Two women's quest to uncover the forgotten history of 'New Yorker' cartoonist Barbara Shermund results in new Billy Ireland exhibit and a final resting place for the artist
“Greetings from Barbara Shermund.”
Amanda Gormley had acquired, among other items made by former New Yorker cartoonist Barbara Shermund, a set of copper-and-zinc plates dating to when the artist was young. Gormley was a few years into a search for more information about her mother's half-sister, an artist named Barbara, about whom there was very little known in her family. Gormley sent the plates to be cleaned and restored, and the person handling the restoration offered to make prints and send them to her.
“I could have cried. The print said, ‘Greetings from Barbara Shermund.' This would have been made when she was about 19, when she was still an art student and before her mother died, before she moved to New York [from San Francisco],” Gormley said. “It was one of those times when I felt very strongly that I was supposed to be doing what I was doing.”
Gormley was uncovering a piece of her family's history, along the way filling in some blanks about an artist who remained a mystery beyond cartooning.
“In 2010, I lost my brother. That led to some real existential questions: ‘Who are we?'” Gormley said by phone from her home in Reno, Nevada. “Growing up, we were indirectly aware of somebody related to us named Barbara Shermund who was an artist. But even within our family, we didn't know much about her life. My career at the time was as an investigator, so I said to myself, ‘I can do this.' And so I set out on a very focused effort to find out who she was.”
That search would bring her into contact with Caitlin McGurk, who, in 2012 and early in her career at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, wrote a piece for the Billy's nascent blog that opened with, “I'm Caitlin McGurk, and I love Barbara Shermund.”
“I found her cartoons in the library and fell in love with them,” McGurk said. “But very little was known about her, and so I've been doing research on her ever since. She didn't even have a Wikipedia page!”
Shermund was one of a team of cartoonists — one of the first female cartoonists, at that — during the early years of The New Yorker. It was perhaps one of few places that Shermund could have expressed herself the way she did, embodying the emerging independent woman of the 1920s.
“Her voice was singular, direct and ahead of its time,” McGurk said. “The gestures feel so natural, like they were coming right out of her. … She wasn't afraid to poke fun at the wealthy or powerful, or men. She portrayed women drinking and smoking. There are hints she did some work aimed at a gay and trans audience.”
“She was in a real sweet spot in her career,” Gormley said.
When American culture changed in the '40s and '50s, Shermund found herself without a platform. She did some advertising work (pre-“Mad Men” era), but increasingly became private, to the point where little was known of her later life, of her relationships (she had two “secret” marriages, but lived with neither of the men to whom she was married) or of her work.
Piecing together Shermund's early life was only slightly less difficult. This is where Gormley and McGurk found themselves, arriving at the same point via different roads.
“I was getting ready to do a research leave to do a deep dive into Barbara's story,” McGurk said. “I had always wanted to do an exhibition of her work, but we needed to know much more about her to do it properly. That's when miraculously, serendipitously, I got an email from Amanda.”
“I was determined to honor [Shermund],” Gormley said.***
Born in 1899, Shermund's father was a prominent San Francisco architect, her mother an artist. Barbara was encouraged to study art but appears to have dropped out of art school when her mother died in 1918. She drifted a bit, eventually relocating to New York. Her father remarried to a woman younger than Barbara and began a new family (that included Gormley's mother). That generational shift and Shermund's cross-continental migration were the underpinnings of the artist's disjointed history.
During Shermund's notable career with The New Yorker, she would have been well-known as a voice for the modern woman, McGurk said, what we might now call an “influencer.” She traveled widely, often to Europe, spent summers working at an artist colony in Woodstock and settled in a small town on the Jersey shore.
Gormley's talents as an investigator were instrumental in uncovering missing pieces of Shermund's later career and life, during which she continued to travel and retreat to Woodstock, where she met American artist Ludwig Sander, one of her two “secret” marriages. She died in New Jersey in 1978.
“There are letters where [Shermund] is talking about an exhibition of a friend's work and wondering what it would be like if someone asked to do an exhibit of her work, and it comes across like there's some regret,” Gormley said. “You never know what's going to happen when you shake the family tree, but I felt like the universe was saying it was her time, and that I was doing something she would be happy with.”
“Tell Me a Story Where the Bad Girl Wins: The Life and Art of Barbara Shermund” at the Billy Ireland is just such an exhibition. Curated by McGurk and on view through March 31, it focuses primarily on Shermund's career at The New Yorker, but includes materials also in the library's collection, as well as items collected and lent by Gormley. Liza Donnelly, who wrote about Shermund and other cartoonists in her book Funny Ladies: The New Yorker's Greatest Women Cartoonists and Their Cartoons, will give a presentation (along with opening remarks by Gormley) during a public program at the museum on Thursday, Feb. 7.
“To be in this setting and talking about and celebrating Barbara Shermund is more than I could have imagined,” Gormley said.
There is a sad-yet-uplifting coda to this story. As part of her search, Gormley sought to find where Shermund is buried. “I wanted to visit her and to say I'm sorry we didn't know about her and to ask if it was OK to maybe write a book about her,” Gormley said. In a call with a funeral home, Gormley learned Shermund's ashes were still being held. No one had claimed them in 1978.
“Thirty-five years,” Gormley said in disbelief. “I asked, ‘Can I have her?'”
McGurk and Gormley have worked with the San Francisco cemetery where Shermund's mother is buried to have her remains placed in the same site. A GoFundMe page to help defray costs was established, and a burial is scheduled for May. “As her story unfolded, it seemed to be the right thing to do to lay her with her mother,” Gormley said.
“I would've liked to have met her and known her. At least I can do what I can to pay respects. And I'd like to be able to tell my kids about her. We were missing what turned out to be a big story in our family,” Gormley said. “Discovering more about Barbara has been so personally rewarding, and Caitlin was really the only person I think who could have helped me do this.”