Diverse Art, Copyright Law & Robots

“Art is nothing if you don’t reach every segment of the people.” – Keith Haring

Do you know how hard it is to find a famous painting by a woman, person of color, person with disabilities, person with neurodiversity and/or known member of the LGBTQ community prior to 1923? I do! Here’s how:

In Time for Sleep Mode, Little Robot, there’s an illustration of a long hallway with room for three paintings. Illustrator Lincoln Decklever and I wanted to include depictions of paintings that were recognizable, colorful and fun; an easter egg for parents and a delight for children.

The first painting we chose was Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, which would lend itself nicely to the book’s simple illustration style. Then we chose Piet Mondrian's Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow – we thought it would be funny to make the squares look like robots all squished into a grid. Finally, we chose Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring – or “Gearring” (because the book’s about robots and I’m a sucker for visual puns). 

I’m embarrassed to say that it was only after finishing the book and printing a few test runs that it occurred to me: All of the artists featured in Time for Sleep Mode, Little Robot were straight, white, affluent men. Popinjay Press exists to represent people of all backgrounds through our stories and illustrations, yet when given the opportunity to showcase underrepresented artists, we had failed. The illustrations had to go. 

Next, we considered Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keefe, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Henri Matisse, but there was a problem: We couldn't use their artwork without violating copyright law. Generally speaking, you can create derivative (copied) artwork about 100 years after the artist has passed away, and all the artists listed above were still alive after 1923. You can see our dilemma: We wanted the illustrated artwork to be close enough to the original that it would be easy to identify but not so close that we’d get sued.   

However, finding art that was recognizable, representative and royalty-free was easier said than done. The fact that our minds immediately went to three paintings by straight, white, affluent men is telling. Historically, artists from marginalized populations simply have not had the visibility they deserve to become household names. That only made our desire to include them in a Popinjay Press book even stronger. 

After a lot of researching and soul searching, we are so pleased to feature the following artists in Time for Sleep Mode, Little Robot. We hope their brilliant pieces bring you the same joy and introspection they’ve brought us. 

Edward Mitchell Bannister 

Edward Mitchell Bannister
Boston Street Scene, 1899
 Boston Street Scene illustration

Born in Canada in 1828 and raised by a single mom who nurtured his creativity, Edward Mitchell Bannister emigrated to Boston in his early 20s. Eager to become an artist, but living in one of the most segregated cities at the time, Bannister had difficulty finding an apprenticeship or academic program to train him. He ended up studying at the Lowell Institute – an organization that offered education to citizens of Boston, regardless of race, gender or economic status. 

Bannister started receiving commissions from prominent members of the Black community and went on to become an integral part of the New England arts and culture scene. He won first prize during the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition for his painting Under the Oaks. When judges discovered Bannister was Black, they wanted to rescind the award, but his white competitors insisted upon honoring the original decision. Before he died in 1901 at the age of 73, he helped found the Providence Art Club and Rhode Island School of Design and was active in the Boston abolitionist movement, along with his wife, Christiana Carteaux Bannister, a businesswoman of Narragansett Indian descent. 

Christa Stephens

Christa Stephens
Beginner's Mind, 2022
Beginner's Mind illustration

Christa Stephens (she/her) is an abstract painter whose work depicts the complex inner world of autism. Growing up in New Mexico in the years before autism was understood as a spectrum disability, she was frequently chastised for what others considered to be objectionable eccentricities. She found refuge in creative endeavors, though, and went on to study music, visual art and graphic design. She developed an artistic process that led to a deeper understanding of her neurodivergence and culminated in a formal midlife diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. 

The relationship between music and art is integral to Stephens’s practice. She has chromesthesia, a type of synesthesia in which sound evokes visual impressions of colors, shapes and patterns. Her kaleidoscopic paintings realize a balanced dissonance often inspired by the intricacies of jazz, baroque and avant garde chamber music. Using precise, methodical applications, Stephens explores sensory and perceptual differences, environmental sensitivities and challenging interactions that are intrinsic to her life as an autistic woman. Stephens lives and works in Santa Fe. Find more of her artwork at abstractometry.com

Johannes Vermeer 

Johannes Vermeer Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665 Girl with a Pearl Earring illustration

(We had to keep this one because the "Gearring" is just too cute.)

One of the most revered Dutch artists of all time, Johannes Vermeer came from humble beginnings. His father was a weaver, innkeeper and art dealer who died in debt. Without the means to apprentice under a respected artist, the younger Vermeer essentially taught himself how to paint. Considering a lack of formal training, Vermeer developed an extraordinary technical ability.

His paintings that were based on live models in domestic roles, including Girl with a Pearl Earring, are especially in demand for their intriguing subjects, interesting costumes and exceptional painting techniques. He was particularly interested in the play of light, focus and color in his compositions. Though he only produced about 45 pieces, he found success during his lifetime and was able to support his wife and 11 children through painting. However, the downturn of the Dutch economy in the early 1670s plagued him, and he died in 1675 at age 43.


  1. About The Lowell Institute. Lowell Institute. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://lowellinstitute.org/about
  2. Artist Edward Mitchell Bannister. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://americanart.si.edu/artist/edward-mitchell-bannister-226
  3. Geometric Abstractions by Christa Stephens. Abstractometry. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://www.abstractometry.com
  4. Liedtke, Walter. (October 2003). Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675). Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved March 6, 2023, from https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/verm/hd_verm.htm
  5. Prelude to Brown – 1849: Roberts v. The City of Boston. Brown Foundation. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://brownvboard.org/content/prelude-brown-1849-roberts-v-city-boston
  6. Providence Artist Edward Bannister Stuns the Art World. New England Historical Society. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/edward-bannister-stuns-philadelphia-centennial-exposition
  7. Tomlinson, Glenn. (October 2020). Exploring Two Artworks by Black Abolitionist Painter Edward Mitchell Bannister. Medium. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://medium.com/norton-museum-of-art/exploring-two-artworks-by-black-abolitionist-painter-edward-mitchell-bannister-2a414fbd5af3