Abigail Gray Swartz


One day a few weeks ago, I got a text from my mom: “Did you see the story about the woman who did the cover illustration for the next New Yorker?” she asked. She pointed me to a Huffington Post interview with Abigail Gray Swartz, an illustrator from Maine, who sent her artwork to New Yorker art director Francoise Mouly on a whim. A week later, Abigail’s work (pictured above) graced the cover. Aside from being excited by the story, my mom was also glowing because Abigail mentioned me in the interview (she is my mom, after all!). I knew after I read the Huff Post piece, that I had to interview Abigail myself. I wanted to learn more about her story.

Abigail has been a working illustrator for less than five years. While she studied fine art, she never studied illustration. In the last few years, she’s worked for such prestigious clients as The New York Times and Lenny Letter. And now, the creme de la creme: The New Yorker. What’s particularly inspiring to me is that the quick rise of her career has been built on leveraging relationships and pushing herself outside her comfort zone.

This interview is long. That’s because I wanted to dive in with Abigail and get to know her story. I think a lot of you will relate to it and be inspired by her. Like many people in the mid-2000’s, she took a long break from making art after she went to art school. The economy had tanked and she needed to get a job. She also moved around the country a lot for her husband’s job. But years later, once she got settled in one place (she now lives in Freeport, Maine), she dedicated herself to becoming a working artist. Abigail also currently juggles a lot of things — two small children and a husband who often travels for work. In spite of all of that, she has begun to build a thriving career as an illustrator.

I think there are a number of important lessons for all of us to learn from Abigail’s journey: get in to the ring, practice over and over until you get really good at your craft, simultaneously put yourself and your work into the world, talk to people about what you do, make work that reflects your passions and keep pushing yourself to pursue your dreams.

Without further ado, I present to you Abigail Gray Swartz.


Lisa: First, tell us a little bit about you, your illustration career, how long you’ve been an illustrator, the kind of work you do & are interested in and that kind of thing.

Abigail: Thanks so much, Lisa, for this interview. It’s rather surreal since your book Art Inc and class on CreativeLive, not to mention your own story, really laid the foundation for my journey. So when you reached out to ask for an interview it was the cherry on top of my pretty awesome week!

Lisa: Oh, thank you! That made my day!

Abigail: I’ve been an artist all my life, from painting gnomes in my basement at the age of 5 to winning “draw your school teacher” portrait contests in first grade. Artists also run in my family. My mother is an artist, and my Aunt Deborah in England is an artist. I also grew up surrounded by family artwork hanging on our walls. Portraits by my great grandmother and oil paintings dating back even further to various relatives. So it was always something that felt rather meant to be.

In 2004 I earned a BA in Fine Art, studied art history and printmaking for a semester in Florence, Italy. In the fall of 2004, I lived with my sister in her studio apartment in NYC and took classes at The Art Students League of New York. Then that winter I moved to Alaska for a year to live closer to my future husband. The following year we moved back to the east coast where I enrolled in the Certificate Program at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. After a year of the program, I felt it was time to move on to their MFA degree. I earned my MFA from The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2008. I was married that summer, the economy tanked and I found myself working two retail jobs. Thus began a bit of a dry spell for my art. I wasn’t sure how to make money by being creative and the economy certainly wasn’t helping. And then life and two kids happened and we moved almost every year – from Delaware to Maine, then back to Delaware and from one rental to the next. While in the throws of being a new mom, I dabbled with selling my knitting, and then later selling handmade paper garlands on Etsy. In the fall of 2014 I committed to putting my MFA to use, I was determined to make it as an artist. I didn’t want to put being an artist on hold until I had an empty nest. I’ve been a professional illustrator since late 2014.

Lisa: You studied fine art. How did you get to illustration as a career path?

Abigail: As a mom who reads to young children frequently through out the day, I was reunited with my favorite children’s books. I realized I wanted to be an illustrator. I loved the idea of my own great, great grandkids holding a book that I created. So I bought your book, Art Inc, took your CreativeLive class and in every free moment I practiced your advice: “The more work you make, the more work you get!” (I still have this pinned up in my studio). I painted every moment I could, chipping away at what I wanted to focus my art around, often times trying to capture the precious and comical fleeting moments of life with young children. After years spent printmaking and building large installations in graduate school, I had to once again familiarize myself with watercolor. At the time my husband was working 18 hour shifts often back to back as an EMT in Wilmington, DE. So I had to really carve out my own time to paint. It was a hard few years. Then my neighbor had an essay that was accepted by The NY Times, but they needed an illustrator and she told them “I know an illustrator!” and thus started my freelance career with The Times. In 2015 we moved back to Maine and to a community that would be ripe with artistic opportunities. Since our return, I’ve been in a number of group art shows, I also had my first solo show last summer, and this past December I started “Tidings” a seasonal art and craft fair with my friend Julie Persons.

