Ahead of International Women’s Day, creative women from around the world share stories of female inspiration to help you expand your creative diet
Beatriz Torres, creative Director, ALMA, Miami (part of DDB Latina)
On Gala Dalí
Gala Dalí, Salvador Dalí’s wife, has always been fascinating to me. This mysterious, cultured and sophisticated woman was the inspiration for many poets and artists because of her interesting personality. Although she has been historically portrayed as just a muse, she was much more.
Gala was Dalí’s creative collaborator. She was behind many of his art pieces. He even started signing some of those works with both their names because, in his own words, “It is mostly with your blood, Gala, that I paint my pictures.” Dalí is by far my favorite artist, but I believe Gala played a vital role in his success and his creative ideas. Not only did she inspire a lot of his pieces and collaborated on them, but she also acted as her agent, helping him become the greatest surrealist artist. I love that even on the agent role she managed to keep her unconventional ways. She negotiated with galleries, but she also relied on her mystic and extravagant side to make decisions by using tarot cards to read Dali’s future.
Gala was able to get herself in the surrealist movement, which was very hostile to women at that time. She was accused of being too interested in money, but I wonder if they would have said the same if Dalí’s agent had been a man.
Many criticised her personality because she was a free spirit that didn’t really fit any stereotype. Many people consider her just a muse and like, with many other women, history denied her vital role as Dalí’s collaborator.
Rosie May Bird Smith, creative, Havas London
On Marge (AKA Margaret Atwood)
Marge and I go way back (see pic of me fangirling at 15). And what a woman to go way back with. Author of The Handmaid’s Tale, poet, literary critic, inventor, teacher and environmental activist – at the ripe old age of 80, Marge is still a mighty force to be reckoned with. Through words alone, Marge has initiated a cultural phenomenon. The Handmaid herself has become an international symbol of female liberation, whilst phrases and iconography from the novel are making their way onto all manner of cards and canvases. People are baking Handmaid cookies, dressing their dogs in red hoods and attending classes to learn how to embroider ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’ onto cushions.
Whilst using her fiction to subtly comment on Trump and marginalized communities in today’s climate AND having this literary genius thing down to a tee, she’s also just plain hilarious. If you’ve ever been to Marge live - like I have - you’ll know she’s a massive joker and has the audience in hysterics. Her vigour and enthusiasm is completely infectious. For the launch of her Handmaid’s Tale sequel – The Testaments – she dressed in green and painted her nails green to match the book cover (cute). Even though her husband has recently passed away (RIP Graeme), you can still catch her riding across New Zealand on an electric scooter, preaching about the climate crisis.
So, long and short of it is, if you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale – please do. And if you haven’t seen the Hulu adaptation with the wonderful Elisabeth Moss then more fool you. But most importantly, just give Marge a cheeky follow on twitter @MargaretAtwood – because that is some quality content you don’t want to miss out on.
Jessica Davey, chief marketing Officer & director of creative excellence, McCann Worldgroup Asia Pacific
On Rosem’ry Bertel
So I guess not everyone gets to write about their mother as their creative icon. But I do. My mother, Rosem’ry Bertel, was a creative director in Australia at George Patterson, Leo Burnett and several other agencies throughout her career. She was one of the first female creatives in Australia to have her name on the door of an agency. Not just being an award winning creative during the heyday of ‘70s/’80s advertising in Australia, but being a female creative director in what was (and is) a predominantly male dominated department of any agency, she was and continues to be my icon.
Juggling the “do it all” mentality so many professional women do, I remember my mother coming home from pitches and baking cookies for my school fete. Rather than just shoving some cookie dough in the oven and calling it a day, she then spent hours icing a range of faces, with no two cookies the same.
A copy-based creative, my mother has been in love with language her whole life and passed that on to me. She firmly believes great advertising can be an art form and that brands can very much be a force for good. She deplores lazy work and always pushes me to be the best I can in both my personal and professional life. My mother has always been a vociferously proud feminist and supporter of women. She has delighted in the success of many of her female students from ad schools around Australia who have gone on to succeed in roles across the world. I have shown her every campaign I have ever worked on (with mixed feedback) and she at 80 she is still one of the opinions I value most.
So yes, my mother is one of my creative icons.
Cat Turner, co-founder and CCO of Cult
On Tracey Emin
When I first saw Tracey Emin’s seminal work My Bed I couldn’t believe a slice of her life could be so transformative for modern art and critical feminist thinking. I was 15 and geeked out on seeing the work of women artists in the press and people hated it.
Since then she remains a divisive personality conflicting critics and bemusing common folk around her. I love and respect the truth she consistently delivers - even though it's both ugly and beautiful.
In this day of celebrating "being your authentic self", (the antithesis of anything she would ever say) it is women like Tracey who defined how this could look in the truest sense.
Radical feminism has been one of the most important movements of the past 50 years, leading to great women in the arts to thrive, from Vivienne Westwood to Laverne Cox, Chidera Eggerue to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (all grade-A babes making a difference and imprinting in their cultures). Tracey is one of just two women professors to be appointed at London's Royal Academy of Arts in its 250 years. One of two?! This is why this remains a feminist subject. I find these pioneering women a constant inspiration for where I can take my life.
The journey of an artist is visceral. Artistic endeavours are an exercise in communication, process, emotion and a terminal sense of misunderstanding and being understood. In her work Tracey Emin has exorcised her experiences, her turmoil and her pain. Her imperfection, rebellion against the establishment and her bravery divides opinion, but she doesn't give a shit. It is artists that break new ground, while Tracey creates her own world.
Many times, we find our lives impacted by someone, but only after many years, do we realize who and how much they meant to us; little did I know how much of an indelible and unmistakable mark in my mind was left by Mary Blair. At the time it happened, I didn’t even know her name… but her shapes, use of colour and contrast, and her beautiful representation of children from around the world, would forever shape my love of art, design and travel.
Every child’s love of all-things-Disney starts early… mine was no different. Visiting THE most creative, happy and magical place on earth was a constant obsession of mine; but it was the ‘It’s a Small World’ ride that became my all-time favorite from the first time I saw it. The beautiful colours, ‘sets’ and children representing little people of my age from all over the world, was jaw-dropping. And the fact there were children IN those beautifully colored worlds that I COULD RELATE TO and that ‘looked like me!’- absolutely blew my mind. Then there was THE MURAL at the Contemporary Hotel… I would sit and stare at it for minutes at a time; finding new details at every glance. But it wasn’t until years later, during a visit back and after years of art school and painting- that I realised that my two favourite pieces within the Disneyland experience were related! It had been Mary Blair all along… her style was unmistakable.
Blair was a female pioneer, artist, animator, and designer in a mostly male-dominated world. Her modernistic expressions and use of abstract shapes to add life and form to all her Disney projects drew me to her work and has influenced and stayed with me forever. One of her quotes even became a mantra throughout my life and career: “…the original concept must do something worthwhile creatively, or all the hard work to follow will be wasted...” Spot-on, my fascinating sister. Spot-on.
Xisela Lopez, creative director, Sra Rushmore
On Marie Curie
Marie Curie is not an inspiration for me because she was the first person — not woman, person — to win a Nobel Prize in two different specialities. She is not an inspiration because of what she achieved, but for how she achieved it:
For deciding to attend classes secretly, taking turns with her sister so that one could study while the other worked.
For deciding to continue studying while she worked.
For deciding to continue working while raising her daughter.
For deciding to use the Nobel prize money to continue funding her laboratory research.
For deciding that her discovery had only one beneficiary: humanity as a whole, rejecting offers to patent it, and thereby rejecting the possibility of becoming a millionaire.
For deciding to create mobile radiology units to help cure more than a million wounded in World War I.
For deciding to be one of the first women with a driver’s license solely in order to be able to drive one of these mobile units.
For deciding to donate a gram of pure radium to research in the United States.
Inspiring millions of people like me, who are aware of each of her decisions.
“…Humanity also needs dreamers, for whom the disinterested development of an enterprise is so captivating that it becomes impossible for them to devote their care to their own material profit." - Marie Curie
Anne-Marie Curran, founder and MD, Arrow Films, Dublin
On Rebecca Bourke
Rebecca (left) and Anne-Marie (right)
It is very difficult to single out any one of the many incredibly talented, creative, gifted women that I am fortunate enough to call friends and colleagues. If I were to single out one individual to whom I look to and who inspires me every day it would be Rebecca Bourke, the founder and executive producer of the production company Assembly.
