June 13, 2021, 5:03

    Anita Kunz’s COVID-Induced Creative Outburst

    Anita Kunz’s COVID-Induced Creative Outburst

    “I was locked up for fifteen months,” the artist and illustrator Anita Kunz said, when reached in her native Toronto. “What else could I do but a painting a day?” When the coronavirus pandemic started, Kunz dug into a series of portraits of unsung women. “It was easy to research. There are so many in every field,” she joked. She presented some of the finished drawings to the graphic designer Chip Kidd, who responded enthusiastically, helping her secure a book contract. By September of 2020, she had reached the number of drawings that the publisher, Pantheon, had set as the upper limit: a hundred and fifty. Since then, Kunz has painted “at least another hundred.” “They’re small, sixteen inches high at the most, and all the same size. They’re easy to pack in a box. I now have boxes of them,” she said. The compilation, “Original Sisters,” will be published in November, with a foreword by Roxane Gay.

    But that book is only a partial representation of Kunz’s prolific output over the past few years. In “Another History of Art,” which is out this month, from Fantagraphics, Kunz offers another feminist but far more fantastical vision of art history, with portraits by such imagined figures as Elsa Schiele, Davinia Hockney, and Augusta Renoir. “These are bigger paintings, thirty by forty inches, and one of them is a fifteen-feet-wide secular altarpiece. Those, I have had to put in the basement,” Kunz says, laughing.

    Even if you don’t know her name, you will probably recognize Kunz’s work: her delicately delineated portraits have appeared in most of America’s top magazines since she broke through the male-dominated field in the nineteen-eighties. And her ideas and concepts are as bold as her brush line is graceful. So, when looking at both the factual “Original Sisters” and the facetious “Another History of Art,” it is easy to see why Roxane Gay considers Kunz an exemplar of the subversive portraitist, someone whose work can “illuminate the path for the rest of us to follow.”

    “The Woman in the Pool, by Davinia Hockney.”

    “The Daughter of Man, by Renée Francoise Magritte.”

    “The Sleeping Roma, by Helene Rousseau.”

    “Nude with Louboutins, by Elsa Schiele.”

    “The Snog, by Gertrude Klimt.”

    “The Bathing Bunny, by Wilhelmina-Adolpha Bouguereau.”

    For the “Original Sisters” series, Kunz stuck to facts: she chose unsung women from different walks of life and presented each portrait with a short biography.

    Ada Blackjack (1898–1983) was an unlikely hero of the Arctic. A poor, young Iñupiaq woman, Blackjack joined a dangerous expedition to a frozen island north of Siberia, in 1921, because she wanted to earn enough money to bring home her ill son, whom she had placed in an orphanage because she was financially unable to care for him. She wanted to pay for the treatment of his tuberculosis. However, all the men on the team died, and Blackjack was the only one left alive. She survived on the island for nearly two brutally cold years, about three months of that time on her own, before she was rescued. She was finally able to afford medical treatment for her son, and they were reunited.

    Anna Mae Aquash (1945–1975 or 1976) was a Mi’kmaq activist from Nova Scotia, Canada. A follower of the American Indian Movement (AIM), she was part of the resistance at Wounded Knee in 1973. Aquash participated in many protests over the years, advocating for equal rights for indigenous peoples. She disappeared in 1975; her body was found the following year, when authorities first said that she had died of exposure. Aquash’s death was eventually ruled a homicide, but—as is often the case for the many indigenous women who die violent deaths—questions still remain about her murder.

    Lorena Borjas (1960–2020) was a Mexican-American transgender woman and community activist in Queens, New York. A victim of human trafficking, Borjas spent the rest of her life rescuing other trans women from the horrors of that crime, and has been called the mother of the transgender Latinx community. She patrolled the streets, providing food and condoms to people in need; offered help with legal and immigration concerns; and set up syringe exchanges to protect transgender people undergoing hormone therapy. She died of complications from COVID-19.

    Margaret Keane (born 1927) is widely considered to be the mother of “big-eye” art and a major figure in the Pop surrealism art movement. Her subjects are usually children and animals, all painted with larger-than-life eyes. For many years, even after their divorce, in 1965, her husband, Walter Keane, took credit for her popular work. It took a “paint-off” in court for Margaret to prove, in 1986, that she was, in fact, the artist behind the wide-eyed waifs. Both Margaret and Walter were invited to create a painting in front of a jury. Walter demurred, citing a sore shoulder. Margaret created a painting in fifty-three minutes, and was ultimately awarded four million dollars in damages (although she never received it). While some critics have called her work grotesque and appallingly sentimental, she remains a beloved figure to those who appreciate her unique aesthetic.

    Madam C. J. Walker (1867–1919), born Sarah Breedlove, was an entrepreneur who rose from poverty to become the first female self-made millionaire in America. Motivated by her own hair loss, she developed a product specifically for Black women to promote hair growth. Under her new name, Walker established the business that she would grow into an empire. She offered a full line of African-American hair-care and beauty products and employed a sales force of thousands. As her wealth increased, so did her political and philanthropic activity, including her enduring support of Black business, civic, educational, and cultural institutions. An outspoken anti-lynching campaigner, she was a major contributor to the N.A.A.C.P.’s anti-lynching fund.

    This excerpt is drawn from “Another History of Art,” by Anita Kunz, out this month from Fantagraphics, and “Original Sisters,” also by Kunz, out in November from Pantheon Graphic Library.

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