Friday, August 5, 2022

Q&A with Lisa LaBanca Rogers


Photo by Carolyn Mackin



Lisa LaBanca Rogers is the author, with Jean Leibowitz, of the new children's book Discover Her Art: Women Artists and Their Masterpieces. Rogers' other books include 16 Words. She lives in Massachusetts.


Q: Why did you and Jean Leibowitz decide to write this book?


A: Hi Deborah! I’m so glad you enjoyed Discover Her Art! A few years ago, my coauthor, who is a painter, and I were talking about the lack of representation of women artists in museums and in books that teach about artmaking.


We asked: Why weren’t there many books about artmaking that featured art created by women? Why do most people know few artists beyond the wonderful Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, and Georgia O’Keeffe? What could we offer to readers that would be unique and important?


From my perspective as an elementary school librarian and picture book author, I knew that a successful way into an art book for children was through story. At the time, children’s picture books focusing on women artists–other than those greats mentioned above–were just beginning to come to the fore.


We wanted to create a book that combined substantive biography with detailed tips on how to look at art and make art. We decided to use Jean’s insights as a painter and my strengths as an art appreciator and picture book biography author for this project.


We know that it’s hard for many people to know what to look for when they’re looking at art. An overarching goal was to present art as enticing, not intimidating, as we highlighted women artists and their stories.


Q: The School Library Journal review of the book says, “The conversational tone will make readers feel as if they’re in a women-only, more diverse ‘Intro to Art History’ class.” What do you think of that description, and how did you choose the artists to include in the book?


A: It’s spot-on, and we’re so grateful that our goals were clear. We were intentional about our structure and our selection of artists and works, and I think our approach helped create that feeling of comfort and inclusion. 


We give our readers time to look at the paintings and simply explore them. We suggest how the artist might have created the painting, guiding the observer through its composition and use of techniques such as light and color, and explain strategies that young artists could try themselves. Last, we reveal the stories of how these determined, talented women stayed their course despite obstacles.


For example, when French artist Adélaïde Labille-Guiard married at age 20 in 1769, she listed “artist” as her profession on her marriage certificate. German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker overcame the objections of her family to realize her dream of creating art in Paris. The US’s Alma Thomas taught for nearly 40 years before being able to focus on her art–and  was the first black woman artist to have a painting chosen for the White House! Each woman in this book has a remarkable, inspirational background.


I’ve enjoyed visiting art museums all my life, and I paint as a hobby, but like many people, I would have been hard-pressed to name more than a handful of women artists before I began this project. I doubt my high school art history class included any women artists. 


Through my research for this book, I have many new art heroes, such as Amrita Sher-Gil of India, Maria Izquierdo of Mexico, Amelia Peláez of Cuba, and Japan’s Yuki Ogura, who had a solo show in Paris at age 104!


To select the artists, we spent countless hours delving into artwork independently and together via Zoom, considering the wonderful possibilities! Our goal was to find women who were professional artists, specifically painters, and whose work might tell a story of the evolution in painting styles over generations.


An important part of that goal was representing painters from areas other than the US and Europe as well as including American artists of color, like Angel De Cora, Loïs Mailou Jones, Alma Thomas, and Laura Wheeler Waring. Each painter featured in our book was well-known, lauded, and made her living creating art.


We initially planned to feature 12 women artists. But as we researched, we realized that we needed more room to tell as full a story as we could for our audience. Our list grew to 18, and then to 24! Fortunately, our fabulous publisher, Chicago Review Press, agreed. But oh! there were many more artists we would have been thrilled to include.


Q: How were the specific works of art chosen for each artist?


A: With a great deal of difficulty! It was so hard to choose just one painting per artist, but we hope that this book will encourage readers to view more examples of each artist’s work! 


We attempted to balance still lifes, self-portraits, landscapes, figure works and abstracts, created by artists from different locations, who painted in different styles, and in different time periods.


We hoped that our choices would speak to each other, so that, for example, readers could compare Paula Modersohn-Becker’s still life with that of Maria Leontina, or Amelia Peláez’ playful painting of a vase of hibiscus with Rachel Ruysch’s realistic cascade of flowers, or Loïs Mailou Jones’ self-portrait with that of Lluïsa Vidal. There’s so much to discover in this book!


In terms of practical details, we needed to select works for which we could secure permissions, which included not only museum permission but also in some cases permission from artist foundations. It was especially exciting to connect with some artists’ family members in the process.


Q: What do you hope readers and young artists take away from the book?


A: I hope that they take away the confidence that there’s a path for them as artists that goes back a long way, and there are many women creators to emulate – whether it’s their way of painting, their subject matter, or the lives they lived. And I especially hope that they’re inspired to make art that is completely their own.  


Q: What are you working on now? 


A: This has been an exciting year for me! This spring I signed contracts for four picture book biographies about artistic creators and a fifth about a major political figure. I’ve completed revisions for four of those, and the first book is due out next year.


It’s been an amazing experience to learn from each editor. Working with different editors on multiple projects at the same time has helped me grow tremendously as a writer. 


Now I’m diving back into manuscripts that have been waiting for revision and inspiration. I have countless ideas and not enough time to write them all, which is exactly the situation in which I thrive. And I’ve had a chance to work on some paintings, too.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m thrilled to report that Discover Her Art is in its second printing! I hope that readers find it informational and inspirational!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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