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“Drawn to Purpose” Exhibition: What Viewers Are Saying

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The following is a guest post by Martha H. Kennedy, Curator of Popular & Applied Graphic Arts, Prints and Photographs Division.

The recently opened exhibition “Drawn to Purpose” features more than 30 works by North American women illustrators and cartoonists, spans the late 1800s to the present and includes Golden Age illustration, early comics, magazine cover art, and political cartoons. As exhibit curator I was curious to learn: What kinds of images catch viewers’ eyes? What thoughts or conversations do the artworks spark? With no claim to scientific sampling, I share responses to the show that I’ve gathered from notes in the visitors’ comment book and observations I made on site.

Several written comments express thanks for mounting the exhibition, praising it as “fantastic,” “lovely,” “amazing,” “timely,” “timeless.” Two visitors conveyed specific thanks for “spotlighting the women” and “promoting the art of powerful women!” Another wrote: “Wonderful Illustrations, Delightful, Insightful, Cunning, Entertaining.” A very encouraging response came from a local, award-winning cartoonist, Barbara Dale, who framed her smiling self-caricature, with positive exclamations.

Barbara Dale, Self-caricature, 2017. Photo by Jan Grenci. By permission of the artist.
Little Lulu. At the Barbershop. Drawing by Marge Henderson Buell, 1942.

For those who might expect that the show appeals only to female visitors, consider the following: “Male artist who had no idea this exhibit was even here and am loving it.” He also expressed appreciation for the video loop showing additional artworks that couldn’t be displayed. I found another observation, “Delightful to see (& hear) so many women’s voices!! Great work!” gratifying because the exhibition aims to highlight the impressive variety of work by female illustrators and cartoonists – in addition to celebrating their contributions to these art forms.

My firsthand observations of viewers’ responses thus far have come from giving tours, doing press walk-throughs, and other visits to the exhibit. I noticed some visitors focused on examples by well-known creators, others appeared to look for childhood favorites, and others sought political cartoons. Several people laughed out loud on viewing Signe Wilkinson’s cartoon for Ms. Magazine, Ann Telnaes’ holiday party scene, and Marge Henderson Buell’s Little Lulu comic.

For the New Year I’ve decided to give up smoking, drinking, and my civil rights. Drawing by Ann Telnaes, 2001. By permission of the artist.

A few younger visitors pleasantly surprised me by looking closely at such historical works as Alice Barber Stephens’s illustration of aspiring female artists, Jessie Gillespie’s spoof on fashion, and Anne Mergen’s and Roberta MacDonald’s World War II era cartoons. These artists should be better known.

Selma threw herself at full length on the ground. Drawing by Alice Barber Stephens, 1895.
Panta-loons. Drawing by Jessie Gillespie, 1914.

The exhibition design puts visual emphasis on the art in several ways. In place of labels for each artwork, section panels give historical context, highlight connections among pieces in each group, and concisely identify each work. For those seeking more information, individual labels on printed sheets are available in the gallery. When asked, members of tour groups and two donors remarked that the visual organization of the exhibit worked very well. The first rotation of Drawn to Purpose runs November 18, 2017 – May 5, 2018; the second, May 12 – October 20, 2018. A companion book will be published in March, 2018. For those who can’t come to Washington, D.C., many of the works are also featured in an online version of the exhibition. Please have a look at the exhibit and find a new favorite illustrator and cartoonist!

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Comments (2)

  1. All the kids in high school and art colleges are into cartooning. I volunteer with Experience Corps and even a 3rd grader is illustrating! My friend recently graduated from the SF Art Institute and published a graphic novel.

  2. How very nice to see the contributions of women cartoonists and illustrators being brought to the fore!

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