Life Is an Art: Gloria Steinem and Barbara Nessim
September 26, 2018
by Jane Lerner
Gloria Steinem and Barbara Nessim have been friends for 60 years. In a conversation Monday night hosted by Director of SVA Career Development Angie Wojak at the SVA Theatre, the feminist icon and the world-famous illustrator reflected on the early days of their relationship and careers, celebrated New York City and the joys of human connection and offered thoughtful perspectives on our turbulent political times.
Dressed in black like all good New Yorkers—Steinem (originally from Toledo, Ohio) also wore a bright red shawl while Nessim (born and raised in the Bronx) sported sequined socks—they were greeted enthusiastically by an audience who had started lining up well before the theater doors officially opened. On stage, the compliments were immediate and profound: as an answer to the very first question, Steinem said of Nessim, “She enriched my living life, my visual life and my sense of adventure.”
They met in the early ’60s through the men they were dating at the time, whom they soon ditched (Steinem couldn’t recall the guys’ names; as with any good longtime friendship, Nessim acted as the collective memory and chimed in with “Henry and Bob”). At the time, Nessim was the one with a job and an apartment—Steinem moved in, and they were roommates for the next six years, sharing a one-room studio for which they split the monthly rent of $162.50. “Life is an art,” Nessim said. “And the way you live your life is artful, and that's what makes me happy.”
Nessim has been the chair of Illustration at Parsons, taught at SVA, Pratt, and FIT, and produced award-winning illustrations for publications like Time, Rolling Stone, and Ms. In the early 1980s she was a pioneer in the field of digital illustration, actively advocating for computer training for her students; she taught MFA Computer Art (now named MFA Computer Arts) at SVA from 1987 to 1992.
Projected on screen, Wojak juxtaposed Nessim’s recognizable Star Girl Banded with Blue Wave with Steinem’s first cover for Ms., the July 1972 issue featuring a re-empowered Wonder Woman on her way to save the world. Star Girl’s golden-star mark and stylish headband make her another kind of superhero, offering a sly side-eye to a knowing audience.
Though firmly on the editorial side of the words and pictures divide, Steinem mentioned that back in the day she “had some acquaintance with the world of really sophisticated cartooning.” She worked for Harvey Kurtzman of Mad Magazine and told the famous story of how she was the one who convinced DC comics to revive a stronger Wonder Woman for a new generation. For her lifetime of work as a writer, speaker, advocate and activist, Steinem was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2016.
Steinem and Nessim outlined how their creative practices are different—Nessim diligently draws every day, in a series of sketchbooks she’s saved throughout her life (she’s currently on book #101, she said), while Steinem admits it takes a particular spark of inspiration to get her writing—yet they’ve always shared a similar ambition toward professional and economic independence. “I just wanted to live my life and be able to make a living and be me,” Nessim said of her early days as an illustrator and textile designer in New York, describing a day when she walked through all 16 floors of an office building, knocking on doors and asking for gigs (it worked). “The more I could be independent, the more my life was good,” Nessim said.
Even as one of the original independent women, Steinem is deeply committed to the idea of communal communication, and the age-old concept of talking circles. She first learned about the idea during a two-year trip to India post-college and realized the power of non-hierarchical, public conversations during her first speaking tours in the ’70s. She will be incorporating the talking circle practice into her upcoming theatrical production at the Daryl Roth Theatre (Gloria: A Life opens October 18).
During the Q&A, members of the audience asked for Steinem’s insight into the current state of the patriarchy. “I think we spend too much time looking up,” she said. “And when we look at each other, we see what we can actually do. I would get rid of the shoulds...At the same time, because now we see everything illustrated at a high level, it has activated people. We are woke! We are awake in a way that I've never, ever, ever seen in my life.”
It’s in-person, human connection—creative, political, platonic—that truly inspires Steinem these days, while she bemoans the amount of time we spend staring at screens. Use all five senses, she told the crowd, it’s good for you. “I hope that just your being here, regardless of what we say, will lengthen your lives.”
Steinem and Nessim’s final request of the audience was for everyone to introduce themselves to a stranger or two. There were some lovely people in attendance, and everyone turned to a new friend. Steinem and Nessim posed for photos while people around the room exchanged cards and email addresses—let’s circle back in 60 years.
Watch the full Gloria Steinem and Barbara Nessim talk below.