OSU's Billy Ireland Museum is reviving an artist's legacy, while a curator hopes to finally lay her to rest.
When Caitlin McGurk arrived in Columbus seven years ago to take a job at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, her world was primarily inhabited by the comic strips around her. “I didn't know literally anyone in the entire state,” says McGurk, a native of Commack, New York. “With not a lot of friends and zero social life, I spent a lot of time just at work and going through boxes.”
Among the gems McGurk discovered at Ohio State's museum were cartoons by Barbara Shermund. She had never heard of Shermund, but at one time the cartoonist had been a trailblazer. During her heyday in the Jazz Age, the San Francisco native was among the first women to publish cartoons in The New Yorker. Her witty, provocative panels toyed with societal norms.
“She was doing these very, very edgy, often feminist, often even queer cartoons that had these really outspoken female figures in them,” McGurk says.
McGurk took a sabbatical to delve further into Shermund's life and work. The curator was drawn to the cartoonist, an only child whose mother died in 1918 when Shermund was still in her teen years. “I lost my mother when I was a preteen,” McGurk says, “so I just feel this deep connection to that kind of pain and isolation and alienation from the family after the mother's death that she must've experienced.”
Although she was married twice, Shermund had no children of her own. Upon her death in 1978 at age 80, she was estranged from her family and all but forgotten. No obituary was published because New York newspapers were on strike at the time, McGurk says.
Forty years later, inspired by her profound connection, McGurk curated the first posthumous exhibit of the cartoonist's work: Tell Me a Story Where the Bad Girl Wins: The Life and Art of Barbara Shermund. The Billy Ireland show, which opened in November and runs until March, features her panels from The New Yorker, Esquire and numerous unpublished pieces.
Meanwhile, around the same time that McGurk discovered Shermund, the cartoonist's half-niece, Amanda Gormley of Reno, Nevada, was doing her own deep dive. Although Gormley didn't know Shermund, she was intrigued by her long-lost relative and in 2013 tracked down her cremated remains, which were in a can on a funeral home shelf in Monmouth County, New Jersey. Gormley says her heart broke when she found out no one had claimed her aunt for 35 years.
After reading a blog McGurk wrote about Shermund, Gormley traveled to Columbus last summer with her aunt's sketchbooks and illustrations, which helped make the exhibit possible. Gormley and McGurk also felt it was time to do something about the artist's cremains. Her mother is buried in an unmarked grave near San Francisco, and they decided Shermund should be placed in an urn in her mother's plot with a marker for both of them. In late December, they launched a GoFundMe campaign to pay for the expenses, and it had raised more than half of the $8,556 goal by early January.
“This feels like such a deeply personal way to really give back to something that I feel has been an incredible gift to my life,” McGurk says.
Gormley expresses gratitude to the comics scholar whose dedication to Shermund knows no bounds. “If it wasn't for Caitlin, none of this would be happening.”
To donate to the GoFundMe campaign, visit gofundme.com/barbara-shermund-burial-fund.***
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