How I Overcame The Color Barrier at the New Yorker and Other Tales of a Young Artist

Eleanor J. Bader Sep 25, 2022

Sometimes chutzpah, a combination of bluster and gall, pays off. Just ask Liz Montague.

When Montague was 22, she wrote to the The New Yorker and asked the editors why they published so few illustrations by artists of color. The aftermath of her note led to something improbable. Not only did staff respond to her query, but they asked her to suggest artists to reach out to. Her response was to suggest herself.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Maybe an Artist tells Montague’s unlikely story. The graphic memoir is geared towards young adults and begins with an account of Montague’s suburban childhood. She was in kindergarten at Goldfinch Elementary in Marlton, New Jersey, during the 9/11 attacks and writes that the aftermath of the assault — and especially the unfolding war — terrified and confused her. This was not Montague’s only concern. As kids around her began to read and write, she languished, later learning that her lack of academic progress was due to dyslexia. School was hell, and although she eventually found strategies that enabled her to keep up with her peers and complete assignments, it was never easy.

Journalism gave Liz Montague an outlet for her curiosity, but rather than try to pen articles, she opted to make signs and draw. 

Her relentless curiosity proved to be a ready asset, but there was a downside to her constant probes. As she became increasingly aware of climate change and looming environmental calamity, middle-school-aged Montague became scared and unsettled. What could she, a Black kid from the ‘burbs, do to make things better? 

Montague writes that the concern gnawed at her as she struggled “to understand the bigger things going on in the world.” Journalism gave her an outlet, but rather than try to pen articles, she opted to make signs and draw, skills that came easily to her. 

In short order, an avocation for graphic story-telling emerged.

A slide from Liz Montague’s @lizatlarge Instagram cartoon series, Liz at Large.

As she got older, Montague continued to grapple with political issues alongside more typical coming-of-age concerns: Dating and understanding race, racism, class, gender and sexual identity. Especially pesky was the always-hovering question about what she would do when she became an adult. College attendance was assumed by everyone in her high school, an expectation Montague found befuddling. “I didn’t have a dream school or a major I was supposed to be passionate about,” she admits. “I just didn’t want to let anyone down.”

Once again, serendipity saved the day and Maybe an Artist reports that a track scholarship and a random elective art class set her on her path. A cartoon series she posted on Instagram called Liz at Large quickly developed a fan base that enthusiastically embraced the antics of Timmy the dog and his human companion.

Fast forward to college graduation and Montague’s desire to market the series beyond social media. This, of course, led her to send the aforementioned email to The New Yorker. In the four years since, she has drawn columns for The Washington City Paper, created a Google Doodle to honor Jackie Ormes, a mid-20th century Black female cartoonist, and developed illustrations for the Obama Foundation, the Food Network and the US Open tennis tournament. And needless to say, since 2019 her work has also been regularly featured in The New Yorker
Now 26, Montague and her husband live in Philadelphia where she makes art that focuses “on the intersection of self and social awareness.” Maybe an Artist chronicles her ascent; the account is simultaneously painful, hilarious and inspiring.  All told, its message reminds us to take chances and be bold. After all, as her example demonstrates, if nothing is ventured, nothing is gained.

Maybe an Artist: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Montague
Random House Studio, $17.99 paperback, 168 pages
October 4, 2022

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