This post comes to us from Jenna Collins, Curatorial Intern
Currently displayed in the New Britain Museum of American Art, Rowena A. Morrill’s Twilight Terrors was commissioned in 1979 for the National Lampoon Vacation cover. It depicts the wild imagination of a young boy who envisions a terrifying dragon reaching out for him as he walks along a road at night. This charming painting captured my heart and imagination as it brought me back to a time when I, too, would fill the empty darkness of my room with wild imaginings of beasts and dragons.
As a child I was fascinated with the exciting and fanciful worlds created within the books I brought home from the library each week. The thrill and allure of a chilling mystery or a heroic adventure always kept me reading way past my bed time, filling my imagination with visions of monsters and worlds beyond the stars. Those nail biting epics inspired my love for illustration and I became intrigued by the artists who could transform these fantastical descriptions of monsters and their worlds into an illustration that captures not only an image but also the energy of the character.
Among the first women to make a major impact on Science Fiction and Fantasy illustration, American artist Rowena A. Morrill (born 1944), set the bar high for male and female illustrators alike. Due to her family’s military background, Rowena’s travel experiences influenced her work.
“Up until she was in her twenties, Rowena hadn’t considered painting. Just by chance, she took a painting class and became consumed by the study and practice of her artwork. After that she was like a moth attracted to the sunlight, and has always had a passion for drawing and painting.” –Kathy Morrill, Sister
While her nomadic life lead her to explore many different cultures and countries, Rowena was also inspired by her family’s musical background; her mother was a pianist and grandparents were both singers. Initially starting her college career with an interest as a music major, she then dropped her studies to marry an Air Force Lieutenant. After a few years of travel with her husband, Rowena decided to take a painting course while she was in California. It was then that she found her true passion which spurred her artistic career.
After receiving a BA from the University of Delaware, Rowena began working toward a MFA at the Tyler School of Arts. She did not complete her degree but instead followed her passion for fantasy art to New York where her career began as a cover artist. As she further developed her own style and technique, Rowena became known for her unique process of thinly layering acrylic and oil paints between high gloss glazes on illustration board. Soon after her move to New York she landed her first commission piece for the cover of Isobel by horror novelist, Jane Parkhurst. Throughout her almost two decade career, Rowena continued producing brilliant works for writers such as H.P. Lovecraft, Anne McCaffrey, Isaac Asimov, Samuel R. Delaney, Piers Anthony, and Madeleine L’Engle along with illustrations for calendars, trading cards and magazines such as Omni and Playboy. By cleverly signing all her covers as simply “Rowena,” her art work became recognized and the reputation for her illustrations spread landing her four Hugo award nominations for best professional artist. This lead to the publication of The Fantastic Art of Rowena, which brought in another Hugo nomination for best nonfiction book in 1983. Some of her own books dedicated to her work include Imagine, Imagination and The Art of Rowena. Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, Rowena continued to produce a successful amount of work for covers such as Anne McCaffrey’s, The Dolphins of Pern (1994) which was also used in her biography, Anne McCaffrey: A Life with Dragons (2007). She later received a Chesley Award nomination for her cover of Victoria Strauss’s The Garden of the Stone (1999). Recently, Rowena taught briefly at The Kubert School of Art from 1990 to 1991 and then from 2008 to 2011. She now considers herself “retired” but continues to produce work from her home in New York.
Rowena’s exciting work not only inspires my imagination but is widely respected among Science Fiction and Fantasy Illustrators to this day. How do you think Rowena’s work compares to today’s Science Fiction and Fantasy artists? Do you think Rowena had a disadvantage at the beginning of her career because she was a woman? In what work do you see the influence of Rowena’s travel?