MY FEMINIST JOURNEY

 

After earning an MFA at the University of Colorado in 1969, I continued to paint on a regular basis. I wanted to be an artist but wasn’t sure what next steps to take. Fortunately, the feminist art movement guided me in the right direction. From 1974 thru 1979, I participated in three groups that raised my consciousness about being a woman artist and activist. They included Front Range Women in the Visual Arts in Boulder, Colorado and the Feminist Studio Workshop and The Dinner Party project in Los Angeles.

FRONT RANGE WOMEN IN THE VISUAL ARTS

 

In 1974, I was invited to join an organization called Front Range Women in the Visual Arts in Boulder, Colorado at a turning point when women artists around the country began to actively pursue a place among the mainstream art world.

The focus of this organization was to lead the way to greater exposure for women artists, who had been historically overlooked by critics, galleries and museums. We gathered together to bring attention to our work through collective dialogue and support. This questioned the modernist doctrine celebrating the idea that art can only be divined and put forth through isolation. The photograph on the right shows how this group sometimes used humor to challenge female stereotypes.

Photo © 1984 Meridel Rubenstein, A Portrait of Front Range Women
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THE WOMAN’S BUILDING

 

In 2011 The Getty Center sponsored an initiative titled Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980. Otis College of Art and Design produced a show titled Doin’ It in Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman’s Building at the Ben Maltz Gallery. It documented programs, artworks, video, photography and graphics that took place at this public center for women’s culture. Past students were asked to share a key memory from that time. You can view my video on the right.

Group Photo of Feminist Studio Workshop students screaming with delight to be participating in a woman centered art education program. © Maria Karras, courtesy of Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2018.M.16)
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The Feminist Studio Workshop in Los Angeles was the first independent school for women artists founded in 1973 by Judy Chicago, graphic designer Sheila de Bretteville and art historian Arlene Raven. Chicago stated that the purpose was to “nurture women to make art in their own image and likeness, which was an altogether new idea at the time.” Classes focused not only on the development of art making skills but also on women’s identity and sensibility and the translation of these elements into our artwork.

The photograph on the left demonstrates the excitement and enthusiasm of the FSW students. I was elated to be immersed in an educational program that was woman centered in terms of both instructors and content. The curriculum focused on raising consciousness, creating dialogue and changing the culture.

Sheila de Bretteville, Arlene Raven and Cheryl Swannack welcoming Cindy Marsh at the front reception area of the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, CA in 1976. © Maria Karras, courtesy of Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2018.M.16)
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Having been enrolled in previous BA and MFA programs where the instructors were all men, art historical lectures were all about male artists and there were no woman artists included in the Janson’s History of Art survey text, I was excited to learn about women artists of the past at long last. The importance of role models was crucial in terms of believing my desire to make art could be realized. I was proud to be part of a public center for women’s culture.

Women taking a well-deserved break during the renovation and hanging out at the entrance to the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, CA in 1975. © Maria Karras, courtesy of Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2018.M.16)
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As students of the Feminist Studio Workshop, we were required to renovate the building, participate in conscious-raising and discussion groups, write in journals, and have our artwork critiqued by each other and our instructors. A break outside the building was very refreshing.

THE DINNER PARTY, 1974-1979

Judy Chicago

 

I had been inspired by reading My Struggle As A Woman Artist by Judy Chicago when I was a member of Front Range Women in the Visual Arts. She was a woman who was finding her own way rather than trying to fit in with male artists. However, when I arrived at the Woman’s Building in 1975, she was not one of the instructors. I was disappointed but word was circulating that she was working on a project about women’s achievement in Western Civilization.

I didn’t meet Judy Chicago until the fall of 1975 when FSW art historian Ruth Iskin took a group of students to her studio in Santa Monica. Early work was already in progress on The Dinner Party project. Judy asked if any of us would like to volunteer to work with her so I signed up to help with the research.

 

Judy Chicago signing a copy of her Kitty City book for Ann Isolde, photographer unknown.
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Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979; Collection of Brooklyn Museum. Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation; © Judy Chicago/Artist Rights Society (ARS) New York, Photo © Donald Woodman/ ARS NY.
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When I signed up to do research for The Dinner Party project, little did I know that I would end up working there for three years with the foremost visionary feminist artist of the time. The studio was like a contemporary guild, with volunteers working on research, needlework, ceramics, china painting, graphics and photography. We knew this monumental sculpture celebrating the achievement of women in Western Civilization would become famous. Finally, women who had been written out of history could be honored and celebrated.

Most volunteers were drawn to the artistic work. However, I was there to obtain the education about the history of women that had been missing in my undergraduate and graduate work. I also realized that although there would be 39 china painted place settings on the table, the project would be far more meaningful if they were accompanied by another 999 names Judy wanted to emblazon in gold china paint on the Heritage Floor. This would be further proof of women’s contributions to history.

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C L I C K   I M A G E S   T O   E N L A R G E :

 

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Judy Chicago was aware that if you see yourself reflected in art and literature, this expands your vision of what you can be. So the primary goal of The Dinner Party was to create a revisionist version of women’s history. This was not an easy task and we would have been lost without a book titled Index to Women of the World from Ancient Times to Modern Times published by historian Norma Ireland in 1970. So we set out to research women in Western Civilization.

I eventually became the facilitator of the Heritage Floor research team. We collected information on over 3,000 women in Western Civilization and cross-referenced them on index cards by country, century and profession without computers. We debated the finalists who had to meet specific criteria to be included. After that task was completed, I finally put on my artist hat and was honored to be one of eight women who were selected to paint the names of the 999 women in gold china paint on the floor.