Anita Kunz knew from a young age that she wanted to see her art on the cover of a magazine. “I loved the whole world of news and social issues and political issues,” she said. Kunz gave Alta Journal digital editor Beth Spotswood and Alta Live viewers a virtual look at her art studio and the creative process behind her book Original Sisters: Portraits of Tenacity and Courage, which is featured in Alta’s Fall Book Guide.
Kunz’s quest to grace the cover of a magazine has been immensely successful: she started at small publications and eventually saw her work in the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Time, and the New York Times Magazine. Spotswood shared images of a few of Kunz’s covers, asking her about the process behind each one. Kunz’s deadlines for artwork range from weeks in advance to a few hours, depending on a publication’s needs. Despite advances in technology, she still paints each cover by hand, and, decades after selling her first cover, she still ships many of them by mail. Her illustrations are direct and bold, and they often caricature famous subjects: “When you do a cover, it’s got to be an instant read,” Kunz said. One memorable image was a May 2020 New Yorker cover depicting students in graduation caps and face masks. Kunz said she got the idea for the cover, published in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, while thumbing through an old yearbook. “Ultimately, I wanted to honor all the students who were graduating at that time,” Kunz said.
Recognizing challenges was also on Kunz’s mind throughout the pandemic as she wrote and illustrated Original Sisters. The book features the stories and portraits of 154 women throughout history, from leaders of modern-day justice movements like Alicia Garza to early rulers like Elizabeth I. Kunz began the project when the COVID lockdown slowed the pace of her life. “I had wanted to do portraits of women for a long time, and I thought, Well, here we go. I think I’m going to have enough time to do something substantial.” Her original quest to paint one woman every day has now grown to a collection of over 300 portraits and plans for a second volume of Original Sisters. “In this book, I deliberately made a choice not to do any exaggerations. This was to honor women. This is not to make anything funny; this is information-based. I tried to do as beautiful portraits as I could,” she said.
Asked by Spotswood about the process behind each painting, from early sketch to final product, Kunz said that she rarely paints directly from photographs and uses only nontoxic, water-soluble paints. When she’s not on assignment, she likes to take more time and “work really big,” she said. But even in her personal work, she gravitates toward writing and illustrations: “I always come back to print,” said Kunz. When Spotswood asked about other artists whose work Kunz admires, she joked that her list was too long but mentioned Ralph Steadman, Sue Coe, Barbara Nessim, Genieve Figgis, Carol Wainio, Kara Walker, Mickalene Thomas, Beth Cavener, Nicola Hicks, Nora Krug, Ana Juan, Gizem Vural, Julia Breckenreid, Jillian Tamaki, Sandra Dionisi, Ellen Weinstein, Yuko Shimizu, Victo Ngai, and Anna and Elena Balbusso.
As for Kunz, developing her own style and reputation as an artist took many long nights. “I just want to say to any young artists, you put in the time,” she said. “If you spend enough time on it and work really hard and spend enough years on it, people do come to recognize you and recognize your work.”•
Alta Live is a weekly event series hosted by Alta Journal’s digital editor, Beth Spotswood. Each week, Alta invites innovators, academics, change makers, and artists to share their work with our readers in this free virtual series. Join us next Wednesday for Alta Live: Heritage Barbecue.