When Nova-Scotia native veteran journalist, turned artist, Jo Napier couldn’t find any bedtime stories of Great Women of Nova Scotia for her daughter, Julia, she created her first large-scale collection of portraits–Nova Scotia Nine. The Royal Bank purchased it as part of their national art collection.

When Julia’s interest in math grew strong, Napier once again couldn’t find stories of the Great Women of Engineering, or women pioneers in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields to share with her daughter.

“Half our history, the female half, was missing from my consciousness,” says Napier.

And that “missing” part sparked the launch of her Great Women Productions portrait business. And this year, on March 8–International Women’s Day – she launched the Great Women Portrait Project. Napier hopes to create a developing “digital constellation of women” portraits that can span the globe, raise awareness, and fill the missing part with portraits of the women and their untold stories.

And for the “North Star” of her digital constellation, Napier chose Frances ‘Poppy’ Northcutt. As NASA’s first female Mission Control engineer, the Houston-based feminist icon is the “return-to-earth” specialist who calculated the trajectories for safe return of the Apollo astronauts from the moon. Northcutt, also pioneered as the first women who got on board of the Great Women Portrait Project and recorded a first-person video about the need and the “power of role models for girls” which Napier screens during her boardroom presentations about the project.

“Women are hungry for their own history. Men don’t seem to believe me when I explain that the world is basically, designed through a male lens of experience and that women and men, boys and girls, don’t know half of the history that captures women’s work,” Napier is both frustrated and fascinated about how today’s women in STEM are unaware of the women’s accomplishments in STEM industry.

Napier’s Great Women Gallery of images and biographical links to over 90 historic female STEM pioneers, inventors, and innovators–include faces and stories she’s “never encountered.” Using the Gallery as a reference point, the portrait project invites C-Suite women across Canada, and in the U.S., as participants who Napier hopes, will then invite four other women to form a five-person Art Patron Collective (APC). Each APC will then commission one Great Woman portrait to honor a historic female pioneer or innovator.

Each commissioned portrait (16×20 or 30×40 painting of oil, acrylic or pastel on canvas) will cost $1,000–or $200 per each woman in an APC–in addition to shipping and handling costs. Napier hopes women may find and meet a female pioneer whom they may want to honor with a portrait.

By this International Day of the Girl, October 11, 2023, Napier plans to complete the first round of the five-year project’s portraits of “at least 15 Canadian women–in total, 20-30 female leaders”. The project’s next round will relaunch on March 8, and complete by October 11 of each following year.

“This feels like the perfect moment for women to use their collective power to create change. Women’s accomplishments are unknown because men have been the record keepers, and this omission has bred a gap in our awareness of what ‘women’s work’ really means. That gap, in our collective consciousness, feeds the lack of diversity, inclusion and equality in traditionally male-dominated areas of work and study, like STEM,” Napier paraphrases anthropologist Margaret Mead: a small, thoughtful, collaborative group committed to action is a power tool for shaping cultural change.

Women’s Portrait Project Promotes Better DEI

“Over 65% of the women invited thus far have agreed to join the project. Of those, half are determining who they want in their APC,” Napier says she has already completed 25 portraits.

Napier hopes to complete and deliver all the commissioned portraits between August and September. The individual patrons, or the APC as a group, will finalize a location and hang the portrait by October 11. And Napier encourages the groups to share a video of their portrait hanging, which she’ll include on her website to widen public knowledge of the portraits and their locations are readily available.

The patrons also identify a youth organization of their choice, which Napier will provide with access to a ‘virtual portrait’ which will include a 1-2 minute-long iMovies-style production of a Great Woman’s portrait and their contributions. This provides youth leaders with content to integrate into their lesson plans and to inform and educate their members.

Partners at an all-female law firm, MDW Law, have already selected Hope Blooms as their youth group. Other patrons have asked Napier to suggest youth groups, for which she’s now building connections with Girl Guides, Techsploration (Girls in STEM group) and the Girls Inc. chapters in the U.S.

Napier has already created virtual portraits of chemists Alice August Ball, Dorothy Hodgkin and Gertrude ‘Trudy’ Elion, and mathematician Daina Taimina.

“When a girl closes her eyes, to imagine a scientist or inventor or a pioneer, I want her to see a female face, because role models matter. It’s the ‘if you see it, you can be it’ reality,” Napier recalls Poppy Northcutt’s story about Rosaly Lopes, the young girl in Rio de Janeiro who after seeing Poppy’s picture in a newspaper, changed her career choice to STEM.

Informing and educating girls and boys about the pioneering women in science, technology, engineering, and math, Napier says, empowers girls to gain “ownership of the field” while helping boys develop respect for women’s pioneering work.

“We need all our talents at the table to solve the world’s problems. We can’t afford to be limited by sexism, racism, and gender gaps,” Napier believes the constellation of women’s portraits can be a more effective DEI policy than the existing rhetoric since inclusion of culturally and religiously diverse women makes diversity a reality, and inclusion a choice which envelops everyone.

She quotes Harvard University’s Academic Dean of Kennedy School, Iris Bohnet, author of ‘What Works’: “Are the portraits that hang in the hallways of your organization only of past male leaders? Know that this is impacting what employees or students believe possible for themselves.”

Traveling constellation of women portraits

Over the next five years, The Great Women Portrait Project could amass over 150 women portraits, and engage with global patrons with a “shared desire to educate colleagues and youth about women’s historic work in fields such as STEM.” Napier hopes to create a traveling exhibit in the future, which would require major corporate sponsors. But for now, Napier is developing an interactive map of installed portraits for global public access to information about the women and locations where the portraits are on view.

To “slip a little women’s history into any book” Napier will also develop a set of bookmarks capturing original portraits and stories of the Great Women. The bookmarks, which will require additional funding, will be provided to patrons, and each Art Patron Collective member, to share with their children, school of choice, or local libraries.

“There’s ample evidence that gender diversity drives results in productivity, profits, and innovation. We need all the talent at the table to solve the world’s problems–it’s that simple, and that serious. Art is a proven, powerful tool for social change.”


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