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Paintings of women in STEM aim to highlight missing history

Artist Jo Napier uses art to educate others on women’s history

2 min read
Three portraits are hanging on a wall. The portrait in the middle is of a woman with dark hair, wearing pearls. The other two are of flowers that are red and pink.
caption A portrait of Jennie Smillie, painted by Jo Napier, hangs in a hospital in Halifax. Smillie was the first female surgeon to practise in Ontario and performed the first major gynecological surgery in Canada.
Hope Edmond

Jo Napier’s inspiration to paint iconic women in STEM research began with her own daughter in a corner of her own house.

“As my daughter got older she wanted to empty the coat closet and turn it into a science lab, so I thought who are the great women of science I can tell her about … and I couldn’t really think of any,” Napier said. 

After researching women who made contributions in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, Napier learned “women have always worked in these fields, we just don’t know their faces or their stories.”

“I realized this is half our history and we don’t know it,” she said. 

Her curiosity has turned into the Great Women Portrait Project, which will run annually from International Women’s Day in March, to International Day of the Girl in October. 

“There’s a steady stream of fascinating women with accomplishments in these male dominated fields that we don’t know about,” Napier said.

People participating in the project will choose a woman they wish to honour, and Napier will paint their portrait. Those who commission portraits make a commitment to hang it in a public or professional space by Oct. 11. 

“It’s an opportunity to mix art, stories and education,” Napier said. 

Project success

During 2023, the first year of the project, she painted about a dozen portraits. One of them is now hanging in the QEII, a hospital in Halifax. 

Napier also sold about 30 prints in the first year that are now hanging in CEO’s offices within Canada and the U.S. She is also receiving inquiries from Paris and Vienna. “It’s a Nova Scotia women’s led project that’s now gone beyond Nova Scotia borders,” she said. 

Growing up not knowing much about women’s history, Napier saw this as an opportunity to educate others. She believes her project is “a great way to invite people into a broader sense of possibilities in terms of who can contribute to STEM.” 

In 2015, 44 per cent of first year STEM students were women. A study published by Statistics Canada in 2019 also found women are more likely than men to transfer out of a STEM program.

The project as an educational tool 

Napier unveiled her portraits for the first year of the project at the Prow Gallery in Halifax on Oct. 11. Owner Cheryl Bell says, “the stories that Jo shared and that some of the patrons shared about the women in the portraits was very uplifting.” 

“It was just a message that we all had to hear,” said Bell. She has been in contact with Napier to discuss hosting the unveiling of next year’s portraits in her gallery. 

When people commission a portrait, they also choose a youth organization to support. Napier provides the organization with an informational video about the woman in the painting. 

The goal is to “educate not just this generation but also young girls and boys,” Napier said. 

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About the author

Hope Edmond

Hope Edmond is a master's of journalism student from Enfield, Nova Scotia. She enjoys sharing the stories of others.

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