Guan Daosheng used painting and poetry to create autobiographical works during China’s Yuan dynasty. In 17th century Italy, Elisabetta Sirani was a young, prolific painter who founded an art school for women before her untimely death at the age of 27. Norma Sklarek was the first African American woman to become a licensed architect in both New York and California; her works include Pacific Design Center and FIDM. Their stories and more are brought together in Women in Art: 50 Fearless Creatives Who Inspired the World by Pasadena-based author and illustrator Rachel Ignotofsky.
It’s the third book in Ignotofsky’s Women In… series, which explores the oftentimes little-known histories of women in various fields. She began with Women in Science, inspired by statistics showing the gender gap in STEM fields and educator friends in search of info on “feminist scientific history.” After its release in 2016, Women in Science became a hit, spending 94 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list.
“It’s like people have been waiting for this content,” Ignotofsky says by phone. “Parents were reading it to their kids at bedtime. Grad students were reading it to draw strength from these women who have come before then.”
The book went on to be translated in more than 25 languages. Meanwhile, Ignotofsky wondered what she could do next. She dove into Women in Sports to help shred the stereotype that women are weak. Women in Art, released on September 10, draws from Ignotofsky’s own area of expertise.
“Women, since the prehistoric times, have been creating art,” says Ignotofsky. “As you start looking through history books, you realize that there are women going as far back as even the Renaissance period who were making a big impact and making waves during their time. How come we’re not still celebrating them today?”
Ignotofsky looks at the women who have blazed trails across disciplines, from fine art to commercial work. Amongst the artists featured in the book are Cipe Pineles, the pioneering art director of magazines Glamour and Seventeen; It’s a Small World designer Mary Blair; and graphic designer Paula Scher. Getting that expansive variety of art was an important part of the project. Says Ignotofsky: “I also wanted to make sure that kids who are reading this and are interested in the arts see that there is a career path for them where they can pay the bills, support their family.”
In the book’s introduction, Ignotofsky asks, “What happens when people take the power of art back?” The answers form a thread throughout the book. Ignotofsky points to specific examples, like Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Lee Miller’s photographs of Holocaust concentration camps.
“I think art is a reflection of history,” says Ignotofsky. “When artists take the power of art back, they can begin to tell history as it actually happened, not just from the point of views of the victors in a historic war, but they can begin to expose the truths of real people.”
Through history, there’s also a lesson for the future. Ignotofsky mentions Lola Alvarez Bravo. The Mexican photographer opened her own gallery, which became the site of Frida Kahlo’s only solo show in Mexico during her lifetime.
“That’s what we’re talking about, women putting their hands out and helping other women, lifting other women up who are coming up after them. It’s so important and you see that happening time and time again throughout history,” says Ignotofsky. “It’s women fighting to have their voices heard in a man’s world and then creating a better world for the next generation in the arts.”
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