Judy Chicago is short. Even with electric orange curls, which undoubtedly add a few inches as they rise and fall from her head, she couldn’t be much taller than 5 feet 2 inches. This is remarkable, because after reviewing her accomplishments and body of work, she seems larger than life. A second impression registers a focused and driven woman who is at once hard-at-work and graciously funny and engaging. All this became clear even before Chicago began speaking at a recent lecture at Duke University. The subject was her book, Contested Territory: Women and Art, published last year and co-authored by British art historian Edward Lucie-Smith. Clearly ready to get the evening underway, Chicago leapt onstage, forcing one member of the Duke faculty to quip, “Sit down, Judy–you can’t introduce yourself!”
Drive is a defining characteristic of this artist. Chicago is most widely known for her 1979 exhibit The Dinner Party, a multi-media installation that incorporates ceramics and needlework to create an actual dinner table with place settings representing 39 women crucial to Western history. Among other projects are Womanhouse, an installation and performance event produced in the early 1970s; The Birth Project (1985), a series of images exploring creation myths and birth; and The Holocaust Project: From Darkness to Light (1993), a collaboration with husband-photographer Donald Woodman. She is also the author of seven books, including two autobiographies: Through the Flower (1975) and Beyond the Flower (1996).
This semester Chicago is teaching both a graduate seminar at UNC-Chapel Hill and an undergraduate class at Duke University. She is credited for founding the feminist art movement when she began the first feminist art program in the United States at Fresno State University in the early 1970s. She then moved to the California Institute of Arts to expand the program, partnering with artist Miriam Shapiro. Identifying a lack of support for women artists, Chicago attempted to provide an environment where women could create art out of their own experiences, thereby challenging prevailing iconography of women as passive objects and making art that more honestly reflected women’s lives. Duke professor Kristine Stiles describes Chicago as a legend. “Judy Chicago changed the discourse of art by creating an alternative frame of reference, representation and responses by women,” says Stiles.
After a 25-year hiatus, Chicago has recently found herself teaching again in a university setting: first, in the fall of 1999 at Indiana University, and now as artist-in-residence at UNC-Chapel Hill. When asked how things have changed in the last three decades, she remarks on the large body of artwork created by women. “Women can work more openly out of their own experiences now,” Chicago observes. “There is a much greater level of expression available to younger women.”
Chicago has worked to ensure creative freedom for women, by her own projects and in her commitment to revealing the long, often obscured history of women’s accomplishments. Making women’s history accessible was one of her primary goals in creating The Dinner Party. For The Dinner Party, dozens of people researched the stories of nearly 1,000 women not included in the historical canon.
The Duke class, titled “From Theory to Practice,” is steeped in historical research. Students are focusing on topics that come directly from Chicago’s work: women’s history, birth and the Holocaust. Semester projects based on these themes include a work on the history of maternity clothing and a project involving the creation and distribution of postcards, each profiling one of 50 notable women, posing the question “Will this woman be lost to history?”
Lucy Caudill, a junior at Duke, is working on the subject of women and suicide. Mounting 10 16-by-22-inch photos on Plexiglas, she includes images of such women as Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Diane Arbus. “I was inspired by The Dinner Party as a young feminist and am glad for the opportunity to learn from a woman who adds dimensions to my work and encourages me to keep working,” she says.
While there is a large body of research about women’s history and a huge outburst of feminist art, problems persist for women in the art world. There are more women showing today than 30 years ago, but Chicago says most of this is at an entry level: Few women have the backing for large-scale exhibitions and even fewer are picked up by museum collections.
This lack of gender-equity is something Chicago has encountered firsthand. Although her work is featured in most contemporary art history books, The Dinner Party has yet to be permanently housed in a museum collection.
Of course, making it as a professional artist is a difficult proposition for anyone. The rigor of entering the professional art world is something Chicago tries to convey to her graduate students at UNC. “I have been stressing the transition because I can offer an understanding of the requirements of professional art process and production,” she explains. Terry Roberts, a photographer and video artist, appreciates Chicago’s honesty and experience. “She wants us to understand that right now we are in a cocoon-like environment, and when we leave school, there will be a lot less time for making art,” he says.
Chicago’s own dedication to making art is clear from the large body of work she has created during her career. Determined to offer an alternative iconography based on women’s experiences, she puts her theory into practice by drawing on crafts that have been traditionally undervalued and labeled as “women’s work.” For example, she often collaborates with needleworkers in her projects. Stiles comments that Chicago has devised a distinctly feminist form of expression: “By honoring work by women–such as needlework, collage, quilting and china-painting–she helped to shift the values of the so-called “crafts” towards the fine arts, honoring the creative labor of women.”
Garnering support for her work has not always been easy. Chicago creates art that is oppositional to the values of the male-dominated art world and denounces the iconography of women in the art canon as misogynistic. This approach hasn’t always secured positive responses from critics. But Judy Chicago is undeterred. “I learned early on not to read reviews–just count the number of pictures and column inches and keep working,” she says.
Chicago’s most recent exhibit, Resolutions: A Stitch in Time opened this summer at the American Craft Museum in New York. The project consists of 19 images combining painting and needlework and one sculpture. Images are grouped around traditional proverbs and adages reinterpreted for the future. “I see Resolutions as a kind of response to William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues, which was enormously popular, but also very conservative and reactionary,” says Chicago.
The collection is grouped around seven values–family, responsibility, conservation, tolerance, human rights, hope and change–introduced in a cross-stitched and embroidered sampler at the beginning of the exhibit. Chicago designed the images, which were executed with the help of 16 needleworkers, some of whom she’s worked with since the 1970s. These images–the production of which spanned five years–are an optimistic complement to her study of the Holocaust. The Holocaust Project: From Darkness to Light delves into one of the darkest times in human history, yet–as its title suggests–ends with hope for the future of humankind. It is this positive choice for change that Chicago explored in creating Resolutions. “I wanted to make these images because you have to have hope that we as human beings will transform ourselves.”