A Dakota woman in traditional dress sits in front of Mount Timpanogos holding a violin. In front of her are pages of the 1913 opera she wrote in Utah, celebrating the sun dance. A red bird flies behind her, representing the meaning of her name — Zitkala-Sa.

Brooke Smart, the Bluffdale illustrator who created the portrait, painted the American Indian advocate and writer gazing into the surrounding wilderness. She liked the idea of Zitkala-Sa “looking beyond and being inspired by the places she’s in,” she said. “She was constantly inspired, then inspired other people with her music and the speeches that she would give.”

Smart has been commissioned by Better Days 2020 to paint 50 people, most of them women, who played formative roles in Utah history. The nonprofit wants to raise awareness of women who were community leaders in the past, hoping to encourage today’s women to become more engaged in business and politics.

Women in Utah Territory gained the right to vote in 1870, right behind women in Wyoming Territory, and voted first because Utah had an election sooner. Better Days 2020 refers to the 150th anniversary of those first votes by Utah women, and its campaign celebrates Utah’s later election of Martha Hughes Cannon, the first female state senator in the nation.

But today, Utah routinely ranks at or near the bottom of national equality rankings, based on data about its low representation of women in government and as business leaders, its gaps in higher education and pay for women, and other factors.

Most of the people Smart is painting contributed to Utah’s suffrage movement, which was reignited after the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act outlawed polygamy and disenfranchised the state’s women. They regained the vote with statehood in 1896.

The style that helped Smart land the commission — such as including features that represent the subject’s passions, hobbies and life events — is one she developed when her own life took an unexpected turn.

‘This creative desire’

Although Smart got a degree at Brigham Young University in illustration, she loved to work with oils and paint realistic images. That became more challenging six years ago, when her marriage was ending just as her daughter, Remy, was born.

Oil painting required large blocks of time during daylight hours, difficult to arrange for a single mom with a young child. Oil paints were toxic and took a long time to dry. Sometimes Remy would play in the drying work or try to eat the paint.

“How do I still be a mother but also be an artist?” Smart asked herself. “How do I support my family but still fulfill this creative desire I’ve always had?”

She decided to switch to watercolors, which dry quickly and are nontoxic. Watercolor painting was also easier to do at night because it did not require natural light.

“I thought, ‘I’ll just do this for a while,’” Smart said. “‘I’ll support myself this way and then I’ll do my fine art when I can.’”

She experimented with commissioned portraits that became the style predecessors for the Better Days project. And when Smart didn’t have a project from a client, she would assign herself something to work on — including a 100-day series about her relationship with her daughter. Each day she painted herself and Remy doing things like playing pretend, making a meal or getting ready for bed.

“She really put everything into it,” said Adrienne Cook, Smart’s sister. “She would spend all day raising her child and then would just stay up all night to paint.”

It took a few years for Smart to begin getting steady illustrating work and even longer for her to get the kinds of assignments she really wanted to do. She might design a logo for a new business, for example, only to be frustrated when owners waffled about what they wanted.

Cook said it was inspiring to watch the determination her sister had to succeed. “She fought for what she wanted to do.”

Telling the story

Smart’s determination began to pay off in about 2015. Rather than having to pitch her work to publications she was interested in, people began approaching her with projects they wanted her to do.

She painted a child covered in bandages to illustrate a New York Times op-ed by Sheryl Sandberg about raising resilient children. She created artwork for stories in magazines published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including a painting of a girl with long pigtails writing while lying on a colorful blanket that accompanied an article about journaling. She painted images depicting the life of Jane Goodall for Bravery magazine, a publication for kids that celebrates strong women.

Last fall, Smart was invited to interview for the illustrator position at Better Days. The project interested her so much that before she was selected, she visited the Pioneer Memorial Museum in Salt Lake City and begin studying the life of Emmeline B. Wells, a Utah suffragist who met four U.S. presidents and served as a Latter-day Saint Relief Society president.

“Brooke really stood out,” said Naomi Watkins, the educational director at Better Days. “Not only because her style is so captivating, but she was really enthusiastic about the project.”

Some of the individuals highlighted by the project, like Wells, kept journals or are written about in easily accessible historical accounts. Others are only mentioned in passing.

“It’s quite a process,” Watkins said. “It’s not just Brooke looking at a bunch of photographs and copying something. We get input from family members and experts to make sure we are really capturing these women in a way that is truly representative of them.”

Smart, now 33, said she tries to be conscious of every element of an image.

“Even a detail on a dress or a book that they are holding,” Smart said. “Every one of the items in it, sometimes the colors, have purpose and are telling parts of the story.”

Wells was the first portrait Smart painted for the project.

“I put her in profile,” Smart said. “I read that she was such a humble woman — that in her actual Relief Society portrait that they did of her, she insisted on it being in profile because she didn’t want to have the limelight on her.”

In the illustration, Wells stands at the top of Ensign Peak and looks out over Salt Lake City. She is surrounded by wheat. In her arms are copies of the Woman’s Exponent, a newspaper she wrote for and edited for many years. She is wearing her favorite amethyst earrings and a gold ring gifted to her by Susan B. Anthony.

‘It’s the start’

Another one of Smart’s images features Mignon Barker Richmond, the first African-American woman in Utah to earn a bachelor’s degree. Smart painted Richmond in front of a state map highlighting places she studied and served. Richmond holds the diploma she earned at Utah State University and a book written by her friend Langston Hughes.

Smart included a young girl holding a lunch tray to represent Richmond’s love of children and her leadership in starting Utah’s first school lunch program.

“Education was really important to her, but also serving people was really important,” Smart said. “I think that’s why she made such a lasting difference.”

Based on Smart’s first 20 portraits, Better Days 2020 has printed cards for teachers; each version includes an illustration and a short biography of the subject. Ben Fries, a Bennion Junior High teacher who received prints to use in his classroom, said he has noticed students respond especially well to images.

“Once you add an image, that person becomes more real to them,” Fries said. “Anything connected to them, any speech that was given, any accomplishment of that person, they will attribute to that image and I think it becomes more impactful and it will remain in their brain.”

That connection is something Smart has felt as she’s worked on the illustrations. She wishes she could have conversations with the women she’s painted.

“It’s such a cool project to be a part of because I feel like it’s the start of me being the person that I want to be,” Smart said. “I’m on my way to being more like some of these women.”