{Work for The New York Times}

Lisa: So, a couple weeks ago, your artwork landed on the cover of The New Yorker. For our readers who might not be familiar, The New Yorker is one of the most prestigious clients you can have as an editorial illustrator. You sent the work in on a whim. It’s a fantastic story. Tell us about what happened.

Abigail: Yes, It’s pretty exciting and makes for a good story! It’s many illustrators’ dream to do covers for The New Yorker. I’ve had several covers pinned up in my studio as inspiration. I even had this goal listed on my 3-5 year career plan, so it was on my radar, but I didn’t realize that it was within my reach just yet. After working freelance as an illustrator for the past three years, I have pitched and submitted my artwork to many places. Sometimes you hear back, often times you don’t, or if you do they don’t have a budget. I actually sent The New Yorker some cover ideas last winter and didn’t hear back. Then in the spring of 2016 Bob Mankoff and Emily Flake came to the PMA in Maine for a screening of their New Yorker documentary and to sign their new books. And like a total fan-girl I nervously introduced myself to them. Emily and I connected on the challenge of juggling motherhood with our creative fields and that was that. But that meeting and watching the documentary, reaffirmed that I wanted to do The New Yorker covers and that I should keep working towards this goal.

After the elections, Francoise Mouly, Art Director at the New Yorker, put out a call for female and female- identifying artists to submit artwork to her new Women’s March magazine Resist. Figuring this would be a good introduction, I submitted a lot of art, and they chose my Rosa Parks portrait for their first issue.

After attending the Women’s March in Augusta Maine, I mocked up my idea for a New Yorker cover in a quick watercolor sketch and sent it to Mouly’s assistant, but the email bounced back so I thought, what the heck, I’ll send it directly to Mouly. I sent it, and didn’t think anything of it. Then that night, after the kids were bathed and in bed, I checked my email. I kinda lost my “stuff,” because not only did they get back to me, but they sent me a mock up of my sketch with The New Yorker cover lines on it! And I thought: BOOM! But really what began that night was a wild week of sketches and phone calls.

Lisa: So they were interested in your cover, but it wasn’t a done deal…yet.

Abigail: Yes. On Tuesday night I sent them a scan of the first painting, on Wednesday morning my 3 year old was home sick from preschool and they emailed me and asked for another painting. There were some minor edits to make and Francoise said, “Since you are fast, why don’t you do a new painting instead of us tweaking it in Photoshop?” And since the answer is always “yes” in these cases, I said “will do.” So I dropped off our 6 year old daughter at school, gave our 3 year old son some crackers and tried to keep him from sneezing on my painting. I’ve worked on many fast deadlines before so I tried to keep telling myself this was just “any other normal job.” I finished the painting and scanned it in time for their mid-day meeting. Mind you, this whole time I was not sure my cover would be chosen. They were weighing my cover with other covers, and there was the possibility that if anyone else painted a Rosie in a pussy hat, be it on social media or another magazine, then my cover would be scratched. By 3 pm on Wednesday they called and asked if I could Fed Ex the art to them in NYC. “Kids, get in the car!”

I sent all of the paintings to them that night and then hit refresh on the tracking every few hours to monitor it’s voyage. They emailed me at noon on Thursday to tell me they had the artwork and would be in touch.

Lisa: That sounds so nerve-wracking!

Abigail: I sat on pins and needles for the rest of the day, yo-yo-ing between, “It’s no big deal” to “Yes, it is a big deal”. By the time my husband came home for dinner I told him I was convinced it was a “no-go.” Then after dinner I got a phone call from NY and Francoise said, “So it looks like it’s a go. Can I get a quote form you about your experience at The Women’s March?” When I got off the phone I exhaled and then cried. The kid’s asked my husband, “Is mom okay?” and he told them, “Yes these are good tears, your mom has wanted this for a long time.” The New Yorker shared my cover the following morning on Friday when the February 6th issue went to press. I joked on Facebook that day how the whole process felt like giving birth, finals week, and my wedding day all wrapped into one week, but I couldn’t tell anyone the entire time. It was a roller coaster.

Lisa: That is so intense! Tell us also about the cover. What inspired the imagery?

