"Superheroines" Highlight's History's Overlooked, Little-Known Women Trailblazers

Mar 4, 2016

Abigail Southworth's portraits of Helen Keller, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and Temple Grandin
Credit Courtesy Abigail Southworth

Nearly every part of Abigail Southworth’s life is devoted to art. She teaches it at Kalamazoo Valley Community College's Center for New Media. She designs logos and brochures for organizations like Kellogg and the United Way. But at night, Southworth leaves behind the work and designs her own, very personal art, touching on topics like sexual orientation and mental illness. In her latest exhibit, "Superheroines," Southworth chooses to highlight several women who inspire her -- women who history has forgotten or overlooked.


Southworth says art has always been this personal to her, ever since she was a kid.

"I think it was just the way that I expressed myself. I never figured out any other way to do so that was as succinct and powerful to me," Southworth says. "For the longest time I created artwork as a way to even just make friends. And that seems a little weird, but basically the thought was, the people who see my artwork and connect with it -- those are the people I want to be around." 

As we talk, Southworth comes back to this point again and again. When she creates an image, she doesn’t care how many people see it.

Instead, she has a bigger goal. She wants the art to connect with people. Especially those who normally aren’t featured in pop culture -- minorities, women, or those with disabilities.

"I feel like because I, through the years, was in close connection with disability rights. Because my wife has a heart condition. And also, LGBT rights. It started changing me. Not just in my artwork, but as a person. I saw seeing that there are these minorities of people that don’t get a say in things. They don’t get their say out there in the mainstream media. And once I realized that, I thought this is kind of my duty to do so.  To make sure people see reflected, in art and movies and music, their experiences, as well."

Southworth's portrait of Black Lives Matter leader Johnetta Elzie
Credit Abigail Southworth

  Southworth started to make that happen in 2011. That year, she created a piece for ArtPrize in Grand Rapids called “Life as a Two-Headed Beast,” showcasing her battle with bipolar disorder. A few years later, she designed a piece centered around a friend’s struggle with what's known as Asperger Syndrome.

Southworth couldn’t help but worry what people would say about the exhibits. She worried about backlash, particularly around mental illness. But then, says, she heard from dozens of people who understood the art and loved it.

"It gave me a little bit more confidence," she says. "Even when I did get some backlash, it was more just that realization that you’re always going to get flak from people. And you’ll just have to do it anyway. You’re always going to get haters no matter what you do. You might as well do something worthwhile."

That new attitude gave Southworth the confidence to create her next exhibit, "Superheroines," where she shows off all those people that she feels are always overlooked.  The main exhibit showcases seven incredibly accomplished women. They stretch across oceans and decades, from May Jemison -- the first African American woman to go into space – to the transgender rights activist Miss Major Griffin-Gracy.

"These women struggled. They were minorities. They were defeating the odds. That really resonates with me," Southworth says. "So I wanted to pay homage to them in some way." 

Southworth walks over to a particularly striking image. It shows Helen Keller. This isn't the Helen Keller you think you know -- the deaf-blind woman who learned to speak at age 7. Instead, this image shows a different side of Keller: an older Helen Keller, when she became a suffragist and a political radical. The word “REVOLUTION,” spelled out in braille, is sprawled over Keller’s head.

Southworth says this is the portrait that inspired the others. 

"I knew people don’t understand how much she accomplished in her lifetime. They just think of her disability, and that’s it. And even then, I think people who do know think she took her disability and got past it. I don't think that's necessarily the case. She embraced her disability. She realized that yes, she was not her disability. but her disability does affect her. And her disability is why she wants to do these things. affected her. She struggled so long to find a connection with other people, so when she did, she really wanted to embrace that connection. And that's why she became a socialist. That's why she was a suffragist. That's why she was a disability activist.

Southworth's portrait of Mae Jemison

  It’s these sorts of people – the ones who fought through injustice and personal struggle – that Southworth wants the world to see here. There's Temple Grandin, who, despite being diagnosed with autism, is now a professor of animal science and an animal rights activist. There’s Johnetta Elzie, one of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement.

And Southworth says she has plans to show the world a lot more of these women, too. She’s creating an online project to highlight nearly 100 “superheroines” across history.

Southworth says she knows just one exhibit won’t give these women the recognition they deserve. But she hopes her works can be a spark – to make others aware of these women and take action themselves.

"That’s my hope for most projects, that it develops into something more," Southworth says. "Because I can say everything I want, I can talk until I’m blue in the face, but unless other people start to take a stand as well, not a lot of change can be made."

Abigail Southworth’s exhibit, “Superheroines,” will be displayed at Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Center for New Media through April 1st.