For Diana Zourelias, creating is as necessary to life as breathing.
“I’m the kind of person who’s just going to start doodling,” Zourelias said over the phone from her daughter Mandi Pryor’s home in Lawrence. “It’s just an important part of me.”
The Aspinwall native, whose career began with a cotton ball poodle made in primary school, spent more than 20 years drawing hidden pictures for Highlights for Children magazine. His work has appeared on American greeting cards and in a solo exhibition at the Toonseum in Pittsburgh.
She worked on set design for a Mr. Rogers Neighborhood TV special and lent her drawing hand for children’s projects like the fill-in-the-blank book “My Awesome Superhero Journal.” Zourelias has also illustrated a plethora of adult coloring books, including “She Was First!” 45 Awesome Women Who Broke Barriers,” which was released February 22, just in time for Women’s History Month.
“My career has been all over the place. I do a lot of books for Dover Publishing,” Zourealis said. “I’ve done realistic; I’ve done paper dolls with clothes, celebrities, stickers , princesses, all sorts of things. It’s not like I’m typecast into anything.
Zourelias appreciates the variety that his career offers. Not only was she commissioned to draw 45 female trailblazers, including bandleader Marin Alsop, National Young Poets Award winner Amanda Gorman and American sweetheart Betty White, for “She Was First!”, but the local artist has also wrote the brief biographies published alongside each cartoon portrait.
“I read a lot, I write a lot, I type a lot,” she said, adding that she loved learning about the women portrayed between the covers of her latest project.
“I was just in awe that you weren’t hearing more from these women, that they just weren’t being praised more,” she said.
Most of the book projects Zourelias brings to life, like the dinosaur book she is currently working on, take a few months. “She was the first! took six.
“It took months of planning because it’s very, very difficult: it’s not just about choosing people. They had to be the first to something,” Zourelias said. “Ruth Bader Ginsberg did a lot, but she wasn’t the first, so I couldn’t put her in the book. Finding…women authors who had done things first was tough. was the same with female artists.
“First you had to have women who had done things. You also had to have equal amounts of Democrats and Republicans or the editor would get complaints. It was a really tough time trying to tiptoe to make sure everyone was happy.
“Everyone”, meaning the team of around 30 Dover staff working together on “She Was First!” Zourelias said the editor hosts weekly Zoom meetings, where a panel ensures a variety of career fields and ethnicities are represented and features Zourelias’ feedback on its designs.
Due to copyright, Zourelias said she was inspired by her own jewelry (“I could be sued for designing Gucci earrings,” she said) and that she had changed the patterns of the clothes. And because this book features some of the country’s most revered women, Zourelias spent a lot of time unpacking her own work.
“I drew Betty White twice,” she said. “I was super picky. When it’s someone so important that people are going to watch, you take more time.
Zourelias began each cartoon portrait with a realistic rendition of the woman it brought to life. Zourelias draws by hand, putting pencil on tracing paper before uploading her work to the computer, where she cleans up the lines and finalizes the drawings.
The first sketch of each woman featured in “She Was First!” lasted about four hours. Zourelias then spent an additional six hours sketching and editing the final portrait. She said she struggled with Betty White’s hands – ‘I had to cut her hands off at one point. I hated hands. I was just being crazy and picky. – and poured on one side in particular.
“There is always one that I will draw eight million times,” she laughs. “That book was Rita Moreno. Sometimes they’re just too cute or something.
“She was the first! was warmly welcomed by coloring book enthusiasts; the book has five stars on Amazon and is available at Barnes and Noble’s and Target’s online stores. And while Zourelias isn’t Pittsburgh’s first acclaimed female artist — we haven’t forgotten about you, Lila Hetzel, Mary Ethel McAuleyor and Jackie Ormes — the Cecil resident has often felt like a lonely woman in a world of men.
“You hear a lot about men, successful men. Women have kind of infiltrated everywhere without there being a big parade about it. Men are always known as the designers,” said Zourelias , who serves or has worked as a cartoonist at local events and establishments, including the National Aviary.”I’ve done a ton of cartoons. It’s mostly guys. I went to that wedding. I’m here; they say, ‘It’s so weird that it’s just you. Usually when we have cartoonists it’s usually just two or three guys.
Two weeks after graduating from the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, she started her first job as a designer for American Greetings. She spent four years there before resigning from the direction of the humorous art department.
“I started drawing. I’ve never had a cartoon class in my life. They just thought I was funny,” Zourelias said, adding, “They were looking for a wife.
After becoming a mother to her son, Sam Bridgeman, and daughter Mandi, Zourelias turned to self-employment, clocking in after her kids went to bed. She designed t-shirts, created illustrations for Jeffrey Bean Chocolates and spent time teaching at the Toonseum. She was an art teacher for seven years at the Oakbridge Academy of Arts.
“I loved my students,” she said.
After being forced to take a year off due to the pandemic, Zourelias is back and busier than ever. Now that “She was the first!” is on the shelves, finishing the dinosaur book and working on “Rings that Sing”, a children’s book about Saturn for Aurora Borealis Publishing.
She has no intention of slowing down, but has taken a moment to reflect on the fulfilling yet weird and wonderful artistic life she has led.
“It’s a very weird thing to do,” she said. “It’s like you have (an image) in your head and you’re trying to get your hand to express what your head is telling you.”
As bizarre as it is, art is a calling that every creative person should pursue.
“If you love your art, love anything creative,” Zourelias said, “you really have no choice but to.”