The Reconstructionists: Celebrating Badass Women
What do Buddhist artist Agnes Martin, Hollywood inventor Hedy Lamarr, and French-Cuban author Anaïs Nin have in common? Their names may not conjure popular recognition, and yet, for Lisa Congdon and Maria Popova, these women represent a particular breed of cultural trailblazer: female, under-appreciated, badass. They are “Reconstructionists,” as the writer-illustrator duo call them — and for the next year, they’ll be celebrated on a blog of the same name. Every Monday for 12 months, The Reconstructionists will debut a hand-painted illustration and short essay highlighting a woman from fields such as art, science, and literature. The subject needn’t be famous, but she will, as Popova, the creator of Brain Pickings, puts it, “have changed the way we define ourselves as a culture.” We spoke with Popova, and illustrator Congdon, about the inspiration behind their project.
How’d you come up with the name ‘Reconstructionist’?
Maria Popova: It’s very challenging to celebrate women without pigeonholing the project into some stereotypical and alienating feminist corner, the most dangerous part of which is the preaching-to-the-choir quality that many such projects tend to have. So when it was time to come up with a title for the project, it couldn’t be something too literal or too obvious. After sifting through hundreds of letters, diaries, autobiographies, and other writing, I suddenly remembered something Anaïs Nin had written in a 1944 diary entry — about “woman’s role in the reconstruction of the world.” It was perfect. It was the only common denominator between those women – they aren’t all artists, or all writers, or all to be expected in the pages of a tenth-grade history book. They are simply all reconstructionists.
It sounds pretty hardcore.
MP: The word had a sort of masculine, industrial quality that contrasted nicely with the gender stereotypes of femininity, and yet it was very much about women.
Who’s your modern-day Reconstructionist icon?
Lisa Congdon: For me, it would definitely be Hillary Clinton. Last week we saw her conquer Capitol Hill as one of her final acts as the first female US Secretary of State. She was both poised and incredibly tough in the face of relentless questioning and, at the same time, incredibly real and even tearfully emotional about the events in Benghazi. She has been a trailblazing diplomat, showing the world that foreign policy should include issues like women’s rights and human rights, and not just issues of war. I admire her greatly.
I love how diverse these women are so far: Hollywood beauty/inventor, secular Buddhist artist, lesbian author. Where do you find inspiration?
MP: Our own lives, where else? Whatever moves us, inspires us, gives us hope and awe and stimulation. It’s obviously a very subjective project in that way — but hopefully one that resonates with others as well.
How does the illustration process work?
LC: I try to find a really interesting photograph of the woman I am going to draw — and I use that as a reference. For some of these women, literally only one photograph exists, so I may need to go to the library and do some additional research. The photos are often black and white, so I use them to get the likeness of the woman, and then I breathe new life into each portrait, by infusing bold color into the clothing and background. Then Maria picks a quote that best captures the woman’s ethos, and I hand-letter it into the portrait.
What do you hope visitors find in each of these portraits?
LC: A new discovery. Hope. Promise. Inspiration. A sense of awe and appreciation about someone who has helped shape the world we live in.
MP: Admiration for an unsung hero who has touched some small piece of something we take for granted today. A general awareness that there are many more women who have, in ways big and small, shaped the course of modern life than our male-centric cultural paradigms might suggest.
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