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Changing the Narrative, Painting a Stronger Picture – Jo Napier’s Great Women in STEM

Jo Napier was looking for inspiring tales of strength and intelligence to up-the-ante for her young daughter’s bedtime stories. Wanting to avoid the typical ‘damsels in distress’ fairy tales of Brothers Grimm and the likes of popular childhood cartoons like Caillou, Jo sought real stories of female leaders that would encourage her daughter to dream beyond her sleep-time. Jo did her research and first focused on sharing the stories of local, Nova Scotian heroines, including Rita Joe, Viola Demond, Mable Bell, and Margaret Marshall Saunders. Those bedtime stories soon became paintings, and the inspiration and focus for Jo’s first art series: Great Women of Nova Scotia. The entire group of portraits, which Jo called “The Nova Scotia Nine”, was acquired by RBC as part of their national art collection after the art exhibit was first launched in 2011. The portraits now hang in a boardroom in Purdy’s Wharf, in downtown Halifax.

Jo’s daughter continued to be the inspiration for her next series: Great Women of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). After her daughter created a science lab in her coat closet and had few minor chemical explosions, Jo wanted to foster her daughter’s obvious inclination toward all things science. Other than Marie Curie, Jo wasn’t familiar with the careers and discoveries of female scientists. As her research continued, Jo’s confidence grew and so did her paintings.

I think there’s a lot of truth to the concept of “if you can see it, you can be it.” Visibility counts, which is another reason why I started making my paintings even larger,” says Jo.

As a former newspaper editor, Jo was familiar working with photos and finding the strength of an image. While many of the photos of women from the Victorian era to the mid-1900s showcase elaborate outfits, Jo painted cropped versions of the images she found and simply focused on the womens’ faces.

“I didn’t want the focus of my work to be on what the women were wearing or how they look as they did in a number of the pictures found in my research. I want my paintings to convey the essence of each woman’s intelligence.”

Jo’s current exhibit highlights the work of incredible minds, including female astronomers Annie Jump Cannon (an American astronomer whose work led to the development of contemporary stellar classification) and Cecilia Payne (an astronomer and astro-physicist who studied and explained the composition of the stars). Great Women of STEM is showing this week at the Nova Scotia Archives (Chase Gallery) until June 29th. Don’t miss it! Bring your daughter or your son, or even a colleague, and share the narrative of the incredible women who helped shape our understanding of the world around us.