For Diana Zourelias, creating is as necessary to life as breathing.

“I’m the kind of person that will just start doodling,” Zourelias said over the phone from her daughter Mandi Pryor’s house in Lawrence. “It’s just a major part of me.”

The Aspinwall native, whose storied career began with a cotton ball poodle crafted in elementary school, has spent more than 20 years sketching hidden pictures for Highlights for Children magazine. Her work has appeared on American Greetings cards and as part of a solo show at Pittsburgh’s Toonseum.

She worked on set design for a Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood special and lent her drawing hand to children’s projects like the “My Awesome Superhero Journal” fill-in book. Zourelias has illustrated a plethora of adult coloring books, too, including “She Was First! 45 Impressive Women Who Broke Barriers,” which hit shelves on Feb. 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,” said Zourealis. “I’ve done realistic; I’ve done paper dolls with clothes, celebrities, stickers, princesses, all kinds of stuff. It’s not like I’m pigeonholed into something.”

Zourelias enjoys the variety her career offers. Not only was she tasked with drawing 45 female trailblazers, including conductor Marin Alsop, National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman and America’s darling Betty White, for “She Was First!”, but the local artist also wrote the brief biographies published alongside each cartoon portrait.

“I do a lot of reading, a lot of writing, a lot of typing,” she said, adding she liked learning about the women depicted between the covers of her latest project.

“I was just impressed that you don’t hear more about these women, that they’re just not praised more,” she said.

Most book projects Zourelias brings to life, like the dinosaur book she’s currently working on, take a couple of months to complete. “She Was First!” took six.

“It took months of planning because it’s very, very hard: you’re not just picking people. They had to be first at something,” Zourelias said. “Ruth Bader Ginsberg did a lot, but she was not first, so I couldn’t put her in the book. Finding ... female authors that had done things first, that was tough. It was the same with female artists.”

“You had to have women who had done stuff first. You also had to have equal amounts of Democrats and Republicans, or the publisher would get complaints. It was a really rough time trying to tiptoe to make sure everybody was happy.”

“Everybody,” meaning the team of about 30 Dover staffers working together on “She Was First!” Zourelias said the publisher hosted weekly Zoom meetings, where a panel ensured a variety of career fields and ethnicities were represented and presented Zourelias feedback on her drawings.

Due to copyright, Zourelias said she used her own jewelry as inspiration (“I could get sued for drawing Gucci earrings,” she said) and changed the patterns on clothing. And because this book showcases some of the country’s most revered women, Zourelias spent a lot of time picking apart her own work.

“I drew Betty White twice,” she said. “I was being ultra-picky. When it’s somebody that important that people are going to look at, you take extra time.”

Zourelias began each cartoon portrait with a realistic rendition of the woman she was bringing 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!” took about four hours to complete. Zourelias then spent another six hours drawing and editing the final portrait. She said she struggled with Betty White’s hands – “I had to cut off her hands at one point. I hated the hands. I was just being out-there-picky crazy.” – and poured over one face in particular.

“There’s always one that I will draw eight million times,” she laughed. “This book, it was Rita Moreno. Sometimes they’re just too cute or something.”

“She Was First!” has been warmly received by coloring book enthusiasts; the book has five stars on Amazon and is available through both Barnes and Noble’s and Target’s online stores. And while Zourelias isn’t the first female artist from Pittsburgh to garner acclaim – we haven’t forgotten you, Lila Hetzel, Mary Ethel McAuleyor and Jackie Ormes – the Cecil resident has often felt like a lone woman in a man’s world.

“You just hear a lot about men, successful men. Women have kind of infiltrated everywhere without there being a big parade about it. Men are still known as the cartoonists,” said Zourelias, who serves or has worked as a caricaturist at local events and establishments, including the National Aviary. “I’ve done a ton of caricatures. It’s mostly guys. I went to this wedding. I’m there; they go, ‘It’s so odd it’s just you. Usually, when we have caricaturists, 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 cartoonist for American Greetings. She spent four years there before resigning as head of the humorous art department.

“I started cartooning. I never had a cartooning class in my life. They just thought I was funny,” said Zourelias, adding, “They were looking for a female.”

After becoming a mother to her son, Sam Bridgeman, and her daughter Mandi, Zourelias shifted to freelance work, clocking in after her children went to bed. She designed t-shirts, created artwork for Jeffrey Bean Chocolates and spent time teaching at the Toonseum. She served as an art teacher for seven years at the Oakbridge Academy of Arts.

“I just 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 First!” is on bookshelves, she’s finishing the dinosaur book and working on “Rings that Sing,” a children’s book about Saturn for Aurora Borealis Publishing.

She has no plans of slowing down but did take a moment to reflect on the fulfilling yet weird and wonderful life of artistry she’s led.

“It’s a very bizarre 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.”

No matter how bizarre, art is a calling that any creative person should answer.

“If you love your art, love anything creative,” Zourelias said, “you really don’t have a choice in doing it.”

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