Mid-Century Women in the Visual Arts is more than a stunning collection of portraits that depict the female artisans of the atomic era; it is a celebration of their life, work, and impact. From Mary Blair to Ray Eames, this illustrated history of midcentury women designers is worthy of your coffee table.
Honoring Female Artisans
Ellen Surrey and Gloria Fowler combined their creativity to honor female artisans with a book of retro-inspired portraits. “I first came across Ellen Surrey’s striking illustration of Peggy Moffitt in an Art Center College of Design publication and just loved it,” Gloria Fowler says. Mutual friend and illustrator Patrick Hruby connected Ellen and Gloria—who are all alumni of Art Center College of Design—and the rest is colorful history.
When Gloria saw a school project of Ellen’s that depicted Californian women, the idea for Mid-Century Women in the Visual Arts was born. Gloria thought that together they could showcase women across the visual arts from the mid-twentieth century.
“25 seemed like a good place to start, but it is by no means intended as a definitive list,” Gloria says. The two partnered to curate a well-rounded list of diverse artisans from all fields of visual art—both iconic, like Ray Eames and Florence Knoll, as well as lesser-known, like Alma Thomas and Ruth Asawa.
“All of the women featured here were pioneers in their field during a time and place where women were the exception instead of the norm,” Gloria says. “It was such a wonderful collaboration to work with Ellen on this project, and our hope with this book is that readers of all ages will continue to be inspired by these incredible women’s lives and the impressive body of work that they have created.”
Meet the Artist
Illustrator Ellen Surrey shares about depicting these impactful midcentury artists.
Atomic Ranch: Ellen, tell me about the illustrations. What inspired you?
Ellen Surrey: What inspired me most was the lives of these women. I related to many of their stories and found myself admiring them more and more as the project progressed. I really enjoyed researching them and trying to figure out the best way to portray them, I wanted to capture their personalities and passion.
AR: What helped you to decide the way each woman would be depicted?
ES: In many cases the story of the woman I was illustrating informed how she was drawn. So for someone like Frida Kahlo, a painter who did a lot of self-portraits, I really wanted to focus on her face as well as include some staple icons from her artwork. With someone like Maija Isola, because it was difficult to find a lot of pictures of her, I read a lot about how she worked and did my best to imagine how her studio might have looked.
My goal with the artwork was to capture as much of the women’s personalities as I could. I hope when people look at the book they feel that.
AR: What was your medium?
ES: All of the paintings were done in gouache and some of them have digital additions.
AR: Were there any female artisans that you were particularly impacted by prior to the book? How about after?
ES: I am a huge fan of Mary Blair. I first got interested in her work when I saw one of the John Canemaker books on Mary. At the time I was still searching for my illustration “style” and when I saw that book I knew that was the vibe I wanted to go for in my own work. I still look at her work constantly and my love for her has only grown after learning more about her.
As for after, that is a hard one to choose. One that sticks out is Alma Thomas. It is amazing to me that she started her career as a fine artist when she was in her 60s and she was able to achieve so much. She reminded me a lot of Grandma Moses—who I am a fan of. With both of those ladies I admire their passion. I like to see myself being one of those ladies who just never stops painting.
AR: What do you hope this book tells readers?
ES: I hope it inspires people. It’s important to have strong female role models and so many of them are overshadowed by the male role models of the world. These women have such inspiring stories to tell and they deserve to be heard. I would hope that the reader is able to take something from these ladies and apply those principles to their own lives.