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The Reconstructionists: Celebrating Badass Women

What do Buddhist artist Agnes Martin, Hollywood inventor Hedy Lamarr, and French-Cuban author Anaïs Nin have in common? Their names may not conjure popular recognition, and yet, for Lisa Congdon and Maria Popova, these women represent a particular breed of cultural trailblazer: female, under-appreciated, badass. They are “Reconstructionists,” as the writer-illustrator duo call them – and for the next year, they’ll be celebrated on a blog of the same name. Every Monday for 12 months, The Reconstructionists will debut a hand-painted illustration and short essay highlighting a woman from fields such as art, science, and literature. The subject needn’t be famous, but she will, as Popova, the creator of Brain Pickings, puts it, “have changed the way we define ourselves as a culture." We spoke with Popova, and illustrator Congdon, about the inspiration behind their project.

How’d you come up with the name ‘Reconstructionist’?

Maria Popova: It’s very challenging to celebrate women without pigeonholing the project into some stereotypical and alienating feminist corner, the most dangerous part of which is the preaching-to-the-choir quality that many such projects tend to have. So when it was time to come up with a title for the project, it couldn’t be something too literal or too obvious. After sifting through hundreds of letters, diaries, autobiographies, and other writing, I suddenly remembered something Anaïs Nin had written in a 1944 diary entry – about "woman’s role in the reconstruction of the world.” It was perfect. It was the only common denominator between those women – they aren’t all artists, or all writers, or all to be expected in the pages of a tenth-grade history book. They are simply all reconstructionists.

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Art at a Snail’s Pace

You’ve finally made it, after a breathless climb up the winding marble staircase, to the upper terrace of the Duomo di Milano – the famed Cathedral of Milan, Italy, and the fourth largest in the world. You flip through your guide book. A towering forest of ornate spires, the same ones that enchanted the literary likes of Mark Twain and Henry James? Check. The hundred gruesome gargoyles, staring down from their marble perches? Check. There is the precious white marble, quarried from Candoglia, and a view of the Italian Swiss Alps in the distance (amid the smog). And yet, if you happened to be one of thousands of tourists who visited the Duomo two months ago, there was also something out of place – a bit of modernity sticking out among the 14th-century Gothic masterpiece.

There, slinking across the cathedral’s steps and roof, were dozens of bright blue plastic snails.

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