Illustrator Interviews – #Kidlitwomen AM Studios: Women Supporting Each Other

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It’s Women’s History Month and the children’s literature community is celebrating with 31 days of essays seeking to address gender and social inequalities in our industry. Join the conversation at KidlitWomen on Facebook and by searching #KidlitWomen on Twitter. Today I am hosting a guest post/interview with a women’s illustrator cooperative.

“For the past 30+ years I have been part of an illustrator’s cooperative called AM Studios. We organized AM Studios in order to address challenges we faced as professional illustrators who were also mothers. We are sharing our story to invite dialogue, in hopes that many minds together will come up with new ways to think about working families.

Our situations varied; some of us contributed a fraction of our family’s income, some contributed equally, others provided our family’s main income. Some husbands had flexible work that allowed them to share caregiving on an equal basis, others worked more traditional hours and shared house responsibilities when they could. These were conscious, thoughtful decisions, which was the main thing.” 
                                                                                                                Mary Newell DePalma

[JM] How did AM Studios Form?

KV: I had moved from NYC where I had been illustrating. I found Boston a very difficult place to get to know people so I joined the Graphic Artist’s Guild (GAG) and started to go to the meetings, which were often at members’ homes or studios.  Most meetings were largely men. At one meeting, in Elizabeth’s attic studio, we were talking about issues outside of illustration. I specifically remember thinking no one ever talked about what it was like for women, especially moms, who were juggling far more. I was pregnant, scared, and for the first time at one of these meetings I felt like an outsider. A few women talked after the meeting about our concerns and needs, and it grew from there.

MC: I was on the GAG Board, and was freelancing as an illustrator. I was at that meeting, and remember Kathleen very eloquently describing women’s and mothers’ challenges as freelance illustrators–a whole different experience from men. 

JLL: Diane put an ad in the GAG newsletter asking if there were any parents interested in forming a support group. My heart leapt when I saw the ad! I had an almost 2 year old and I felt like I was losing my vocabulary. I was in the studio when my daughter was sleeping and at night, but at that time I had maybe 2 friends with children. I knew no one who was trying to do this creative magic who had kids.

SW: We saw it in the newsletter. I was freelancing as a graphic designer and (my husband) Toby was a freelance illustrator. We were juggling 2 freelance careers and an infant. I really needed to connect with others who were in a similar situation. Everyone in the group was an illustrator except for me, and everyone was a woman except Toby. Toby and I shared childcare equally so my situation was a little different.

EWS: In 1984 I was thrilled to find the GAG as a huge support to me as a new illustrator and found a lot of connection and friendship there. I was a very active member and joined the Board. When I was pregnant someone approached me to ask if I would like to join a group of women illustrators and designers who were mothers. They were warm and welcoming and provided a very appealing respite from the isolation of freelance work and the isolation of being a new mother. The social contact was really important to me, but the professional connection was also. Several of these women had much more experience than I and I had a lot to learn from them.

GL: I joined AM Studios because artwork is such a solitary endeavor. I really wanted to have a relationship with other artists who were dealing with raising children. I had a studio in downtown Boston, and my colleagues there were all single. Most of their business was done after hours at parties and bars while I was helping with homework or changing diapers or cleaning or cooking or trying to get caught up on sleep.

MND: It was fascinating that Diane advertised for ‘parents’ and got a dozen women and one man. And we all had infants or toddlers. You were all strangers to me at the first meeting, but we became a very tight knit, supportive group of colleagues and friends.


[JM] What contributed to the need for this group?

MND: I remember sitting at a GAG meeting where an Ad Agency Exec was giving a talk about marketing. I was very interested; we all did direct mail to Ad Agencies back then. At some point, he held up a large envelope and said “THIS promotional piece really caught my eye, I gave them a job immediately!” And in the envelope was a bra. Lots of people in the room laughed, but I was really disgusted. We had to contend with this.

MC: At one point, a much older female illustrator warned me never to let a client know that I was pregnant or a mother or I would lose that client. She was right. I did lose a regular client who glimpsed my pregnant belly.

MND: I got the same advice! But I was super defiant about it. I had regular clients who I worked with–a textbook company and a company that produced pharmaceutical sales training manuals–and after my daughter was born I always brought her with me when I went in to pick up/drop off work. Fortunately they were mostly all women writers and designers so I never encountered any problems:-)

EWS: I was not aware of any men staying home to mind any babies. We, on the other hand, had babies to gestate and bear, nurse, change, feed, toddlers to chase, in addition to (our business) phone calls, negotiations, meetings, deadlines…Like all working mothers, we were working 2 jobs. We worked around nap times, after bedtimes, after our spouses got home. Some of us got sitters, some used day care, some just powered through. I did feel lucky to be at home with my children, but life got considerably easier when they finally went to school.

