Martha Sawyers

(1902-1988) American Illustrator.

Martha Sawyers provides a case study in talent and pluck, if also the limits of quasi-ethnography. An illustrator-correspondent who came to represent Asian peoples to American magazine readers, Sawyers was undeniably adventurous, dogged and brave.  

Raised in early 20th century Texas, Martha Sawyers fixated as a girl on faraway people and places. After high school she moved to New York City, training at the Art Students League and hustling design and illustration work. She saved enough money to buy passage on a Dutch freighter headed for the South Seas, and hopped off in Bali. The trip became the turning point in her career. Upon returning to New York she exhibited portraits of Balinese subjects at Marie Sterner Galleries, which attracted the attention of Bill Chessman, Collier's art director.

Sawyers found a niche depicting Asian cultures to accompany both fiction and non-fiction. Such work was newly in demand; World War Two had broken out in Asia when Japan bombed Shanghai and invaded China in 1937. During the war years and after, Sawyers traveled the world as a visual correspondent, publishing her work in Collier's and other mainstream periodicals. 

Writing on Sawyers' work–by Leif Peng of Today's Inspiration and David Apatoff at Illustration Art–rightly celebrates the quality of her drawing and her seriousness of purpose.

Subsequent efforts will have to engage the discomfiting questions of Orientalism, essentializing approaches to representation and notions of "authenticity." For a taste of the period during which Ms. Sawyers plied her trade, consider descriptions of her approach in Ernest Watson's Forty Illustrators and How They Work (Watson-Guptill, 1946): "She is willing to be pigeonholed by art editors as an illustrator of Asiatic lore." Neatly capturing striking attitudes about gender and ethnicity in a single sentence, Watson writes: "Miss Sawyers is petite, vivacious and has a very disarming manner that must account for her success in overcoming the diffidence of natives peoples of the Orient." 


Martha Sawyers, Cover illustration for Colliers. December 7, 1946. This is a complicated image. The publication date of the magazine is five years to the day after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. The U.S. has won the war, and costume clues in the left foreground tell us that the blonde bathing woman is an occupying American military officer. She regards a Japanese periodical (perhaps uncomprehendingly) while an Japanese woman–some sort of an attendant–scrubs her back. The illustration conveys matter-of-fact subjugation, a mixture of national and (implicitly) racial triumph.  

Martha Sawyers, interior illustration. Colliers Magazine. May 1943.

Martha Sawyers, "China Sky". Written by Pearl S. Buck. Colliers Magazine. February 1941.

Martha Sawyers, "China Sky". Written by Pearl S. Buck. Colliers Magazine. February 1941.

Martha Sawyers, portrait of Mrs. Bashiran. Sketch from Delhi, India. Colliers Magazine. February 1946.

Written and illustrated by Martha Sawyers, "Women in Seclusion". Colliers Magazine. February 1946.

Martha Sawyers, "Honorable Homecoming". Written by Mona Gardner. Colliers Magazine. June 1941.

Martha Sawyers, interior illustration. Colliers Magazine. October 1940.

Martha Sawyers, "Death in the Pot". Written by Walter Duranty. Colliers Magazine. November 1941.

Written and Illustrated by Martha Sawyers, "The Face of China". Colliers Magazine. December 1945.