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BHS Alumnae Forage Career Paths for Women in Art

Illustration by Elena Griedel

Throughout the years, Berkeley High School (BHS) has been the home for thousands of influential women, launching them into professional careers and supporting their passions. Each year, young women take the stage at graduation and begin the next chapter of their lives, hopefully taking some of the lessons learned at BHS with them. These women have pushed to break through in many male dominated careers, which shows in their voices, stories, and works of art.

Ariel Schrag and Sadie Barnette, BHS alumnae, and Miriam Stahl, a BHS staff member, are three women who have made an impact in the community. Schrag, who graduated from BHS in 2009, published her first comic book, Awkward, in her sophomore year in high school. She is now a critically acclaimed comic artist living in New York, but says that growing up in the ‘90s, “[The comic community] was small and mostly male-dominated.”

Schrag wrote Awkward about her freshman year of high school, recounting experiences and stories of her own life in the pages. “There was a lot of autobiographical work,” she explained, “but I hadn’t really known of anybody else recording their life in real time the way I was about BHS.”

Awkward was later combined with her next comic book, Definition, about her sophomore year at BHS. The book was selected for the American Library Association Rainbow List.

Schrag was one of the only female cartoonists at the time, and did not have many big names she could look up to. Instead she needed to pave the way herself. After Schrag published Potential, about her junior year, and Likewise, about her senior year in high school, she attended Columbia University, earning a degree in English Literature. Potential was nominated for the Lambda Literary Award and Likewise was nominated for the Eisner Award.

Although she is extremely successful now, Schrag is a woman in an industry that is only “about ten percent women.”

“When I was younger in the comics world, I wasn’t taken as seriously by some people because I was female, and I was paid attention to in a way that wasn’t always so positive. [I was] definitely touched inappropriately by older men at conventions,” said Schrag.

Sadie Barnette, an artist whose medium spans from “photography to installations, photo-murals, and book-making,” is also a BHS alumna. Barnette attended Independent Study (IS) for her last two years of BHS, saying, “it changed my life.”

“At some point, I definitely stopped going to classes. The thing that really saved me was doing photography. I would cut class and just go to the dark room all day at the IS campus,” said Barnette. Despite her difficulties in high school, found outlets through different artistic forms. From photography at school, to performing arts at the Destiny Arts Center in Oakland, it was what “set me on the path to becoming an artist,” she said. “Often times, it doesn’t really occur to men, often straight-white-well off men, that you can do something or whether you belong … overcoming those insecurities or lack of confidence was something that definitely as a woman and fem-spectrum person I’ve had to work on and continue to work on.”

Barnette did not let anything stop her from achieving her dream of becoming a full time artist, and now hopes to “engage the community to provide spaces that challenge the way we think about things and see things. I want to create a space for imagining new possibilities and new ways of thinking about politics.”

Miriam Stahl is an Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA) founder and teacher, and also the illustrator for the New York Times best selling series Rad Women. She has taught at BHS for 23 years and says, “outside of teaching, I see myself as an artist and an activist.”

The series Rad Women, about strong and inspirational women around the world, was inspired by Stahl’s ten-year-old daughter. “There were really no books when [my child] was younger that had inspiring stories about women,” she said. Stahl was also the co-artist for the popular Berkeley Stands United Against Hate poster, now with over fifty thousand copies printed around different Bay Area cities.

Although Stahl has now created a name for herself, she “wasn’t always the confident person she is today.” In her youth, she said, “I definitely had doubts, like, ‘can I do this?’ and ‘Is there space for me?’”

Growing up in the ‘70s, there “weren’t a lot of examples of successful women in the arts.” Now, she is one of those examples, hoping to “empower students to express themselves,” and “change culture around how young boys are brought up to treat the girls and women around them.”

  Even though Schrag, Barnette, and Stahl may have graduated from high school over twenty years ago, their passion and drive is still reflected BHS’s young women. Students may be passing by the next famous actress in the hallway, or share a class with a future president. BHS is the proud home to innovative, smart, and empowering young women who have and will continue to push boundaries and break the   glass  above  them.