MC: It was lonely being an illustrator, requiring many long hours alone in one’s studio. In addition, we were all juggling, trying as illustrators and moms to keep all the balls in the air. Collaborating and sharing on several different levels created a synergy that expanded beyond our individual lives.

YZB: This was the pre-internet age, and the only way to promote yourself was to ‘pound the pavement’ with your portfolio. This was almost impossible for someone who was home taking care of babies. I remember the first meeting of the GAG when we all finally spoke to each other. I was listening to male illustrators talking about how they went out with their portfolios and met with art directors regularly and I was thinking how I couldn’t do that because of my family situation. Even if those men had families it didn’t prevent them from being networked and visible. It was much harder for us women with families because we were the primary caretakers. Without this group I would have become discouraged and stopped trying to work as an illustrator. When you’re plugging away in isolation, it’s hard to stay networked, to feel successful, and to have a realistic assessment of your talent and your possibilities.

MND: Suzette was included in the show at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library ‘Women Illustrators of New England’ and I went to the opening or some event where Jane Dwyer and Trina Schart Hyman spoke. They each spoke about their children and their families and how they worked with and around them. I remember how refreshing that was! No male illustrator I had ever heard up to that point talked about his family when giving a professional presentation. Trina also spoke very frankly about how she wasn’t being paid as much as male illustrators. I think our aim is to create a culture where there is room for families, and fathers and mothers both benefit from some flexibility–and everyone talks about their children in their presentations!


[JM] How did AM Studios operate? 

MND: We met weekly for many years. I remember that because (my husband) Alphonse had a weekly basketball night, and I had an AM Studios night.

EWS: We often spent meetings sharing and critiquing each other’s work and arranging each other’s portfolios. We shared professional contacts, did joint mailings now and then, and bought ads together in trade books. Once we had an exhibit of our work at the Cambridge Multicultural Center. Our pieces were about the emotional issues we faced as mothers and freelance artists. Those issues can include guilt, frustration, impatience, and anger, even though they are underscored by the deepest love.

GL: The specific activities that were most helpful to me were the conversations we had about time management, the art business, making art, and publicity. Publicity is very difficult to do by yourself and it’s extremely helpful to have a group of people involved. Just knowing people and spreading your knowledge around always helps a career. It’s all about networking. the group made it possible for me to try things I would not have otherwise tried, and  Diane’s hospitality made it possible to offer workshops in locations I couldn’t otherwise afford. I’m very grateful to AM Studios.

JLL: I loved the meetings, with and without kids. It was incredible to have so many women, and always Toby, in one room talking about our work, sharing recent stuff, talking about the challenges of being an artist with young children. I found the portfolio prepping especially helpful. The advertising as a group was powerful. It made us a force to be reckoned with.  I still talk about how we would refer each other for jobs if a specific illustration assignment wasn’t the right fit. I remember sitting at a GAG event for art directors and buyers when a male colleague asked me why and how anyone would do that. Why would we share contacts, jobs, mailing lists with each other? Were we crazy? Little did he know that we empowered each other.

MC: The field was very competitive, and male-dominated–a zero-sum game: if you won an assignment, I lost.

MND: We really looked at it from a very different perspective. Our cooperation made us more competitive.

KV: We focused on business, such as sharing information about vendors for promo cards and scans, etc. We researched and shared our contact lists. I remember several of us working many days on the computer at our house one summer typing in all the data and then turning it into mailing labels. We shared our experiences with various publications and referred each other to art directors when we couldn’t do the job or weren’t the right person. We put together a group portfolio and took part in the See Party (trade show) as AM Studios. It was a way of consolidating our energy and getting the work seen by more art directors or agencies. We were in a way our own agency.

MC: Marketing was always a challenge for me. It was very expensive and very difficult to learn how to go about it. Pooling our knowledge, updating and sharing mailing lists, and buying shared promotional pages in trade publications was a great help. The creation of the AM Studios name and logo was a great idea. It was also very enlightening to visit each other’s studios and learn about each other’s particular media and art-making process.

SW: I earned a lot from the group about promoting my business. I remember doing the Boston See Party (trade show) together as a group and that was fun. I enjoyed working with some of the members on projects for clients and always appreciated the referrals.

MND: I remember sharing my super simple bookkeeping system–and being surprised that others found it helpful. The peer critiques were fabulous–they improved my illustration, and I learned how to give clear, constructive, and tactful critiques.

