Wednesday, October 08, 2008

MARTHA SAWYERS (1902-1988)

If you graduated from high school in Cuero, Texas during the 1920s you could look forward to a long career working at one of the local turkey farms. Martha Sawyers sized up the situation and decided instead to run for her life.

She packed a bag and made her way to New York City where she took classes at the Art Students League and supported herself doing theatrical illustrations. But Sawyers wasn't done running.

Late at night in her small apartment she read stories about the exotic islands of the south Pacific and resolved to see them with her own eyes. She saved enough money to book passage on a slow Dutch freighter headed for the south seas. The ship steamed around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean, and with each new port Sawyers became more entranced by the sounds and colors and cultures. When the freighter arrived at the island of Bali, she decided to stay. She quit the ship and rented a small place on the beach looking out across the Straits of Bali.

The first nights alone were terribly creepy. The surf booms in like great thunder claps but in between each roar of the waves I could imagine I heard all sorts of things. One night a monkey broke in and swung on the support of my mosquito bar over the bed, gibbering at me all night long.
Looking back, Sawyers laughed that she had no idea what she was getting into. "I guess I was a ninny, to tell the truth." She got sunstroke. She had to dose herself with quinine to avoid malaria. But her experiences in the south seas set fire to her art. Sawyers said that living among the natives
taught me the value of honesty in my type of work. When you stand and sweat-- yes, sweat-- for a whole morning trying to get the right reproduction of a girl's golden skin and amber eyes it's good for you.

Sawyers later described her fateful decision as "the turning point in my artistic career. The nights when I trudged out into the coconut palm groves to see the natives dance were worth it alone."

The pictures she created in the south sea islands were highly successful back in the United States. She exhibited a series of 30 portraits of Balinese artists in a NY gallery where they were seen by the art director for Colliers. She soon became a regular illustrator of Asian subjects for Colliers, as well as for Liberty and McCall's.

Sawyers had some close calls after World War II broke out in the Pacific. She endured the Japanese invasion of Peiping. Outraged by the impact of war on the people and cultures she loved, she created posters for Chinese war relief and became a war correspondent for Colliers.

After the war, she continued traveling around the world, and worked in Penang, Singapore, Sumatra,Tokyo, Istanbul, Java, Hong Kong, Shanghai, China, Indonesia, India, Nepal and Mexico.

Sawyers married illustrator Bill Reusswig and for a while even thought about retiring, but said "before six months were up I was so bored I could have wept." Taking her husband in tow, Sawyers went off on another adventure illustrating books about the far east. She wrote of one of their trips:
From the plains of India at Patna we flew in a war-weary C-47 northward over some of the highest mountains in the world, then dropped into the valley of Katmandu, which is only 4,500 feet above sea level. Timing and luck gave us spring in our Shangri-la.
Sawyers' long and exciting artistic career ended quietly in a little home in the Connecticut countryside.

I am amazed that virtually nothing has been written about the life of Martha Sawyers. I only learned the stories I am sharing here by sitting at the feet of
Walt Reed at Illustration House. Each year the echo of her bold adventure grows fainter.


Blogger Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Wow! What a life story. It reminds me of a documentary I recently saw, and it was about people who took their money and went to the east. Life is cheap there and they can basically live for years and years on the savings they made back home, by living soberly. Wouldn't that be an artist's paradise? So many artists quit because of financial reasons... what if they all just forgot about luxury and went to Asia and did their thing?

10/04/2008 7:40 AM  
Blogger tomnel said...

Incredible story. This is the best blog.

Thank you.

10/05/2008 5:10 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Benjamin, no doubt that Martha Sawyers had a cool life story. I hope that some historian takes the time to do her justice before the last memories have dissipated. As for Asia, based on my recent travels there I think the days of bargains are over.

Thanks, tomnel. I hope you have even half as much fun reading these as I have writing them.

10/05/2008 10:39 PM  
Blogger Casey said...

Wow. I grew up in San Antonio only a handful of miles north of Cuero and I've never heard this story. Thanks David!

10/07/2008 1:06 PM  
OpenID gentlebear said...

Just stumbled across your blog. Incredible. Wow, what a truly great read.

10/07/2008 10:24 PM  
Blogger Ellen said...

David, thanks for posting that. Those first few sketches at the top made my arm hairs stand up. It seems like she accomplished two great, human things: doing excellent work through thought and labor, and having crazy adventures.

10/08/2008 12:39 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Casey, perhaps the Cuero chamber of commerce would like to designate a local historian to write a biography of Sawyers. To the extent there are any records of her youth, they would have to be there in Cuero.

Gentlebear, thanks very much. I really appreciate your reaction.

