Bowdoin alumna Susan Coyne’s ’07 picture book “The ABCs of Subverting the Patriarchy” pays homage to a diverse range of provocative and inspiring people—among them, Joan of Arc and Ida B. Wells—who challenged deeply entrenched beliefs about gender, sexuality and race.
Coyne shared her book with students over hot cocoa and conversation this past Tuesday at the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library, where she spoke on the enduring necessity of feminism and the role of art as a tool of subversion, concepts that she said she didn’t learn about until she came to Bowdoin.
The book began as a prop for the Netflix original movie “The Incredible Jessica James.” In the comedy, Jessica gifts the book at a friend’s baby shower because, “it’s never too soon to start questioning the system.”
The book started as the brainchild of the movie’s director and writer James C. Strouse. Though initially tasked with only a two-page spread, Coyne used the commission as a launching point for her collection of 26 illustrations that blend political satire, history and vibrant artwork in a series of vivid watercolors.
Coyne’s book also honors contemporary luminaries such as prominent feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
“Feminism is definitely still needed,” said Coyne. “I think we’re in a really interesting complex time in the arc of feminism. I don’t really know what it holds for us.”
Anna Martens ’20 was one of the students at the event.
“Her discussion about a lot of artists of different genders and races is enlightening,” Martens said. “You might usually see the art of white men but you can look at these other pictures that are at least as beautiful or have just as important messages that you just wouldn’t otherwise see.”
Coyne said that even radical change comes gradually.
“I think a lot of people think this is a major sea change and everything will be better from now on,” she said. “I am kind of cynical, but I think social change like this takes centuries, not just a couple of years.”
Currently an illustrator for a weekly show at Boston Public Radio, Coyne said she began to think about power structures when she entered the workforce.
“I saw the disparities in the way women were treated in the workforce and in the workplace and so that made me start thinking about it critically,” she said. “You have to know your rights … you have to advocate for yourself and make sure your needs known to your employers.”
As a female working in illustration, a still heavily male-dominated field, Coyne speaks from experience.
Although Coyne has held a profound passion for the visual arts since she was a child, she did not initially intend to pursue illustration. While attending Bowdoin, she said she “put art on the backburner” and focused on studying religion and East Asian studies. After graduation, Coyne went on to teach English in Japan for several years before deciding she wanted to attend art school.
As a late-blooming artist, Coyne offered some helpful advice to anyone interested in pursuing a career in art.
“I think it is important to know that it will be difficult. Your income fluctuates a lot. It’s competitive, but I think if you really know you want to do it like I did when I was 25 … you should at least give it a shot for a couple of years. Save enough money for a few years and then really see how far you could push it because you might be surprised.”