Abigail: I am a knitter and leading up to the Women’s March, I loved watching on Instagram all of my friends and strangers knitting hats for one another. The act of knitting was already a bonding activity, and I knew it would be a strong visual the day of the March. After the March I read a newspaper headline that said, “She the people” and I thought: “She the People, the revolution will be handmade”. And I started thinking about how we are at a tipping point in our country, and it felt reminiscent to preparing for battle. The March was about fighting for equality and to protect women’s rights. So I thought back to WWII and how women “manned” the home front while the boys were off fighting the Nazis. Sacrifices were made, goods were rationed, women knit for the soldiers and worked in the factories for them. But today in 2017, not only are we reclaiming the word “pussy” from a president who bragged about grabbing them, but we are also making something for ourselves as a symbol of this reclamation, and we are knitting for ourselves. And that is also a modern evolution; women are doing something for themselves for a change. So naturally Rosie felt like the perfect symbol for these themes I was thinking about.

Lisa: What has the response to the cover been? I am always so curious about what it would be like to put something with such a strong point of view on the cover of a magazine. Tell us about what happened after the cover came out?

Abigail: The response has been wonderful and at times overwhelming. My friend told me the night the cover was announced that I should hire someone to manage my social media and emails for the following week. I thought this would be a non-issue. But it turns out she was right. Honestly I was pretty surprised that so many people wanted to know about the artist behind the cover, I haven’t been in that position before. In the past my illustrations accompany an essay, or an interview where the feedback usually falls on the essay’s content and not as much on the art. Local newspapers asked for interviews and I obliged. I also did an interview with Canada’s CBC radio.

I received congratulatory emails and personal stories from readers, about their own familial “Rosies”. And after my Huffington Post interview, my online sales went through the roof and it took me a solid week working late into the night to process all of the orders. A very happy problem to have! After the interview I also received emails from people from the U.S. and abroad who shared similar political views as well as their own March experiences.

Lisa: So exciting! I’m curious, your cover could be considered controversial. Was there push back?

Abigail: Of course, there was criticism of the cover. There was a bit of push back about being a white woman painting a woman of color. I read comments asking, “Why wasn’t an African American artist chosen for this? They would have done a better job” and so forth. I don’t think people understood that artists pitch ideas to The New Yorker. I’m sure that if this was someone’s idea at the magazine then perhaps they would have reached out to an African American artist to paint this version of Rosie. But you have to appreciate the fact that the magazine respects intellectual property; I pitched it and they didn’t ask to give my idea to another artist, but rather they honored my idea and had me execute it.

Lisa: The actual Rosie the Riveter is white. Say more about why you painted her as a black woman.

Abigail: It was important that Rosie is a woman of color, and I painted her as such to give children, and especially children of color, another visual of representation. I wasn’t trying to talk about something bigger than that, but I understand how it packs a punch and needs to be considered and discussed. I also heard from the trans community that the pussy hat does not represent them.  I understand this, and I agree. It’s also asking a lot of one magazine image to cover such a wide spectrum. We have a lot of work to do within the women’s movement. White women need to show up for The Black Lives Matter protests. Trans women need our help; they are in crisis when it comes to domestic violence and hate crimes.

Lisa: Let’s talk about risk taking & making bold moves for a moment. I mean, in truth, sending your artwork to a major magazine actually has no real risk involved — except the risk of rejection (or just not hearing back), which can feel painful, and which is why most people wouldn’t do it. Would you consider yourself a risk taker in life in general? Or is this new for you? Have there been other “risks” or bold moves you’ve made in your art career before this one?

Abigail: I don’t think of myself as a huge risk taker. Sometimes I can mull over a room’s paint color, or second-guess myself on something very minor. But I guess you could say at its core my career is a risk in some fashion. For the first few years I would have to wake up and recommit myself to my dream of being a professional artist and not cave into the criticism that what I was doing wasn’t a “real job.” I had to take the negativity and doubt of the naysayers and turn it into jet fuel to launch my rocket. Stubborn like a bulldog, I was determined to prove them wrong.

My friends call me a “go-getter.” I think I’ve always been enthusiastic in this way, but I think the crunch of motherhood, of the “longest shortest time” conundrum, made me go after things with more intention, enthusiasm and determination. It is also important to me for my kids to see that I am passionate about my talents, and that I am driven and a hard worker and how hard work can pay off. I also figure, What do I have to loose!? Rejection used to bother me, but in a short time I built a callous, and it doesn’t affect me in the same way as it did at the beginning. Now I just view rejection as a free moment to pursue another project I have on the back burner, or to keep painting and drawing in order to improve.  And once you feel that way about rejection, asking and pitching isn’t as daunting as it once was.

