BECAUSE OF HER STORY.  The words are the name of a funded project spearheaded by the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative. The initiative aims to create a more equitable America by researching, disseminating and amplifying the histories of American women. And after a series of conversations between the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) and Ringling College of Art and Design (RCAD), an aligned creative collaboration sparked with board members from either side. “We thought, ‘how cool would it be using the fund that’s intended for female empowerment to actually put together a team of student artists to each tell and illustrate the story of a female artist within their special collections?’” says Kendall Brugger, Professor for Business of Art and Design and the INDEX Director for RCAD.

The essence of the INDEX program at Ringling College, which stands for ‘Industry Experience,’ Brugger explains, is to provide students with an experiential opportunity in their field by connecting them with leading brands and clients—teaching them foundationally how to develop creative solutions to business challenges, speak with clients, gain familiarity with industry best practices, work against deadlines and produce deliverables. 

This year’s INDEX program saw 29 illustration students enter the Ringling College of Art and Design INDEX competition. A winning group of ten female illustration students were ultimately chosen. Their task? To create a series of biographical sketches based upon the lives of ten select women artists. “This INDEX project with the Smithsonian American Art Museum has been a phenomenal career-advancing opportunity for our students,” says Ringling College of Art and Design President Dr. Larry R. Thompson. “Working to tell the stories of these important women artists has drawn upon our students’ talent, creativity and ability to work collaboratively.”

Unique to note, the commonality of these artists selected by SAAM is that they’ve all, for various reasons, been heedlessly overlooked—unfortunately not garnering the attention they deserved in their lifetime. “The similarity across all of their stories is that they didn’t actually have a ton of recognition for their work while they were actively producing artwork, or alive,” says Brugger. “It’s kind of sad, we see it in the creative field constantly—fame tends to happen after an artist passes on. So, this project was essentially a way of giving them a platform of recognition that should have been given, and deserved, while they were still alive or producing work.”

The SAAM exhibition, titled “Drawn to Art: Ten Tales of Inspiring Women Artists,” is made up of a series of short comics comprised of 12 to 16 frames apiece. Each comic in its own right represents the artworks of the ten women artists from around the world while the RCAD student-illustrators were prompted to visually convey their telling stories. Their designs were inspired by graphic novels, utilizing illustration to share short takes on the artists’ lives—giving these ten young creatives the opportunity to identify with the struggles and triumphs of their paired female visionary, to see themselves reflected and to draw strength from that visibility.

“Students read their biographies, studied their work, they each found a woman they personally connected to. And, we tried our best to pair them with the artist of their choice,” shares Brugger. “It was amazing to see their affinity grow for their artist’s story—whether it was because they were both from the same country or race, maybe shared similar backgrounds or could relate to similar life experiences. They all seemed to find a synergy that helped to conceptualize their comic’s narrative.”

See more of each story at Learn more about “Because of Her Story” at