In a year awash with groundbreaking accomplishments by women — from Simone Biles’s Internet-breaking Olympic performances to Leslie Jones’s rising Hollywood star to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign — Julie Van Grol saw artistic inspiration.
The illustrator and college instructor had been casting about for a project that would strengthen her portfolio when she hit on an idea to highlight a successful woman every day for 100 days with a series of portraits on Instagram. A hashtag to promote the project, #100daysofbadassbabes, was born. “I had just come off of a weekend cabin retreat with my college roommates, and we had spent the weekend talking about feminism and women we admired,” she says. “I realized that I wanted to put my mind in that frame every day — to think about someone I admired and challenge myself to learn to things.”
She launched the project on August 1 with a portrait of Michelle Obama, who’d ignited the Democratic National Convention with a powerful speech just days earlier. Using her Wacom tablet (a digital drawing tool similar to an iPad), Van Grol spent hours sketching a colorful portrait of the First Lady, and wrote a few sentences about her influence in politics.
Over the coming days, Van Grol found new sources of inspiration from daily news and historical reading. Her subjects included Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, political activist Angela Davis, and tennis and entrepreneurial superstars Venus and Serena Williams. Regardless of her workload as an instructor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) and her other freelance projects, she carved out a couple hours every single day to work on the project.
As the number of portraits in the series grew, so did her Instagram following — more than quadrupling to about a thousand followers — and she was profiled in Huffington Post. At popular request, she began selling a dozen of the most popular portraits on her website.
Most important to her, she’s had school teachers request images from the series to use in their classrooms. “It’s tough to find teaching aids that speak to particular subjects, so it’s thrilling that teachers are finding this work,” Van Grol says. “The best thing I could possibly hear about this project is that it gets into schools.”
Somewhere in the process of illustrating portraits of badass babes, Julie Van Grol became one.
“Art can seem very serious — like you’ve got to encapsulate the entire human experience, but sometimes, you just want to make someone smile.”
The Instagram project did more than put a spotlight on 100 women that Van Grol admired and wanted to bring to a wider audience — it highlighted the discipline that has helped her succeed as an artist on her own terms. In a world bubbling with great ideas, very few people maintain the dogged commitment to seeing the spark of inspiration all the way through to completion. “It was an undertaking,” she admits. “I’m not very fast, but it was a daily commitment. I didn’t miss my babe of the day.”
Associate Art and Art History Professor John Saurer sussed out that work ethic almost from the moment Van Grol arrived at St. Olaf. “Julie always had
a particular focus and determination to do things,” he recalls. “She tried what we had available here, and when she couldn’t get it in her classes, she pursued other opportunities, like [screenprinting] in Paris and an independent study with me.”
Saurer admires Van Grol’s desire to explore new areas and challenge herself. “In her independent study, she set up lessons for herself based on what she wanted to accomplish and learn and experience,” he says. “She set her own path.”
For Van Grol, St. Olaf offered rich opportunities, both within the classroom and beyond it. Even as she excelled in studio art, she also sought to find an outlet for her work that aligned closely with her personality: optimistic, clever, and funny. “Art can seem very serious — like you’ve got to encapsulate the entire human experience,” she says. “But sometimes, you just want to make someone smile.”
While at St. Olaf, she was inspired by the work of Jay Ryan, an illustrator whose lighthearted drawings of cats, rabbits, and bears — featured prominently on concert posters for musician Andrew Bird — helped her understand that there were many ways to be an artist. “I realized there was a spectrum,” she says. “There’s art that makes you think about the larger idea of humanity, and there’s the commercial art of a candy bar wrapper. I like being more in the middle, where you can still create a narrative and have human connection, but you don’t have to overthink it.”
Thanks to her friendships with St. Olaf musicians, she had opportunities while on the Hill to create gig posters and other art for bands. When she graduated in 2008 — launching herself into the world just as the economy began to crumble — she stayed fiercely devoted to her work. She took a job at a Chicago-area cafe and kept at it. “In my off hours, I was making artwork from cardboard flats that I would take from work,” she says. “I just kept drawing.”
When the cafe closed down in 2010, Van Grol moved to Minneapolis and prepared a portfolio that eventually landed her a spot in MCAD, where she earned an M.F.A. She later took an adjunct teaching position at the art college, which she balances with her freelance work.
The whimsical touch she has honed over the years is evident within her portfolio, which is dotted with illustrated paper airplanes, cowboy-hat- clad rabbits, and llamas peeking out of apartment windows. Today, you can see her work on tea towels — she’s created souvenir towels for the city of Dallas, as well as for Tennessee and most Midwestern states — and on the St. Paul Public Library’s Bookmobile. If you’ve seen any of the work for St. Olaf’s current campaign (you have), you might recognize a Van Grol illustration: an image of candy-colored St. Olaf buildings against a pink sky.
“There’s art that makes you think about the larger idea of humanity, and there’s the commercial art of a candy bar wrapper. I like being more in the middle.”
After more than three months of serious portrait work, Van Grol wrapped up her Badass Babes project with her 100th woman, Hillary Clinton, on November 9. “It was serendipitous that it ended that day, but regardless of the outcome of the election, history was made,” she says.
And while she’s ready to return to some of the more playful illustrations she’s done for years and occasionally wants to make lighthearted work (“like illustrating a turquoise house cat hanging out in a fluorescent pink jungle”), Van Grol will not stop using her artistic practice to engage in the social and political conversation.
“I feel compelled to still use illustration to continue to make a difference. And perhaps that means turning toward children’s books. That medium holds so much significance on how children view themselves and the world. I feel compelled to enter that field in order to empower children to live lives of love and respect, towards themselves and others,” she says.
“I need to keep using my voice and my work, now more than ever.”
Erin Peterson is a Minneapolis freelance writer and editor, and a regular contributor to St. Olaf
100 Days of Badass Babes
From authors to athletes to political figures, the women of Van Grol’s Badass Babes project are
high achievers from many eras. To see the entire project, visit: