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.