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Mindy Johnson Discusses ‘The Only Woman Animator’ – Women at the Dawn of an Industry

Artist smiling at camera, wearing heather gray T-shirt
School of Film/Video adjunct faculty Mindy Johnson | Image courtesy of the artist

Editor’s Note: The name of the trailblazing animator has been revealed: Bessie Mae Kelley, whose works are now credited as the earliest known hand-drawn animated films directed by a woman. Two of these works, a five-minute film “Flower Fairies” (1921) and the three-minute short “A Merry Christmas” (1922), were restored and screened in December 2022 at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. Read more about Kelley, Johnson’s yearslong research and discoveries of her legacy, and more in The New York Times and NPR.

On Sunday, Dec. 19, School of Film/Video faculty and 2019 Academy Film Scholar Award recipient Mindy Johnson joins the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) for “The Only Woman Animator” – Women at the Dawn of an Industry, the latest in its Preservation Conversation series at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles. There, Johnson will present her groundbreaking discovery: the earliest surviving hand-drawn animation directed and animated by a woman.

More about the event from AMPAS:

In the earliest days of the animation industry, one woman animated and directed alongside the men who later became titans of the artform, yet her name and work have been lost – until now. The discovery of this pioneer changes everything.

In a landmark event, this ground-breaking artist, and her surviving films, are finally introduced to the world, marking the debut of the earliest-known hand-drawn animation – animated and directed by a woman. Join author/historian Mindy Johnson, as she once again transforms our animated past with a premiere event celebrating the pivotal discovery of “the only woman animator” in the earliest days of animation as well as other women artists at the dawn of an industry.

An author and historian whose work centers around the history of women and minority groups in animation, Johnson was recognized as an Academy Film Scholar for work that aims, per AMPAS’ press release, to “change the current understanding of animated film and support a more gender-balanced approach to film history.” Her research also led to her receiving an AEF Faculty Grant from the ASIFA-Hollywood’s Animation Educators Forum in 2020. 

Among notable collaborations, Johnson has produced content with the Walt Disney Company, AMPAS/, WNET/American Masters, Stage Nine Productions, SPARK Animation Festival, Film Forum-NYC, SiriusXM Radio, and Horipro Entertainment. She has done multiple presentations at campuses, festivals, conferences, and studios. She is currently in the process of helping to curate a traveling museum exhibition with Stage 9 Exhibitions and San Diego’s 2023 ComicCon Museum. 

Spreading her research knowledge, Johnson teaches a course on the history of women in animation at CalArts, as well as Drexel University in Philadelphia. She has also written and contributed to multiple books and plays, including the volume Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation. Johnson is also a noted songwriter with published records and compositions. 

—Ishika Muchhal

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Mindy Johnson Discusses ‘The Only Woman Animator’ – Women at the Dawn of an Industry