Interview by Adi Berardini
Walking into Anita Kunz’s Original Sisters: Portraits of Courage and Tenacity at TAP Centre of Creativity on opening night, the gallery was transformed with 365 portraits—one for each day of the year—of remarkable women. Walking through the crowd, it’s clear there were hours of research put into the descriptions of the women depicted in the illustrated portraits. It felt easy to get emotional in response to seeing the spotlight reflected on these women because although some women are widely known, many of these women’s stories remain widely unknown by the larger public. The portraits’ gazes stare back at me with a sense of empowerment. Finally, their names are known, and they receive recognition after too long.
Anita Kunz is an established Canadian illustrator and artist with a wealth of accomplishments. Her socially and politically themed work has been printed in major publications such as Time magazine, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, GQ, The New York Times, and Newsweek, along with many others. She has received an Honorary Doctorate from the Ontario College of Art and Design and a second from MassArt College of Art and Design. Additionally, Kunz has been appointed Officer of the Order of Canada and received Her Majesty the Queen’s Jubilee Medal of Honor. In the following interview, she speaks more about her exhibition Original Sisters: Portraits of Courage and Tenacity.
Original Sisters: 365 Portraits of Tenacity and Courage spotlights 365 original illustrated portraits of inspiring women, spotlighting many stories that are too often unknown and excluded. One aspect that stands out in the exhibition is the range and diversity covered by the portraits. You include different faiths, backgrounds, and cultures from different time periods. I also love how you cover diverse fields such as science, math, art, literature, and activism. Can you expand on your process of researching these women?
The most important thing for me in this whole project was diversity. I wanted to celebrate all kinds of extraordinary women, many of whom have been overlooked, starting from the beginning of time and the cave paintings to the very recent ones.
I knew that I was going to do a lot of them, and I didn’t want to make them from Canada or the US only because there are so many more. I mean, there were just so many. I had a couple in mind when I started, and then I started asking people I knew. I asked somebody that I know who’s a scientist and [asked if he could] give me any names of women who have been overlooked. So, he gave me one.
There were a lot of good resources, a lot of blogs, historical blogs, Encyclopedia Britannica, and Google. Even the Google Doodle of the day sometimes I thought “Oh, I didn’t know who that was. Let’s research her.” The New York Times has recently started a new [column], an obituary section where it’s called Overlooked No More. That’s a good resource. But it was not hard to find subjects, that tells you it’s kind of a sad thing.
It was very easy once I started looking. Now, I’ve done 365 and I have at least 300 more than I could do. And I feel that that’s only scratching the surface, this is only the beginning. This is something I could probably do the rest of my life and probably easily do a thousand, but I’m getting ahead of myself!
It was fascinating to see. One that I remember standing out to me that I didn’t know was that the creator of Monopoly was a woman [Lizzie Magie].
Why would you know? It wasn’t taught to us and it wasn’t in the culture. For the whole project, I started with stories that nobody knew [until] later, especially in the book. [The publisher] also wanted me to add a few people who were a bit more well-known.
I feel like I’ve barely begun [with] the sheer number of women who you wouldn’t have known. And even Roxane Gay, who wrote the book forward, she’s an incredibly brilliant feminist academic, and she said, “how come I’ve never heard of half these women?” So even she hadn’t heard of them, somebody who knows more about feminist history than almost anybody I know. Even she was startled by how many were missing from our [cultural narrative].
Since I’m an artist, I was shocked at realizing how limited my art history education was. I mean, there were women whose work, I thought, “How come I didn’t know these?” Incredible artists, poster artists, and painters. I have had an art education background and there are so many that I didn’t know who they were.
…They were out there; they just weren’t in the curriculum. We didn’t know who they were. They weren’t celebrated or even taught or anything like that.
I think it’s outrageous. Everybody talks about how the art world is so skewed in favour of white men, you know? A lot of people get lost in that narrative. I went to school for illustration, and I went to a workshop with all the best illustrators when I was young. They were all white men and they brought in one artist, Barbara Nessim. They brought her in for two hours and that’s the only interaction with a female illustrator that I had as part of my education. That’s really shocking because they were out there; they just weren’t in the curriculum. We didn’t know who they were. They weren’t celebrated or even taught or anything like that.
The concept of Original Sisters started during the pandemic. What first initiated the idea behind doing these portraits of remarkable women throughout history during this time?
I worked for a long time as an editorial illustrator back when editorial illustration was a thing. It used to be that you could make a decent living as a magazine illustrator, and I always wanted to do things that had something to do with society, a social issue, or a political issue like that was that interested me.
I wasn’t necessarily interested in the decorative arts. I wanted something with substance, something that could have meaning to it. I was able to make a living with magazines and that was great. I started out doing magazine work, but the trouble with magazine work is that you do maybe two or three a week, and you just do the next one, and then it seems shallow.
I wanted to do, at some point, something that was a deep dive into something. I’ve done so many portraits and it seemed like a logical thing to do portraits of women I admired and whose shoulders I stand on who paved the way.
I did an artist residency in Maine, and we went out on a boat ride, and the captain explained that this windswept island is where a woman lived there in the winter. And I was like, “Whoa, hold back. How could she live on a rock in the winter? She must have built a cabin. I thought, “What would she have eaten?” It was rugged. I had to find more out about this. Turns out she was a trans woman, and I think this was in the 18th century. And again, I could not find anything about her, I wanted to fill in the blanks, and I never could. Then, I thought that I wanted to find women whose stories need to be told.
Who do you have in mind to illustrate next?
I started already; I have done six more. I did one of the first female photographers today and another artist who did the most magnificent covers for Vogue Magazine. I have another one here on my desk–Helen Dryden. [She created] just beautifully designed, brilliant covers.
I’ve also painted Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi Architect. She was amazing. I mean, there are so many more. There are also areas that I’d like to discover more. I need to do far more Canadian and Indigenous women because I was born here, and I think I don’t have enough representation there yet. I’m always happy to hear if anybody has ideas or suggestions. I’m happy to hear them, so if you have any, let me know!
I also really liked how you did the text. Was the style of text inspired by the women as well?
Absolutely. With each of the portraits, I wanted them to be a celebration and I wanted even kids to like them. I deliberately made them colorful and kind of joyous. For each one, I tried to do something about the background that had to do with the person. I tried to [capture] the time that she was living or and the same thing with the typography and wherever possible I tried to find their actual signature. I thought that would just be more authentic. But where I couldn’t find their signatures, I used a font that would sort of indicate the time they lived in.
For Zaha Hadid, I tried to make the type like her buildings, I had fun with them. For the first photographer, I tried to make it like a stamp, like how photographers used a stamp on the back of their prints. It’s fun for me, and I thought it would just give a little bit extra instead of just a face, you know? I wanted to give it a bit more depth.
Check out Anita Kunz’s Original Sisters at TAP Centre of Creativity until January 14th, 2023. Original Sisters: Portraits of Courage and Tenacity is also available as a book, published by Penguin Random House. You can also find Kunz’s work on her website, anitakunz.com, and Instagram at @anitakunz.