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Life Illustrated: The Importance of ‘Women Who Draw’

BFA Illustration faculty member Julia Rothman’s work is well-known and widely published, from the pages of The New York Times and New York magazine, to her own books and countless other publications; over the years she realized that the work of many of her talented female colleagues, while deserving, was not. With friend and fellow illustrator, San Francisco-based Wendy MacNaughton, Rothman recently founded Women Who Draw, an open, online directory of professional female* illustrators, artists and cartoonists (the asterisk indicates trans-inclusive and includes women, trans and gender non-conforming illustrators, a point elucidated on WWD’s About page and importantly made known in any description and discussion of the project).

The homepage of the site features an ever-updating roster of artists available for freelance work, each represented by a self-submitted illustration of a woman, linking to the artist’s website, and listing *her chosen identity descriptor, be it ethnic, sexual orientation-based, or geographic; Rothman, for example, tags herself under "East Coast" and "Jewish." The directory and larger initiative has received a well-deserved amount of attention and press since its launch, including write-ups from Vogue, the BBC and Slate. Below, Rothman answers our questions about the impetus for and impact of such an undertaking.

Where did the idea for the website, and a directory specifically, come from?

We noticed that a prominent U.S. magazine only hired four female illustrators out of the 55 illustrated covers they commissioned in 2015. So we created the directory to provide an easy way to find talented professional female* illustrators and promote the work of women, women of color, LBTQ+ women and other minority groups of women illustrators. This way there would be no way any publication could ever say they’d hire more artists in these groups “if only they could find them." The directory format is clean and simple. All you need to do is click on their illustration and you are directed to their portfolio of work.

Why was it important to you for illustrators to have the ability to tag themselves and conspicuously self-identify?

It's important that art from all different kinds of people show up on magazine covers, in newspapers, on shirts or signs or wallpaper or whatever. It shows all the different perspectives and life experiences that exist in the world. Art is a powerful tool. It tells stories, begs questions, creates empathy—it opens people up to different ways of being. If an art director is only publishing work made by a certain group of people, it won't reflect the richness of the world in which we now live. These optional tags will help art directors find these women of all backgrounds.

What kind of work goes into running the site? Are there other plans or visions for WWD?

In the first 24 hours of launching the site, we got over 1,200 submissions and since then many hundreds more. We have to look at each one and make sure it fits the criteria for the site: their image of a woman needs to be on a white background, a certain size, and they need to have a professional website. Looking through each of those submissions takes a lot of time, which is why we have the Support page. It’s become a full time job for Wendy and me. We funded the creation of the site out of our own pockets, and we can’t really afford to keep it going on our own. We hope that each illustrator will give a little bit to help us out, as will the art directors and designers who are using it to find illustrators to work with.

On the website, we’re doing monthly features of art directors and editors. We are also organizing events and collaborations. Our first one is at Society of Illustrators next week. Ten women will be giving short slide presentation on the theme of Survival. We’ve also created something called #WWDTogether—every month on a certain day we will all draw together around a theme and share the results by tagging our drawings on Instagram. A curated show of those drawings will be hosted on the site. The first one is on the 21st around the Women’s March. You can read more about it and learn how to participate here. We are really building a strong community of illustrators and the people who hire them.

Outside of the media industry, what role can institutions—schools and museums in particular—play in helping to increase and champion the visibility of their underrepresented members and communities?

They need to be actively aware that there is a bias and continue to foster growth and opportunities for less visible artists. When exhibitions are curated, speaker panels are organized, and prizes are awarded there needs to be a deliberate effort to diversify the participants, to make sure that the participants are reflective of the wider field of talent and perspective, not just the little bubbles we are personally familiar with.

What should students and burgeoning professional artists be aware of when looking for work after school?

In the beginning, building up your career is difficult. I tell my students to get as involved in the illustration community as possible—go to events, contact illustrators they admire, enter competitions. This is a career where you can’t be shy. You need to stay confident and promote yourself all of the time across social media. Never think of your illustrator friends as competition, think of them as your support. You can run ideas by each other, share contacts and accompany each other to events. And when women* illustrators graduate and have a professional website up and they are taking on clients, come join Women Who Draw.

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