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Feminist Artist Judy Chicago Speaks in Grand Rapids

April 6, 2010

Last night the West Michigan Women’s Studies Council hosted noted artist and feminist Judy Chicago for a public presentation at the Celebration North movie complex.

The presentation consisted largely of the artist discussing the body of her life’s work and showing images of some of her art on the big screen. However, Judy Chicago also talked a bit about her life and what motivates and informs her art.

Judy grew up in Chicago and went to college at UCLA. She got the name Judy Chicago when in college, in part because of her accent. She always wanted to an artist and ended up getting several degrees in art.

She began doing large-scale paintings and sculptures in a warehouse studio, which she says was very cheap in those days. However, in her early years she found it was very difficult to be a woman and an artist in a male dominated art world. She shared the story about what one professor she had who gave a course on the various contributions of artists over the centuries and that this professor would discuss the contribution that women made to art in the last lecture of the course. When that day finally came the professor said that women contributed absolutely nothing to art.

It was because of this experience and others like it that she did her own independent investigation of women’s contribution to art. One series she did was called the “Great Ladies.” In this early feminist work she wanted to communicate how women were transformed and transforming the world. She showed one piece called “Through the Flower,” which was a work of art that communicated the push through femininity into a larger sense of womanhood.

The impact that this early work had on her life and the lives of other women led Chicago to form an organization that would “educate a broad public about the importance of art and its power in countering the erasure of women’s achievements.” This new organization was founded in 1978 and is called Through the Flower.

Chicago wanted to tell women’s history through art and that is when she had the idea to do the Dinner Party. She saw a painted piece of china, known as china-painting and was intrigued by the craft, which led here to study this practice and led to her creating the Dinner Party.

The Diner Party for her was “a symbolic history of women in Western Civilization or a reinterpretation of the Last Supper, since women have always done the cooking throughout history.” Each woman, Goddess or historical figure is manifested in a plate, with a separate runner or quilt that included the name and design of each woman. At one point she made a comment about how during the project she discovered so much about so many women and that it made her angry that these women’s achievements were just a footnote in history. She gave the example of Susan B. Anthony and how compared to Paul Revere, this amazing woman is just not that known.

While she was working on the Dinner Party, she became interested in the issue of birthing and was moved about the story of the birth of Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelly, the daughter of the feminist philosopher Mary Wollenstonecraft. For the Birth Project, she got hundreds of letters from women who want to help do needle work for the project.

One image she showed was called “creation tapestry,” which was a contrast to the traditional creation image of God as man touching a man. The birth project, Chicago said, also provided an opportunity for her to learn more about the lives of ordinary women, many of whom did not have the luxury that she did to just focus their energy on artistic work.

Another important project she undertook with her husband was “The Holocaust Project.” Chicago talked about how she was raised as a secular Jew and was not raised with information about the Jewish Holocaust. She began to investigate this dark period of history.

The Holocaust Project was the most difficult for her. The project mixed paintings and photography. She used the symbol of a triangle, which the Nazis used to mark people. However, in Chicago’s work she transformed the triangle into symbols of hope. The Holocaust Project opened in 1993 and traveled for 10 years. For her this project was to come to terms with what had happened and how we can prevent this kind of genocidal horror from happening again.

Chicago discussed some other projects since then and then opened it up for questions or comments from those in attendance. Not many people got up to ask questions. However, one person did ask Judy if she had heard about ArtPrize and what she thought about it. Chicago said she had not thought about entering an art contest since she was 21. Then she asked the audience the question, which was “did ArtPrize engage the community?” It was hard to judge from the hundreds in attendance, but I felt like it was a mild applause, which for me was an indication of the ongoing ambivalence around ArtPrize and what it means for Grand Rapids. It would have been interesting to hear more on this topic, particularly through a feminist lens.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. stelle permalink
    April 7, 2010 4:47 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful summary of Judy Chicago’s appearance here and her life’s work. I have admired her work for decades but was unable to attend. Your story was the next best thing.


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