Anita Parkhurst Willcox (1892-1984) is a fascinating figure in art and illustration. She had a long career, spanning from pre-WWI through the McCarthy era and into the 1970s. An incredible span of human history and personal witness to important moments influenced and shaped her work over the course of her life.
Parkhurst (as she signed her work with her maiden name) studied at the Chicago Art Institute before moving to New York. She worked as a commercial artist, sharing a studio with prolific illustrator and character Neysa McMein (whom I will no doubt cover in a future post). She produced covers for the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, McCall’s and advertising art for the YWCA and other campaigns.
Her career was interrupted by WWI, when she and Neysa McMein traveled to France for 15 months to entertain the troops with a vaudeville act they devised. This show toured on the front lines, and the experience left her a lifelong pacifist. During WWII, she used her artistic talents to create work for Americans United for World Organisation, which supported the formation of the United Nations.
Her commercial work is credited with the creation of the “New American Woman” image, an idealized version of a post-war woman who was glamorous, fashionable, and invariably white and affluent. However, her personal life didn’t reflect this image. She gave birth to four children and adopted a fifth, and found the images she was creating were not an accurate reflection of women’s lives. She quit commercial illustration work in 1930, arguing that these images were “socially pernicious.”
However, she continued to produce work outside of commercial art, including campaigns denouncing the Korean War and nuclear weapons, and founded a cooperative, interracial community called Village Creek in 1950, one of the first of its kind. She attended the Asia and Pacific Rim Conference for Peace as a representative for the Quakers, and as a result, came under intense McCarthy-era scrutiny. However, she continued to travel and paint into the 1970s.
She’s kind of a bad-ass. And someone who makes us stop and think about what KIND of images we are creating, and what effect that has on our society, and on us as well. It’s an important consideration for illustrators, whose work is out there shaping visual culture.