This Illustrator’s Darkly Whimsical Drawings Are Helping Women Process Street Harassment

Hannah Provisor invites people to share their experiences of street harassment, which she illustrates in her signature style with a somber twist.

Hannah Michelle Provisor draws when she’s angry.

When she was 9, that meant creating a secret series of comedic sketches of a teacher she couldn’t stand. Now that she’s 23, that means illustrating the grave array of misogynistic incidents she and other women confront on a daily basis.

The New York-based illustrator, who earned a BFA in musical theater from Penn State University, was a senior in college when accused sexual harasser Donald Trump was elected president. She posted her first drawing just a few days after the 2016 election: a simple portrait of a young woman with the words “I am a powerful woman” written above her.

“I remember really feeling one with the women of the world the day after Trump won. It felt like we were all in this cloud of intense helplessness; it made me restless and upset,” Provisor told HuffPost.

She said the response to her post was overwhelmingly positive, which encouraged her to look for more opportunities to channel feminist anger as a means of healing and support. Previously, she has drawn, in her own words, “awesome young girls doing their own things.”

But most recently, Provisor has invited others to share their stories and process that anger through a project called “Cats Calling Back,” hosted on her Instagram account. In these drawings, young women are muscling through a grim obstacle course of catcalls, unwanted touches and inappropriate remarks. The illustrations contrast a whimsical girlishness with the realities of walking through the world as a woman.

The project is deeply personal for Provisor, who was shocked by the degree of disrespect she felt on the streets of New York when she first arrived in the city. Originally she wrote down all the catcalls she received in just the few blocks she repeatedly traveled near her home, with the intention of creating a larger art project down the line. But the remarks soon became “too frequent and soul-crushing” to document daily, and Provisor wanted to do more to reckon with their impact on her emotional wellbeing.  

“I realized that I wasn’t having real, honest conversations about how the catcalling affects me and how badly I was internalizing it. I wanted to stop joking about it and actually let the anger affect my work in an honest way,” she said.

She began sharing comics that illustrate experiences of catcalling and other types of harassment in public places. Her first was a self-portrait with speech bubbles featuring examples from her collected list of catcalls, and the second was a humorous imagining of how she might have reacted to them in real time.

But it can be dangerous to answer harassment in real time. Her followers were responding to the images as a safe opportunity to process their own experiences. Provisor decided to invite other women to share their stories, which she would illustrate and post to her Instagram page. She called the project “Cats Calling Back.”

“Shock, society, and obligation often force us to move on so quickly after events like this … and we deny that trauma its full time to exist,” Provisor said. “We deny ourselves proper time to heal. We are just forced to accept it, normalize it, and pretend it doesn’t hurt. But many of us don’t want to accept it or normalize it, and we are hurting from it in our emotional, mental, and social lives.”

Provisor mines the submissions she gets for particular sentences or attention-grabbing details that can produce striking images and “get people to think and actually read the story,” she said. She creates an illustration that she hopes will coax followers into reading the darker story behind it.

The illustrator hopes that “Cats Calling Back” will “provide a space for women to tell their stories and, hopefully, feel validated and held in that process.”

“I want to be able to let each person who shares a story with me be relieved of their burden for just a moment. I want them to know that I am handling their story with the compassion and attention it deserves,” she said. “I am thinking about them as I’m illustrating their story. I hear them, I believe them, and I want to be able to share their burden for a moment so they don’t have to do it all on their own.”

Provisor also hopes her work makes more people aware of the “kind of daily horrors” women face. 

“If it’s not happening to you, it’s hard to understand. And that’s okay,” she added. “I’m hoping these stories can provide education and clarity for the very well-meaning, lovely, smart, open-minded people in this world who just don’t know.”

Check out more of Provisor’s illustrations below, and visit her Instagram account and website to learn more.