrack, does the same. Here is one of the most important women photographers, whose discovery of her own talent is at the heart of the story.

Once you’ve read the comics you’ll know more about Berenice, Anni, Romaine, Maria, Carmen, Corita, Edmonia, Alma, and Mickalene. You’ll know more about strong women who forged their own path. But I hope you also come away from the experience with some new names to remember: Abigail, Ezra, Emily (we have two), Kippy, Lauren, Madeline, Mica, Rachel, and Shayna. We’ll feature more of their work in upcoming blog posts, but for now, check out the video for “Berenice Abbott: Picturing a City.” Watch how the photographer created timeless images of the changing landscape of Manhattan at the beginning of the twentieth century, and how Maddie put the comic together, layer by layer. Popcorn recommended.

Can art make a difference in your life? We think so! And after reading the comics, we hope you’re inspired to learn more about each artist, while also holding them up as a mirror to see yourself, perhaps in a whole new light.

I’m grateful to the Smithsonian’s Women’s History Initiative for funding to realize the project. And, of course, to the ten amazing illustrators and dedicated staff at Ringling for supplying the magic.

Saturday, August 14, is Free Comic Day. Drawn to Art is available on SAAM’s website every day, all year, for all your comic needs.