Born Clara Brown in Arkansas, “Gert” Van Houten renamed herself when she blossomed as a cartoonist between 1917 and 1927 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Although the prolific Gert became both a local celebrity and the first female cartoonist in the nation to take on local issues in comics form, she was largely forgotten even in her subject city until 2015 when Drew Damron resurrected her work for his chapbook, Her Pichers: The Life and Work of Gert Van Houten.
Beginning in January 1917, Gert published lavish and highly detailed cartoons every two or three days on the front page of the Grand Rapids Press. Rarely were women given such prominence, and this series was created primarily for a female audience. Gert touched on topics ranging from ice skating to suffrage to gossip about luncheon pranks to riding streetcars and women filling men’s roles during WWI. In 1921, she left the large circulation daily for a local weekly and had more time and creative freedom to experiment with her form and develop as a political satirist.
A good citizen, Gert invested in her community: In 1920 she drew a week of cartoons raising funds for a YWCA building; in 1923, she designed a memorial statue to city pioneer John Ball; and, immediately before a referendum vote on women’s suffrage in 1918, she addressed a powerful cartoon, “To the Men of Michigan.” Finally, in her 80s, Gert returned to Grand Rapids after a long hiatus, and upon request reimagined her Gert cartoons for a new era.
Gert worked in a popular art form historically considered lowbrow, where female cartoonists had been given even less attention than men, and drawing specifically for a local audience made national attention less likely. Nevertheless, Gert created a place for herself in a field whose history has been recently emerging.
This biography can also be found in the August 2018 issue of the Grand Rapids Women’s LifeStyle Magazine.