Wonder Woman: Bessie Coleman

“Queen Bess”: a model of determination, courage, and integrity. And cool goggles!

A month since I last posted. Yikes! However, I do have a good excuse: I’ve been busy rewriting my novel—92,000 words in eight weeks. When I work that intensely, it’s almost impossible to think about other creative projects, and therefore I took a hiatus from the blog, even though my list of cool things to draw has only accumulated. So while the manuscript sits and rests, I’ll take a moment and catch up on some visuals.

This illustration is the second in my Wonder Woman series, a set of portraits highlighting the lives and stories of badass women. I’m hoping to draw women from a range of backgrounds and experiences: artists, innovators, revolutionaries, or any woman who can inspire others by her aesthetic vision and/or the strength of her spirit (Adrienne Rich was my first Wonder Woman post).

Today’s portrait features Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman. I only recently learned about Brave Bessie last February, shortly after the film Red Tails came out. I’d heard of the Tuskegee Airmen, and since I’d been jonesing to draw some retro airplanes in a vaguely Pictoral Modernist style, I considered drawing them. But in the course of my research, I learned about Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman in the world to earn an international pilot’s license. The story of her determination to fly at a time when it was difficult for any woman to do so—to say nothing of a poor, black woman from the South—just blew me away.

Bessie Coleman was the 10th of 13 children born into a family of Texas sharecroppers. There are a ton of great sites out there detailing her family’s struggles and how Coleman made her way north to Chicago, where she figured out what she wanted most in the world. And how that happened to be one of the most remote and absurd things any woman could desire at that time: she wanted to fly.

Of course, being both female and black during a time when women had just earned the right even to vote, Coleman couldn’t find a U.S.-based aviation school that would take her. But she didn’t let that stop her. She saved her money, learned French by night, and then traveled to France, which was, in 1920, considered one of the world’s most racially-progressive nations. In seven months, she obtained her pilot’s license from Federation Aeronautique Internationale, then returned to the U.S. to earn fame as a barnstormer.

Coleman flew a Curtis Jenny. I’ve never flown anything, but I did jump out of the back of a Cessna once.

What I love most about this story is that, while everything and everyone in the world told Coleman her dreams were ridiculous and impossible, she figured out a way to make them happen. And because of this indomitable spirit, she changed history. Despite her tragic death during preparation for an airshow, she lived her life the way she wanted it and died doing what she loved most. She inspired generations of African-Americans to take to the skies, including Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel in space*. In the book Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator (1993), Jemison stated: “I point to Bessie Coleman and say without hesitation that here is a woman, a being, who exemplifies and serves as a model to all humanity: the very definition of strength, dignity, courage, integrity, and beauty. It looks like a good day for flying.”

So any time I think my own dreams are ridiculous and impossible, I look to the sky and think of Brave Bessie. Dream big, work hard, and tell everyone to kiss your ass while you make it happen.

It does indeed look like a good day for flying.

* Jemison said she was also inspired to join NASA by Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. Yet another example of why Star Trek is awesome.

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Wonder Woman: Adrienne Rich

An inspiring poet, essayist, and feminist

This Tuesday, Adrienne Rich passed away. I remember first reading her work as an undergraduate and realizing that poetry could be aesthetic and evocative while still being political and transgressive. This seems like such an obvious thing to me now but back then, it felt like a revolutionary concept. I was a fine arts major after all, and while I knew of plenty of visual artists creating this kind of work, my background in contemporary literature was sorely lacking. Rich was my introduction to poetry’s feminist voice.

Others soon followed: Plath, Angelou, Bishop, Stein, Moore—all the usual suspects. But Rich was the first. So when I heard of her death, it affected me with surprising intensity. I think that since I discovered her at such a key time in my development as an artist, she loomed large in my writer heart, right up there with Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Lorrie Moore, and Marge Piercy—all women I look to as guides in how to produce smart, funny, brilliant, and powerful work.

One of my favorite Adrienne Rich poems is “Planetarium“. You can hear her reading it on YouTube (starts at around the 5:00 mark). I like this poem because it celebrates Caroline Herschel, one of the first women of astronomy. I love space! In my next life, I will be an astrophysicist.

Art is not dessert!

Anyway, I think her death also struck me because lately, it seems as though U.S. politics has been hijacked with some kind of anti-woman agenda. The assaults against Planned Parenthood; the ridiculous personal attacks on Sandra Fluke; the sudden popularity of transvaginal ultrasound laws; Pennsylvania Gov. Corbett’s insultingly absurd comments; and so much more. It feels like another culture war is emerging to pull back on hard-won, basic rights that women have fought decades to achieve. Losing such a powerful crusader who spoke eloquently for the rights of women, gays, and all oppressed groups felt like just another blow.

Anyway, instead of simply ranting, I thought a more positive use of my blog would be to jump-start a project I’ve been thinking about for a while: the Wonder Women Project. What I’d like to do is showcase stories of inspiring and wonderful women and, naturally, draw some portraits! The group will include recognizable names, like Rich, but also some overlooked historical figures and everyday ladies with stories of overcoming adversity, creating great art, showing incredible leadership, and/or just being inspiring role models for everyone.

To start, I have two very excellent candidates to follow Adrienne Rich, but I’ll soon need some help with suggestions. . . I’ll be announcing another contest for ideas soon, and winning commenters will get free portrait. So stay tuned!