KSMU Feature:
Rose O'Neill: An Artist
in the Ozark Hills

The First Word: Jacque Warren

Jacqueline Warren is Artist in Residence in the Department of Art and Art History.

Rose O'Neill left her prairie home in Nebraska when she was 17 to begin a career as an artist in 1890s New York City, and she became the highest paid female cartoonist and illustrator of the 20th century. Rose's contemporaries—including Booth Tarkington, Mark Twain, and Edna St. Vincent Millay—described her as the most witty, charming and radiant person in their lives. She was also known for her warmth and her caring personality, generously giving away her fortune in her lifetime.

O'Neill's independent nature gave depth to her work. "Master Mistress," a collection of poems including famous drawings of haunting yet witty monsters, was on display in Paris in 1921. These drawings became the alter ego that O'Neill is known for—in addition to her invention of one of the most popular toys of its time, the Kewpie Doll.

She created metaphors for the gaps between the worlds of men and women. Instead of criticizing and dismantling the culture that surrounded her, she built it up with humor and inclusiveness. Securing the right to vote for women became a theme in her socially conscious comic posters. Her fame generated attention and praise from critics and other writers, using art and the visual word to further the political cause. Speaking at Madison Square Garden she said, "President Wilson supports women's right to vote, and so do I."

More than four years ago, the discovery that a Drury University property was the final residence of Rose O'Neill prompted several faculty and staff members to embark on an effort to save the home as a living memorial. This took all of us working together in a Drury community project. Every individual involved researched the career and activism of this American artist. Fundraisers were held to save the home, and people from the community came forward with financial and spiritual support. Tijuana Julian, Krystal McCulloch and Todd Parnell were instrumental in helping several faculty members present their ideas to the Drury Board of Trustees. Traci Sooter and I involved students from the Hammons School of Architecture to prepare the home and the grounds for renovation. Jo Van Arkel and I met with collectors of O'Neill's work to discuss additional fundraising ideas for the project, and we visited with David O'Neill, her great-nephew. We could feel the power of our efforts to save the property growing into a special movement. These efforts by so many people helped activate the project, and it continues to gain momentum.

It took hours, months and years to achieve the goal of saving the Rose O'Neill home. The feeling of activism was a natural response once we learned about the life and work of this historic icon. It was a mission of the heart and a passion of the soul that compelled all of us to become active and make this happen.