I have known Rebecca for many many years, she was a friend of the son of my business partner and we roped her and some friends into a shoot as background cast. My first impression was of a gobby 17-year-old kid being completely unimpressed with how we were managing the shoot and she wasn’t afraid to offer her suggestions on areas she felt needed improvement.
Cut to a couple of years later and we hired Rebecca as our PA, what was initially for a couple of months during a very busy period and she stayed with us for five years. Within her first couple of weeks in the company my production manager remarked to me that someday we would all be working for Rebecca.
Cut to not so many years later and Rebecca not only runs her own hugely successful production company in Dublin, she is currently in Vancouver co-producing Benjamin Cleary’s a feature film with Anonymous Content for Apple.
Rebecca has a determination and drive that is infectious. She has been a huge champion of other people and has the ability to spot and foster young directing talent.
She is an incredibly passionate and compassionate person. Although we are now on opposite sides of the fence, and I have many more years under my belt, we have a genuine mutual respect for each other and we constantly look to each other for advice.
Shaziya Khan, national planning director, Wunderman Thompson India
On Ruth Bader Ginsberg
A hero of mine is Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Famously called RBG. She is a judge who overcame gender bias over time, by being unstoppable. Even stopping to deal with bias and stereotypes seemed a waste of her mission. She focused on her path forward. She went on to influence the overcoming of several prevailing stereotypes via progressive and humane judgements .
Lavinia Garulli, creative and strategy director, Isobar Italy
Even in the advertising industry, we need a little bit of “she-story” to tell our truth, take over and inspire a new generation.
Personally, I think it worth repeating the story of Ilon Specht, the 23-year-old copywriter at McCann Erikson, who created the famous L’Oréal payoff.
Nowadays, “because you’re worth it” sounds obvious, a refrain used to justify any overindulgence.
But when she wrote it down in 1973, this L’Oréal payoff felt like a battle cry. I read an interview where Ilon tells the situation when the idea came up. I can see the scene perfectly… She was fighting against a bunch of men trying to tell the women how they should feel, to look good for men! The woman was a complete object in their minds.
Finally, Ilon thought: “Fuck you! I sat down and did it, in five minutes. It was very personal. I can recite to you the whole commercial, because I was so angry when I wrote it.”
In Ilon’s insightful words, there’s all the strength of the women's power: she couldn’t bear that situation because it was “very personal”. And also all the passion behind our work, the best use of the anger against something: stop complaining, start creating a brand new vision.
Usually women are ridiculed when they’re driven by anger, as it was a typical overreaction of hysteria, a period madness. ‘Hysteron’ is the ancient Greek for uterus. But a creative anger could be a powerful driver to take over the executive office!
Girls, this is how “because we're worth it” was born - a line that all women, even those who yet wouldn’t consider themselves feminists, could get behind – a line born 47 years ago to resist, stay meaningful and inspire until today. I think we need to say it to each other more often!
I’ve always enjoyed unconventional, strange takes on design. So when I saw Dinara Kasko’s take on cakes, she became one of my creative heroes instantly.
It all began when I saw a video of what I thought was a compilation of difficult Japanese puzzles to solve. Well they were not. Very quickly, each of these geometric puzzles would be sliced in half revealing that they were cakes. Intrigued, I watched all her videos, then her story. As soon as I realised she didn’t begin as a baker, I was immediately hooked on her.
She majored in architecture, then took a sharp turn to be a baker after working as a 3D visualiser. Apart from her work, I was amazed at her audacity to pursue a completely different career and be wildly successful at it. While other bakers focused on making the best decoration on a circular cake, Dinara Kasko decided that a cake is a cake because of the ingredients not the shape. And she went on to create delicious architectural pastries, which really showed her creative capabilities in both skill and idea. She founded and owned this space.
I’ve always love the marriage of math and design. There’s something very pleasing about geometry, symmetry or asymmetry, and the golden ratio. So seeing cakes made to precision using math was a visual treat. I look up to her greatly because of her courage to pursue a completely different route in life, then combining skill and hobby and being seriously good at it.
As creatives, we can be very judgemental. We often undermine people's achievements and think 'Well I could have done that". The truth is everyone has ideas, but very few would see their ideas through. Kasko was one of these few, and it's definitely worth celebrating her success.