Familiar at first glance, the cover features a collared-shirt-clad woman flexing her arm in the style of Rosie the Riveter, the WWII-era feminist icon. Though a few details set this Rosie apart: She’s a woman of color, for starters. And instead of a bandana, she dons a “pussy hat,” the reigning symbol of the Jan. 21 march.
Maine-based artist Abigail Gray Swartz created the image after attending a march in Augusta, at which she wore a hand-painted cape decorated with the words “Equality for Womankind.” The following week, Swartz decided to send her updated portrait of Rosie to The New Yorker unsolicited, not anticipating a response. It’d been a longtime dream to have her work accepted by the magazine, she told The Portland Press Herald.
Unexpectedly, art editor Françoise Mouly responded asking Swartz to send a few more variations of Rosie. Seventy-two hours later, Swartz learned that her work had made the cover. A new image of feminism ― intersectional, DIY, unapologetically pink ― was solidified.
Ahead of her cover’s official debut, we checked in with Swartz over email to learn more about her radical art, her dedication to activism, and why she believes the revolution will be handmade. Check out our interview below:
What inspired you to revisit Rosie the Riveter? And what motivated you to update her in the ways that you did?
I’m a knitter and I knit several pussy hats for myself and for my friends to wear to the [Women’s] March. Watching all of my friends and strangers sharing their Instagram stories of knitting hat after hat was incredible. The act of making the symbol brought unity to the event even before it began. Therefore, I knew that the hat would be a symbol of the woman’s movement.
So on the Monday following the march, I sat down and started thinking about the art I wanted to make in response to my own experience on Saturday as well as the collective experience of women nationally and worldwide. I adored seeing the images flooding in of the sea of women (and men) in pink hats. So much pink! I saw a headline from a newspaper that read “She the People” and I thought, “She The People: The revolution will be handmade.” I started thinking how there was this effort on the part of women to create a symbol for the march. It felt reminiscent of World War II when women rationed silk stockings in order to have enough material for the soldiers’ parachutes. How women knit for the soldiers and filled in at the factories while the men were away at war. Just like how we are reclaiming the word “pussy,” the hat is also a symbol of our history in our country ― we are knitting something for the new “war effort” to fight for our rights as women. We are knitting for ourselves.
As a result, I turned to Rosie as a symbol to convey the transformation we have taken from the times of WWII. I made Rosie a woman of color, because as an artist I feel it’s my job to paint diversity. I recently read how important it is for children, especially for children of color, to see images of Barack Obama in their schools. So I concluded, why not give girls of color, and everyone for that matter, an image of a Rosie with brown skin. It was just a no brainer ― I want to paint Rosie as a symbol of the Women’s March and she should look like this.
When The New Yorker commissioned an image for “The March” issue, did [editors] ask for any visual details or messaging in particular?
I actually reached out to Françoise Mouly of The New Yorker. My Rosa Parks portrait was in her Women’s March newspaper, Resist. I had this idea on Monday, quickly sketched it up, added some paint and sent it to them on a total whim. They got back to me and said yes, we’d like to see more sketches. So after emailing them multiple sketches, and two different finished portraits, they asked for me to send the art to them via FedEx on Wednesday night and they called me on Thursday night and said it was officially a “go” and they would release it on Friday.
And I ugly cried and my kids were like, “Dad what’s wrong with Mom?” And he said, “It’s happy tears. This is a good thing, Your mom has wanted this for a long time.” So it’s been a whirlwind week career-wise. I’ve wanted to paint covers for The New Yorker for years, and here is my first cover, it’s a dream come true!
Online, fans of the cover have already praised your illustration’s emphasis on the role of intersectionality in feminism. Have you been pleased with the ways fans have read into your work?
Yes, I have been pleased. I’ve had women, like Adrienne Lawrence thank me on Instagram. And others have thanked me on Twitter. It’s been really nice. As a white woman, I am sensitive to the issues about race and the Women’s March. I was well aware of the need for inclusion. I agree that white women need to show up to the Black Lives Matter rallies. If one hurts, we all hurt. Plus it’s simply your moral obligation as a white woman to acknowledge your privilege and to use it to help others. It’s the rent you must pay. And, if we are going to get anywhere as a movement we must be united and that also means accepting all forms of feminism. It’s like what Maya Angelou said about the women’s movement, “The sadness of the women’s movement is that they don’t allow the necessity of love. See, I don’t personally trust any revolution where love is not allowed.” That, to me, means inclusion and allowing for a variety of definitions of feminism.
On your website, the “about” section describes you as an activist in your community. Can you tell me a little about the issues or organizations important to you? Why do you believe that engaging in activism on a local level is important?
It’s a very overwhelming time for the majority of Americans (because remember, we are the majority!) so I believe it’s important to focus on our smaller communities. Locally is where we can have the most impact in an immediate way, by meeting our neighbors, supporting our refugee communities, banding together, and focusing on electing good people for the 2018 elections. I’m on several local committees ― a civics group of neighbors and activists who meet once a month and work on supporting our community’s civic issues, and I’m on the DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] civil liberties committee of Portland.
In addition, I’m supporting my friend with her community project. She is starting a creative pilot program for Maine-based refugee women and their children to meet with local moms and their kids in a safe space to create with one another. The making activities will be a backdrop for the important work of sharing space, listening, healing and gathering together. [Editor’s Note: Those interested in getting involved or helping to fund the program can contact Swartz.]
Beyond the New Yorker cover, what kinds of projects have allowed you to translate your belief in activism into art?
I had the honor to paint the image for Lena Dunham’s election piece for Lenny Letter, that was really special. And I loved painting this piece for The New York Times about marriage equality. I’m hoping to do more murals this year of inspiring portraits within a variety of communities.
What advice would you give to other artists who want to engage in activism or use their work to send a message?
Become involved and show up! I keep a note on my phone where I jot down ideas as they come to me at rallies and during the times between the rallies. I also take a lot of pictures on my phone and then chew on the ideas until something sticks. You have to be a sponge. If you like something that crosses your path, take hold of it because you might find a way to use it later in a piece of work.
I also love the saying by the artist Lisa Congdon: “The more work you make, the more work you’ll get.” It’s very true. I just manifested that this past week! Keep plugging away at the concept of the art piece or of the larger body of work. Do public art, work with other artists, build communities and dialogue. I loved seeing the “Love Wins” flyers plastered around Portland, Maine, on the morning of the inauguration. And then of course a good yarn bombing with pussy hats is always appropriate.