The Daily Heller: Anita Kunz’s Sisterhood of Exceptional Sisters

Posted inThe Daily Heller

As an illustrator, Anita Kunz is an activist. As an activist, she is one of the most potent artists I know. Her work has gone in various pointed directions: political, racial, social; she’s attacked folly and hypocrisy; she’s taken on war and civil rights; and yes, you might argue she covers the conventional liberal gamut.

Not true. there is more to Kunz’s work than conventional anything. Be it portraiture, caricature or editorial concept, with every image she peels away the veneers and masks. Sometimes she uses wit and humor, other times she is simply profound (if that can be simple). In her forthcoming (November 8), poignant and most ambitious work to date, Original Sisters: Portraits of Tenacity and Courage (Pantheon Books, featuring a foreword by Roxane Gay), Kunz has identified (and recorded for the historical ledger) 150 women from all ages, walks of life, races, creeds and accomplishments. They range from known to forgotten to misplaced, but all have one thing in common:

“Women have been responsible for remarkable achievements in all areas of life and have made major contributions throughout the ages,” she writes. This is a sisterhood and a celebration of women who have given, and now get, recognition that is well deserved.

We recently discussed the project and her motivations.

Anonymous (c. 40,000 BCE): “The first artists of our species were likely female.”

You have long used your art to open closed minds, especially in social and political realms. At what point in your life did your passion and commitment to social justice develop?
Somewhere along the way I got the idea that a good goal in life might be to try and leave the planet a little better than it was. Maybe it was from my uncle, who was an illustrator and whose motto was “Art for Education.” He inspired me to think of art as a way to be useful in society and not merely to make decorations. And I’ve always been interested in politics and the human condition, so making art about such topics seemed to come naturally to me. I wanted to try and contribute and somehow be helpful. It seems naïve sometimes, but one can at least make an attempt.

Your current book is an extraordinary deep dive into so many unknown women of consequence. What is the genesis of the project?
I had the idea to make a series of paintings of women for a while but never had the time. In my life and career I came across so many women I’d never heard of and thought they should be household names. I had a pretty good education, so I began to wonder why exactly I had never heard of these women. The lockdown seemed a good a time as any to compile a list and to really focus on the work. I thought that if I was able to paint one portrait a day, I’d have a good number by the end of COVID. But it’s still here and I’m still painting!

I’m sure you’ve heard from many people that you’ve introduced, indeed resurrected,  many lost or forgotten women. Where did you find them?
Once I started looking, the research became easy. Marginalized women are everywhere throughout history. I asked friends in different fields if they knew of anyone I could paint. I also found the subjects on blogs, in encyclopedias, and through Google.

What are the criteria for your choices?
I tried to create a book that had a wide diversity of women. I wanted stories from around the world and back through history. I wanted to include young women and old women. I wanted women of different races and genders, and different professions and religions. And I wanted to tell interesting stories. I wanted to depict women who reflect the entirety of humanity, and was mindful to not just choose women who were “nice.” I’ve included a pirate, a bank robber and other assorted rebels, along with forgotten science and math geniuses.  

How long did this take you to research, paint and complete?
Well, in the book I’ve got just over 150 subjects. It took a little over eight months to finish the book. But I’m still painting them, and I’m up to nearly 300. It’s simply impossible to paint only 150 when there are so many women I could include. I really feel as though I could paint hundreds more, and that this can conceivably be a project that could go on for years. A dream of mine would be to create Vol. 2, Vol. 3, and so on.

I feel as though your painting style has changed somewhat in this book. Am I right that you deliberately decided to tone down your nuanced exaggeration? 
Yes, absolutely. I’ve done a lot of satirical work in my career but I wanted this book to be respectful and information-based. I deliberately made the images simple. And I made sure to use brighter colors than I normally use because I wanted the book to be a celebration, and I want as wide an audience as possible.

Who is the audience in your mind? And what do you think the reader will take away?
I hope that everyone might be interested—men, women and children of all ages. The stories of these remarkable women are really interesting! There are so many greats tales. There’s a lot I’d love for people to discover, just as I have discovered in making the book.

Is there more to come?
Well, I’m close to 300 portraits of women now, and will continue into the near future. I have three other book ideas, too. This is my second book, and I have just signed for a third (with a different topic). I really love creating books. As a magazine illustrator, I have been accustomed to working very quickly and doing one of two very different illustrations per week. It’s so interesting to really concentrate on one subject for months at a time. Such a different experience! So yes, there’s lots more to come, hopefully!