Lisa: I think that is such a healthy attitude. And I think it’s something that comes with risk — the more you take risks and are rejected, the more you realize risks won’t destroy you. Let’s talk about your work for another prestigious client, The New York Times, which it turns out also happened as kismet for you. Tell us about how that relationship began and what the process of illustrating for the Times is like.

Abigail: While we were living in Pennsylvania from 2014-2015, I lived next door to a writer, Margaret Gilmour. Our kids played together, and we would go on long walks where we talked about working from home, pitching to editors, and about her children’s book. In February of 2015 she texted me and asked if I could meet her at the fence to talk about something. She told me that her essay was accepted by The NY Times parenting blog “Motherlode” and they were between illustrators. She told them that she lived next door to an illustrator, and she gave my email to the editor, K.J. Dell’Antonia. As a result, I illustrated Margaret’s piece and afterwards thanked K.J. and asked her to please think of me if she needed art in the future. She hired me the next day and I was thrown into editorial illustration as the “artist in residence” of the Motherlode. It was a 3 month residency that turned into 6 months. I would average about 2-3 illustrations a week. There was not an art director at Motherlode to discuss the artwork with, so in many ways I was both the art director and the illustrator, which was another wonderful challenge. K.J. would email me a stack of essays with some deadlines attached and I would get to work trying to sum up an essay with one image without giving away the ending. It was the perfect on the job training and I love all of the writers I met through my time at Motherlode. I have called on them for industry advice, and they have hired me to illustrate their family holiday cards!

In the winter of 2016 The Motherlode merged with The NY Times “Well” department and is now called “The Well Family.” I created an illustration for them last spring for the foster diary series, that piece is still one of my favorites.

{Work for Lenny Letter}

Lisa: That is a great story. And it just goes to show you the power of personal relationships and putting yourself in potentially scary situations as a new illustrator. You never know what will lead to an illustration gig or where that gig will lead! While we are on that topic, tell us about working with Lenny Letter, another exciting client and great story.

Abigail: Lenny Letter is really great to work with. My introduction to the women at Lenny was like everything else in my career: kind of casual, random and magical. My English cousin emailed me their first letter and told me I should reach out to them to do portraits. I did but didn’t hear back, so then I tagged them in a Gloria Steinem portrait I shared on instagram, giving a shout out to their recent interview with her. Later that night they shared my Lucille Ball portrait with accompanying quote on their own Instagram account, and I was over the moon. Then they got in touch that week and I’ve had the pleasure of painting the portraits of some amazing women over the past year and a half. They pay their artists well and they pay promptly- both are signs of respect. I once thanked them for their promptness and they said they’ve all worked freelance at some point and they know how tough it can be to wait on a check or to not get paid well. I also had the honor of illustrating Lena Dunham’s election piece! That was a fun story. I emailed them to throw my hat in the ring to paint the portraits of the new female representatives who were elected, and they got back to me that day and said, actually we have another project for you. Could you get us this art by the end of the day? I did. And it was my experience working for The NY Times on tight deadlines that allowed me to get this done so quickly, which in turn gave me a solid footing for painting The New Yorker cover with a quick turn around.

Lisa: What I love about this story is that you always said “THANK YOU” and “I WOULD LOVE TO WORK WITH YOU AGAIN.” I have learned that those words to an editor or art director will get you so far. That leads me to my next question — editorial work requires good communication and responsiveness, things like promptness, quick thinking and fast turn around. Was it always your intention to be an editorial illustrator?

Abigail: It was not always my intention to be an editorial Illustrator, but I have really enjoyed my assignments. Initially I wanted to illustrate children’s books, paint murals, and design wall paper and fabric. But after speaking with some folks in the biz, I was told that books can take years, and if I needed fast money, editorial work would give me an instant paycheck and would allow me to develop my illustration career while contributing to our household’s monthly income. The editorial work was perfect for me, because at that time my kids were really little, my husband was working all the time, and having an assignment was easier to work on under those circumstances, rather than trying to rely on my brain to draw something other than how tired I was! But now that the kids are in school, I have more time to dedicate to bigger goals. I want to create something you can hold in your hands or experience in person. Thus moving towards books, magazines, murals, and surface design etc. The editorial side of my career has given me the experience, the skills of working fast, the connections, and the confidence to start pursuing these other areas.

Lisa: Tell us about that. What other interests do you have as an illustrator? What are your hopes and dreams for your career?

