History is full of iconic women who many of us admire — Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ruth Bader Ginsburg — but we don't always dive into their personhood, they specific characteristics they possess that make them so admirable.

Little Rock artist Rebecca Kirkpatrick Bahn is doing exactly that through her Women Changing the World portrait series. Each piece highlights a notable woman alongside their quality Bahn most wants to be: fearless like Harriet, compassionate like Eleanor, driven like Ruth. 

We caught up with Bahn to learn more about the series and how reflecting on these women as whole people, not just names in a book, has had a profound impact. 

 

 

What inspired you to start the Women Changing the World series?

RKB: There were several factors that led to the creation of this series. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in the summer of 2020, I lost my job. Feeling lost, I turned to painting as a creative outlet. I’d warm up each day with a self portrait including what I was wearing that day (a really good excuse to put on something other than sweats), and liked some of the figures and textures that appeared on the page. 

I began to wonder how this warm-up could become something more significant. 

It’s been discouraging in recent years to be reminded of the ways in which minorities and women are dismissed in the media, by political figures and through unconscious bias. Women have been at the forefront of social, political, humanitarian and artistic change for centuries, and we should celebrate that more. Frankly, we can’t celebrate it enough. I kept thinking about my 12-year-old niece and how upset I would be if anyone ever thought of such an incredible girl as "less than." 

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last September, I wondered how anyone could possibly look at this woman’s life and think she was any less capable than a man. RBG was the first portrait in my series. As I studied her life, one word of admiration kept reverberating in my mind: driven. I wanted to be driven like Ruth. 

The rest of the series fell into place from there. I sought out diverse women that have changed, and are changing, the world, and selected a quality I would most like to emulate from each. 

 

 

How would you describe your style?

RKB: For this series specifically, I’ve worked with watercolor to create these portraits. I wanted to portray these women in a way that was respectful, accessible and fun. The figures are painted in a loose style, but each includes small details — like Frida Kahlo’s parrot, Rosa Parks's booking number and Audrey Hepburn’s baby bangs — that help make them unmistakably distinguishable. I’ve included bright color backgrounds to give the portraits a modern, accessible feel. 

For my personal style, I’d say it’s something like "eclectic and collected." I don’t necessarily have a certain "style," but I like what I like — antiques, contemporary and handmade pieces. I’m the element that ties it all together. I like all of my stuff, therefore all my stuff "goes" together.

 

Is there anything else all your subjects have in common?

RKB: They’re all from different backgrounds, all had different goals and faced different obstacles, but they all have grit. Their tenacity — sometimes displayed quietly, sometimes boldly, sometimes covertly — allowed them to change the world. 

 

 

Who has been your favorite to work on so far?

RKB: That’s like asking someone to pick a favorite child! I hand-painted each portrait and researched and wrote the bios for each woman myself (with a little editing help from my writer husband), so I feel like I’ve really poured into each woman’s journey. 

I have delighted in working on each for different reasons: Corrie ten Boom and Harriet Tubman were my childhood heroes, I was so inspired by RBG after hearing her speak in Little Rock in 2019, I smiled as I remembered facts from my Baptist upbringing as I painted Lottie Moon, I missed my grandmother and our time together watching episodes of "I Love Lucy" as I painted Lucille Ball, I painted Kamala Harris in tears just before her victory speech as vice president-elect, I beamed with pride as I painted Arkansas natives Elizabeth Eckford, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Maya Angelou. I draw inspiration from, and feel a kinship with, every woman I’ve painted. 

 

 

Have you discovered anything about these women you didn't expect?

RKB: I’ve been a history nerd from day one. American Girls were my jam as a kid (huge Molly stan here) and I’ve always been into reading biographies, so the research portion of this project was really fun for me. I enjoyed learning interesting facts such as Audrey Hepburn was part of the resistance in Nazi-occupied Belgium, Amelia Earhart built a roller coaster in her backyard as a child and that Eleanor Roosevelt’s happiest day of her life was when she joined her school’s field hockey team. 

Most of all, I discovered a new level of admiration for the contributions of these women. I’ve loved seeing others discover and become inspired by this series, choosing to hang portraits of women who they previously knew little about. 

 

What do you hope people will gain from this series?

RKB: I hope as people learn more about these remarkable women or glance at one of their portraits, they can identify with their struggles and become inspired by their achievements. I hope people step away with a new respect for not only these women, but for women as a whole. 

My husband and I are expecting our first baby, a boy, in September. I look forward to showing him my artwork and telling him the stories of how these women changed the world. My hope is that I can raise my child to value the contributions women have made and are making in our society and that he can aspire to be driven like Ruth, kind like Dolly, smart like Marie, fearless like Harriet, etc.

 

 

What have you learned about yourself in this process?

RKB: When I began this series, I’d just lost my job. If you’ve never lost a job, I’ll just go ahead and tell you, it’s not a good feeling. As I began to pour into this series and my other artwork, I began to reevaluate what I wanted out of my career and out of my life. I became so inspired by the lives of these women, and I let their achievements fuel my drive to keep going. My struggle, which seemed so big at the time, seemed very manageable compared to the obstacles these women overcame in changing the world. I’ve received such a positive reaction to this series from family, friends and strangers that it has affirmed my decision to pursue art as my career.

I’ve previously worked for an arts- and education-centered nonprofit and in the ad agency world, but I felt something was always missing for me in those settings. Finding an avenue to combine my love of history, style, art and storytelling seemed impossible at different points of my career. Art has provided me the opportunity to combine those and do something that I am passionate about every day. All of my work — landscapes, abstracts, portraits — allows me to be all the way "me" in a way that previous careers have not. It’s an added bonus that the Women Changing the World series allows me to combine those passions, all while (re)introducing the stories of incredible women who we can all draw inspiration from daily. 

 

Learn more about Bahn's work by following along on Facebook and Instagram. 

 

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