At her commencement ceremony last May, Aura Lewis (MFA Illustration as Visual Essay 2017) boldly walked across the stage and approached the commencement speaker, activist Gloria Steinem, after being handed her diploma. Lewis wasn’t able to speak to Steinem but pressed into her hands a packet of illustrations and a letter explaining where they came from: Lewis had spent the last year and a half working on a children’s book about the iconic feminist and wanted to share it with her subject and source of inspiration as directly as she could. “It was very quick but she acknowledged it,” Lewis said. “She opened the letter on stage—and we have it on video—and then she later posted one of the images that I gave her on her Instagram. So that was amazing.” Cut to less than a year later and that book, Gloria’s Voice, was released by Sterling Publishing last week, officially debuting March 6.
A New York-based illustrator, Lewis is also an author, designer, and mother of two young daughters. Gloria’s Voice is her first book and was developed during her time at SVA; her second book, The Illustrated Feminist, which charts 100 years of U.S. feminist history, will be published in 2020, coinciding with the centennial of women’s suffrage. In February, Lewis spoke as part of Alumni Affairs’ panel discussion Let’s Talk: Women in the Creative Industries. A life-long drawer, Lewis came to the MFA Illustration as Visual Essay program after an undergraduate degree in psychology, stints in painting and graphic design, and a lot of soul-searching in Argentina with her family. “It was a career shift for me,” she explained. “Working as a graphic designer, it wasn’t fulfilling for me from a creative point of view. I really wanted to be a content creator, to tell stories and use color and draw people and just make images.”
Lewis’ participation in last month’s ′Let’s Talk′ panel highlighted her indirect, though seemingly inevitable, path to illustration, the challenges of managing her time while working at home and her belief in sharing the floor with others when it comes to matters of artistic representation. Below, we delve further into her practice and its particular resonance within this moment’s women’s movement.
Tell me a little about the trajectory of Gloria’s Voice.
[Fall 2016] was The Book Show. We had to come up with a book, some sort of book, and everyone took it a different way but I was really intent on making a children’s book that felt like a real children’s book. I wanted to write it, I wanted to illustrate it, and make it feel like a finished project. I’ve always been interested in the women’s movement and feminist history, and I’ve particularly always been inspired by second-wave feminists in the ’60s and ‘70s. In general I love that time, the fashion and style. And Gloria is such an iconic figure from that time. She really spoke unapologetically about feminism, and at the time it wasn’t popular—[the word] used to be derogatory. And there was no book about her! No illustrated children’s book at least.
My advisors were a little baffled by this idea—my program does not specialize in children’s books. But I looked for help outside the program, too, looking for conferences on kids’ books, webinars online, I contacted an old editor contact. It was fun and challenging because I just did a ton of research about Gloria, trying to put it in a book form and figure out how I was going to illustrate this thing. I basically worked on it the whole summer to bring it to where it was.
How you would describe the work that you do now, or some of your more general interests in your illustration practice?
It’s constantly evolving. I’m constantly figuring things out, but right now I’m doing a lot of work that’s related to women somehow. I also love doing children’s illustration but I’m trying to figure out balancing that with doing illustrations for adults, editorial work.
Looking at your website and
I try to evoke a feeling that I’m having. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of sort empowerment [images]; it’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. I am political but not in a manifesto-like way. I want something that people can identify with or take away something from, an inspiration.
Some of [my illustrations] are more conceptual and some of them are more straight-forward. I love drawing people so I’m always trying to figure out people in different situations, relationships. Or sometimes it’s an internal world of a person, an emotional world. And I try to also make them happy--I definitely don’t do the scary or gory end of things. I’m trying to evoke some kind of emotion, feeling, idea, a sense of recognition.
I think with illustration, as opposed to let’s say fine art, there’s something a little bit more, to me, immediate and less precious about it. I feel like with fine art for every piece, you had to have this whole thesis. It wasn’t so quick and if it was quick, was is really art [was the connotation]. Illustration is really the form that I enjoy doing best. I feel like it’s more accessible. I can be fun and light-hearted, something that I didn’t really feel like I could do in fine art and in graphic design it’s more about designing other content.
Is there anything from your research for Gloria’s Voice or The Illustrated Feminist that you found particularly unexpected or interesting?
I’ve been mostly blown away by how recent some of these laws that talk about equality are. For example, only in 1974 were women allowed to have credit without their husband signing—before that, to get a credit card, her husband or father would have to sign. That’s crazy to me.
There is a real demand to see and hear from women and have their stories told. What has this cultural moment meant for your work and audience’s response to it?
I’m still really new to this so I feel like everything, all responses, are still new to me. Just the fact that people are responding to my work is actually new to me. You know, as a designer you’re a little invisible—you can do a great piece but no one really knows you’re the designer. I love that part of illustration: sharing these immediate stories and because they’re accessible people can immediately see them and respond.
I feel like it’s lucky because the timing feels right. [Feminism] is not a new thing, but [we’re experiencing] a new awakening of feminism. It’s been a little bit dormant for the last decade or so. It hasn’t been like it is now, in this moment, so it’s an exciting time. The fact that it’s aligning right now with my interests is really cool.
You said at the panel that your work at this moment is also meaningful to you because you’re interested in portraying your own kind of femininity. You want to make room, unapologetically, for any kind of feminist illustration, and yours happens to look like this. How does operating in this feminist mindset affect the work that you make?
Things are valued in our culture that a lot of times are more masculine—the aesthetic and the colors look clean, and, in design if something is too curlicue it’s girly or feminine and it’s not really considered really well-done. Just because it’s not masculine doesn’t mean that it’s not good. I felt that with my illustration, it was really liberating for me. People do say that my work is feminine or girly but that’s part of my feminist take. That’s okay. I don’t need to hide or fight against it, it’s not less valuable than other forms of the female experience.
I think that today there’s more of a place for a multiplicity of femininities and if you’re feminine it doesn’t mean you’re not strong or brave or any other attributes. You can have that aspect [of yourself] without apologizing for it.
Aura Lewis′ Gloria’s Voice is available now through Sterling Publishing.