The Future (of Art) Is Female: 20+ Biographies of Women Artists
by Diana Black
At Mia Learning, two of our core goals are to empower girls and to help them express themselves creatively. What better way to accomplish both than to share the true stories of (often unknown or underappreciated) great women artists? Here are 21 biographies of these fabulous creators and makers: sculptors, painters, photographers, quilters, modernists, impressionists, animators and more – here’s to making them households names!
It is difficult today to conceive of an artist not being allowed to attend her own art show, but such was the case for Clementine Hunter. Prejudice, poverty, and all manner of hardships dogged her throughout her life, but she overcame adversity to create art wherever and whenever she could, even if that meant substituting old blinds for a canvas. Kids will find Hunter’s persistence and dedication to her craft inspiring and hopefully come away with newfound respect for folk art as a genre.
What makes one person’s trash another’s treasure? How do we decide who is a “good artist”? Is it limited to replicating what we see? Visionary artist Tessa Prisbey would probably say no. Building walls out of bottles, collecting vast arrays of pencils, and curating a house for her dolls – this eccentric creator helps to show kids that being an artist is also a state of mind.
Mia previously recommended this gorgeous read on a textile luminary in her list of best books to do with fabric and clothing, but it merits a place on this listicle also. Bourgeois is the perfect artist to introduce to kids who gravitate to fibers and cloth as their medium of choice.
Budding photographers, especially ones with a more documentarian bent, should be made aware of Dorothea Lange’s critical role in documenting the agonies of the Great Depression, an era with some unsettling similarities to our current moment. For another excellent and slightly more recent biography of Lange, you can also turn to Carole Boston Weatherford’s Dorothea Lange: The Photographer Who Found the Faces of the Depression (2017).
Gorgeously illustrated and lovingly rendered, this biography gives kids an accessible introduction to the fascinating, often heartbreaking life of an artistic icon. Frida Kahlo suffered from polio, miscarriages, and a crippling accident, but transformed her sorrow and suffering into unforgettable self-portraits that have defined that genre. Hand this one to any child interested in self-portraiture or painting, especially those who have experienced illness.
Mary Nohl’s outdoor sculptures, many of which she made with “beach debris,” populate her remarkable garden in Fox Point, Wisconsin to this day, even though she died in 2001. Sadly, during her lifetime, Nohl was often regarded as a “witch,” and her work was frequently vandalized, but it’s heartening that this book introduces a new and potentially appreciative generation to her work.
For many natural history enthusiasts unaware of the fact, a great debt is owed to botanical and zoological illustrators like Maria Sibylla Merian, whose painstaking accuracy was the gold standard in the field for decades. Give this page-turner to any child who loves nature, animals, and dreams of travelling the world making scientific discoveries.
One of the best-known names on this list, Cassatt’s portraits (especially of mothers and children) are venerated at museums worldwide today, but during her lifetime, women were not considered artists at all. Yet Cassatt gained admission to one of the most elite circles of artists ever to convene, taking part in Parisian salons and making her place in history. Give this one to those who already show an affinity for Van Gogh, Monet, and Degas but may not know about Cassatt’s equally vital contributions.
Many children will recognize the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, DC, but few may realize that it was masterminded by artist and architect Maya Lin, who was a college student when she anonymously entered the competition to design it. With somber, beautiful illustrations by Dow Phumiruk, this is a suitable introduction to Lin’s work and significance.
Long before the so-called “selfie” was ubiquitous, Cindy Sherman was turning it into an art form with her dazzlingly chameleonic self-portraits. It can be difficult to recognize her from photo to photo, so distinct is her appearance in each. Best for older elementary and middle school readers, this is a fine introduction to an important and influential photographer.
It’s hard to imagine a time when nature and science weren’t part of every child’s schooling, but as Slade demonstrates here, Anna Comstock was one of the first educators to see the value in teaching children about these topics. An artist and educator, Comstock was a student of the natural world and bucked convention to pursue science at a time when it was considered a purely male domain. Give this one to kids who bring home pet toads and newts and collect birds’ wings.
In this era of smart phones, it is useful to be reminded of photography’s power to heal, rather than merely deepen narcissism. That’s the function it served for Iturbide, whose life was seized by tragedy and rehabilitated when she began photographing Mexican communities. Told in graphic novel form perfectly suited to its subject, this outstanding biography is lyrical, dream-like, and includes the artist’s work alongside exceptional black and white illustrations by Zeke Pena.
Many children will recognize Mary Blair’s vibrant riots of color and joyous backgrounds from their favorite classic Disney films, but few will know her story without the help of this excellent book. Aspiring animators and devotees of artfully made cartoons will adore this stylish and breezy biography.
This amazing true story is imperfectly told (we don’t much care for the depiction of patchwork quilt artist Powers smiling during the period of her life when she was enslaved and much of the dialogue is purely speculative rather than derived from primary sources), it is nontheless worthwhile if older readers approach it with a critical eye. Give this one to those artists who also love history and its intersections with art and storytelling.
Fantastically colorful and creative in its telling, this book creates a narrative of Delaunay, a Ukranian-born French abstract artist who co-founded the Orphism movement. Even adults may learn something about this underappreciated modernist, who was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her stunning, often geometric work. The perfect choice for artists who love including geometric shapes and vibrant hues.
Although Lois Ehlert’s best-known books are for very small children (think Eating the Alphabet and Planting a Rainbow), this artistic autobiography is definitely intended for an older audience. Ehlert offers excellent practical and philosophical advice for aspiring author-illustrators and will inspire kids to try their hand at collage.
Few women artists make it to the top of their fields, and Muslim women with artistic ambition arguably have even more obstacles working against them. Born in Baghdad and educated in London, Zaha Hadid has designed spectacular buildings worldwide. A perfect followup for fans of Iggy Peck, Architect who are looking for real-life heroes.
One of the few names on this list kids will readily recognize, Georgia O’Keefe’s gorgeous, closeup paintings of flowers, animal bones, and more are given new context and a fresh interpretation in this poetic, lushly illustrated, and lovely biography. Equally stellar, but best for younger readers, is My Name Is Georgia: A Portrait by Jeanette Winter (2003).
You might recognize Virginia Lee Burton’s name as the illustrator of those beloved classics The Little House and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Kids interested in illustrating books for children would do well to seek this engaging, thorough biography, but any number of interests are hit upon in the course of her fascinating life: Burton had an amazingly diverse career as a dancer, musician, sculptor, and more. This would be the perfect book for a child who can’t yet commit to one artistic pursuit.
Perhaps more so than any other woman artist, Frida Kahlo has been immortalized in picture book biographies. This one is particularly suited to fans of her wild color palette, as it mirrors the artist’s work, but look to other biographies for details on her life – this is almost a tone poem, where the text is clearly secondary to the mood and images. Also worth your time is Frida and Her Animalitos (2017).
Imagine a world covered in polka dots. That’s the avant garde aesthetic of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, whose joyously “out there” work seems to yield infinite interpretations. You’ll want to bedeck your surroundings in spots after hearing her fascinating life story, and the gorgeous illustrations don’t hurt, either.