DJ: I was very insecure about sharing my work with the group but enjoyed looking at and hearing others talk about their work. The group mailings pushed us to make postcards of our work. Ultimately, AM Studios helped me to become more visible and more confident in my work, some of which has turned up in elementary schools where I’ve worked!

EWS: One thing I’d like to mention is our name, AM Studios. When we began, we called ourselves, informally, Art Moms. (Toby was very patient with that). Some of us worried that we might not be taken as seriously if we had ‘moms’ in our name. So before one of our group mailings, we had a discussion and came up with AM Studios, and a wonderful logo by Toby and Susi. It was a plump retro-looking toaster, the A and M representing toast popping out. It was perfect, with energy, a whiff of domesticity, and indicated that we were a collective. I remember that did give us a little cachet, and drew a bit of attention. It was a good decision.

MND: We also shared sketchbooks–we circulated one and each contributed to it.  I’ll have to dig those up…


[JM] What were other ways you supported each other?

DJ: Sometimes we shared childcare, like when someone had to go see a client or supported one another in other ways. When my mother died, Joni and Kathleen were right at my side helping me make difficult decisions which I appreciate to this day.

KV: At one point we had a system of reciprocal babysitting coupons! A sick kid or traveling husband could be a nightmare when you had a tight deadline.

SW: I loved the mother’s showers we threw for each other, complete with presents for the Mom-to-be, our handmade baby pins, and all of the frozen food we provided. Being showered when my son came along was so wonderful. I loved reading the recipes taped to the top of each dish and all the notes of support.

YZB: I was the only one who already had my two kids when we started the tradition of home-cooked dinners and mom gifts when a new baby was due. One evening we were having a regular meeting and it turned out to be a surprise shower for me–you were making up for the fact that I had never had one of these special occasions. What a thoughtful and wonderful surprise!

JT: I remember crying from happiness when I received homemade dinners from members of the group after the birth of my twins. Not even my mother did that for me!

EWS: Most notably, I believe the AMs helped me to keep from going insane, with 2 children a year and a half apart. I don’t remember that we discussed motherhood stuff like disposable diapers vs. cloth, breastfeeding vs. formula, or things like that. We really respected each other’s choices in those areas and did not comment or offer advice unless asked. Our relationship was really based on the commonality of our experience both as working mothers and as women illustrators.

MND: I loved seeing everyone’s houses and studios! That was incredibly inspiring to me. And I did learn a lot about cloth diapers and breastfeeding from the group. I was new to Boston, and working at home so I hadn’t met anyone. These were my friends and my professional resources. I was so lucky to have been able to work at home with that kind of support when my children were small. I do think that Facebook, professional websites, and skype have changed the landscape for home-based freelancers for the better.

SW: I loved our tradition of trading small squares of art at our holiday brunch. I have such a wonderful collection from everyone that I have always wanted to frame. One square created by Kathleen is framed and has been on my desk for many years.


[JM] Final thoughts?

EWS: I have a huge respect for these people who are a talented, smart, resilient, persistent, intelligent, strong, funny, warm, gregarious, and BEAUTIFUL group! They helped me see the value of my work, to clarify my thinking, and helped me to define my creative voice by listening to me, asking questions and helping me to plot my course.

JLL:  There is no question that being part of this powerful group of women helped my career–at minimum, helping me believe that it was possible to be a working mom and a free-lancing illustrator. I think the structure and support of AM Studios still helps me in my creative life. Our children connect in various ways–my daughter started a book group when she moved to CA and Mary’s daughter was one of the first to join. Susi and Toby’s daughter was my design support when I was creating invitations to my daughter’s wedding. I loved, and still love, what AM Studios stands for.

KV: With constant input from others, my art grew better faster. It’s great when artists have the opportunity to play ideas off one another. As our children grew up and our lives changed we helped each other create new directions for ourselves. Many changed careers, some have moved or divorced. Through all of it, the support was like nothing else I have ever experienced. I relied so much on the wisdom and love of these women.

SW: Looking back, I know I truly found strength from sharing the details of our daily lives–learning to be good parents. dealing with rough patches in our marriages, finding the daily energy to grow our businesses and build our lives. I could have done it without the group but it was so much better to have that network of strong and creative women in my life. Each one of them inspires me.

JT: AM Studios advanced my career in that I felt galvanized by being around other artists and illustrators and making a go of it. I am not sure the millions poured in from our commercial efforts but the sense of support and shared purpose was invaluable. AM Studios is/was a group of smart, gutsy women who went on to make their mark in art and life in many diverse ways. I am proud to be a part of it.

AM Studios:


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