10/08/2008 3:09 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Ellen, Sawyers had some very touching things to say about her portraits of native women. There were no mirrors on the island (except for reflections in pools of water) so these women had never really seen how they looked before. They were very moved at seeing their own faces for the first time. Some of them wept because they didn't realize how much they had aged. Others were reluctant to pose for portraits because they were afraid their dead ancestors would not approve.

10/08/2008 4:05 PM  
Blogger rachete said...

I like your blog!

10/13/2008 6:47 PM  
Blogger illustrationISM said...

WOW...another great illustrator I'VE NEVER HEARD OF...THANX!
What's the story behind the pacific islander lady, in the back of the motor boat, putting the baby in the ocean tied to a can???!!!

mark jaquette @
illustrationism &
bammgraphics !

10/18/2008 1:50 AM  
Blogger Chuck Pyle said...

what powerful drawing and authority. The scene of the poor kid being hucked off the motor boat with a gas can for a float is just breathtaking in its authority and real tenderness with the kid's gesture, to boot!

10/18/2008 9:32 PM  
Blogger Sonya the Cobalt Angel said...

what a wonderful woman-never heard of her but I want to know much, much more...thank you!!!

10/22/2008 9:25 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thank you, Rachete-- I enjoyed your painter's diary as well!

Illustrationism, there are so many talented artists buried in the past, each with a distinctive struggle...

Chuck, I always enjoy reading your take on these images.

Sonya, it is my hope that someone with some an aptitude for biography will write something about Sawyers before the last of her peers dies off.

10/27/2008 5:21 AM  
Blogger djeblog said...

Great story. But Sumatra, Java they are part of Indonesia, not separate country.

11/02/2008 12:21 PM  
Anonymous Nkolika Anyabolu (MD) said...

What a wonderful story............many artists go unrecognized but I feel the most important thing is that every artist should strive to derive joy in whatever he/she even if the recognition doesn't come...nothing's lost!!

12/29/2008 4:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, your blog is exceptionally well-done and a credit to Martha's life story. My wife was married to her nephew until his untimely death. Of course, she has many fond memories of Martha and inherited the bulk of her life's work. Many of her paintings are on display at our home, as well as copies of her books. If you feel that we could contribute to the content of your blog, please contact us.

1/28/2009 5:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ooops! Forgot to include my E-mail address. It is

1/31/2009 5:45 PM  
Anonymous Sue Rankin said...

Hi, David! I just found your blog while early stages research on Martha Sawyers in order to do a tribute piece. Thank you so much for your post! I am especially interested in finding out the specifics behind the piece depicting the woman who appears to be lowering her weighted-down child into the water. Do you know what the story behind it is?

11/20/2009 1:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have an Original Portrait of my Grandmother(dated 1930) by Martha Sawyers. Its is BEAUTIFUL.
Great to find some info.
My Grandparents lived in Buffalo/Tonawanda,and traveled widely. ..............d

12/25/2009 9:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. I have lived in Cuero all my life and was raised in a family of artists and cannot believe I have never heard of Martha Sawyers! She was the same age as my grandmother and great aunts and uncles. I am just disappointed that none of my family from that generation are still around. As small towns are notorious for, surely my Grandma could have told me who she was, what she wore to school, who her boyfriends are, etc. I will have to see what I can find around here. Thanks so much for sharing this.

4/07/2010 2:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Martha has a beautiful way of capturing expression. I had the privilege of knowing her and her husband in my childhood ( reusswig) as they are both relatives of mine. Have you ever done research on the artist Josef Helff? He is another distant relative of mine of whom I have found little information on and would love to know more about.

1/09/2011 7:27 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

David, that's a great blog. Do you know what was done with Martha's personal papers after her death? Are they available to the public?
Also, does anyone have any knowledge of the background to the series of potraits of lascars (Indian seamen) by Sawyers, which were published in Life magazine 24 January 1944? (One - the man with the goatee beard and sailor hat - is posted on the blog) best,
Jonathan Hyslop

2/14/2011 10:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this wonderful story. I received "The Illustrated Book about Far East" for my 10th birthday and got completely bewitched by its magic. This beautiful book and its charming images made me dream and took me to wonderful places... Now I am a diplomat, and I feel this book was my first step into this career! I still have it as a dear, very significant treasure.

9/06/2012 4:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Martha Sawyer was my aunt. My mother's half brother WILLIAM REUSSWIG married Martha. I am not sure if my family have much information about her. A cool artist she may be but her personal life with our family was different.

4/12/2013 12:21 AM  
Blogger John Stofer said...

I enjoy your information...
My grandmother was a close friend of Martha Sawyers and passed a number of her original illustrations on to me. AMAZING ART! I was wondering how to have them valued and also preserved.
Do you have any ideas?
Thank You!

5/01/2013 2:53 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

John Stofer-- You're a lucky man. If you write me at, I can recommend a few knowledgeable folks you might consult.

5/01/2013 3:02 PM  

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