Abigail: I love what you often say, Lisa, about diversifying your career with several outlets that way if something grows quiet the other piece of the puzzle will continue to bring in money or inspiration, and how these pieces will often ebb and flow throughout your career. I’ve also taken to heart another tip you once shared, if there is something you are interested in, pursue it. It’s as simple as that, we don’t have to be stuck doing one thing. So I’ve tried to do these two things with my own career.

In addition to editorial illustration work, I have an Etsy shop and another online shop where I sell cards and prints. I’m also selling my cards and prints through several wholesale clients in Maine, but this year my goal is to pick up more out of state wholesale accounts. I want to get back to screen printing bags and tea towels, outsourcing that task. I’ve also written several children’s books. After the New Yorker cover, I am shopping them around this year. This year I am also collaborating with an interior decorator on designing a fabric pattern. Fun story: we met through a portrait I was commissioned to paint for Atlanta Home Magazine of the Ladies from the 80’s tv show “Designing Women” (how cool is my job!?). It accompanied his article about his love for the show. And I got the Atlanta Home Magazine gig when the art director saw my work for Lenny Letter! The manifestation of your saying, Lisa: “The more work you make, the more work you get!”

Lisa: Being an activist is something that is clearly important to you and to your artwork. Has it always been part and parcel of what you draw and paint, or is this something that’s happened more recently? Tell us about the evolution and what it means to you.

Abigail: I’ve always been very “fired up” about right and wrong. Growing up I would listen to my grandmother talk about all of the letters she would write to her senators, or organizations that she disagreed with. I loved watching her tap away at her type writer. When I go for stuff with vigor, my husband will look at me and say, “You got some of Grams in yah!” and give me a wink. In college I began to approach some political themes within my work but it wasn’t until taking some print making classes at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts that I really began to explore political topics.

I was once advised to not be too political on Twitter or with my art, that it could burn some bridges for my career. But it’s such a natural part of who I am, I read and talk about political issues all the time, thus it was only natural for it to come bubbling out into my artwork. But I am cautious to strike a balance, I want to keep it positive and empowering rather than depressing and dark. SO I have the inspiring women portrait series with accompanying quotes and I designed Women’s March merchandise leading up to the march that supports the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. My approach is to keep building up our community and to find ways to use art to inspire and lift people up.

{Work for The New York Times}

Lisa: What advice do you have for artists who would love to have their work on the cover of the New Yorker or something equally as prestigious?

Abigail: The times I heard “yes” and the times I heard “no” were both stepping stones that equally created the path to where I am today. Sometimes you have to trust the journey you are on, but continue to be proactive enough to really go for things! Everyone has self doubt and you have to regulate the critical voice in your head. If you get an opportunity to show someone your work, show it to them! I did this with my first email with K.J. at the New York Times. I didn’t just send her one sketch and one idea, I sent her several sketches and several different ideas so she could see my thought process and my range. I did this again when I submitted to Mouly’s “Resist.” I sent her a variety of work so she would remember me.

When it comes to editorial work, pitch to people often. I usually send query emails on Monday or Tuesday, because in the editorial world, decisions are often made on Tuesday or Wednesday because Thursday and Friday are when the bigger traffic pieces are published. Or in the case with The New Yorker, they go to print on Friday. Always be polite and willing to rework something. If ideas are not coming together over email, ask for a phone call with the art director. And if you get a “no” take it as an opportunity to work on your personal projects that have been patiently waiting. There is no such thing as wasted effort, it all works together to support your career in some fashion.

Also, be a sponge, keep yourself open to ideas be they something you’ve read, heard, or seen. I’ve kept a note on my phone over the past several years called “The New Yorker” where I would jot down cartoon and cover ideas. I also have a note called “product ideas” and photo albums appropriately labeled for different bodies of work.

Write down your goals and tack them up in your studio. This January, inspired by Tara Gentile’s podcast “Profit, Power, Pursuit,” I wrote down: “What is it at the end of the year that I would like to say I accomplished?”And then I worked backwards and came up with monthly to-do lists to help me achieve these goals. I’m still stunned that I can cross off “The New Yorker cover” in the first month. In truth, this goal has been updated to “Continue to do covers for The New Yorker.”  I’m learning and manifesting that there is something really powerful about verbalizing your goals and dreams and then putting in the hours. And I love the quote by Zora Neale Hurston, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” I’ve had many years that were full of questions, but there will always be years that answer those questions. And so far this year is starting to answer my questions.

Lisa: Thank you for sharing your story and wisdom with us, Abigail! I look forward to following along on your journey!!