“Women’s contributions (to history) — they made none.”
Those were fightin’ words to Judy Chicago. When proclaimed as truth by her male history professor at UCLA in the early 1960s, the statement so shocked Chicago that she dedicated her entire artistic career to proving it wrong.
When discussing that time in her life, Chicago says, “His assessment made me feel a freak. I decided to look into history to see if there had been any before me who had encountered similar obstacles. This was before there were any women’s studies classes, so I had to ferret out information entirely on my own. What I discovered changed my life. It also enraged me because my professor was completely wrong. The truth is that for centuries, women have struggled to be heard, writing books, making art and music and challenging the many restrictions on women’s lives. But their achievements have been repeatedly written out of history.”
Fast-forward to today. Judy Chicago is now an internationally known artist and activist who recently brought some of her feminist passion to Louisville. Chicago and her nonprofit art organization Through the Flower have donated the “International Honor Quilt” (IHQ) to the University of Louisville’s Hite Art Institute.
It seems all roads led to Louisville. “(U of L) was privy to a good splash of serendipity (and) many long-term relationships,” says Shelly Zegart, quilt expert and founder of the Kentucky Quilt Project Inc.
How this came about starts with Chicago, a pioneer in feminist art and history. Born in 1939 as Judith Cohen, by the 1970s she had legally changed her name to Chicago (her hometown) and embarked on a women-centric agenda, including starting the first feminist art program at California State University in Fresno.
“(By the time I graduated from college), I had long before abandoned my efforts to disguise my gender in order to make a place for myself as an artist,” she says. “Instead, in the early 1970s, I set off on a journey to reconnect with that very female-centered iconography that had so enraged the men, a journey that produced … a prodigious body of art exploring an array of subject matter, but always from my perspective as a woman.”
Chicago exploded onto the international art scene with her iconic 1979 work “The Dinner Party,” now housed in the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Her later works include the “Birth Project,” “Resolutions: A Stitch in Time” and the “Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light” with her husband, photographer Donald Woodman.
The triangle-shaped “The Dinner Party” (“an early symbol of the female,” she explains) is set with ceramics and textiles inscribed with 1,038 names of women who contributed to the arts, history and sciences. The 39 place settings honor such notables as Hypatia, Georgia O’Keeffe and Sojourner Truth. The table rests on white tiles with the names of an additional 999 women, including Cleopatra, Amelia Earhart and Joan of Arc.
Chicago often describes the piece as “a reinterpretation of the ‘Last Supper’ from the point of view of those who’ve done the cooking throughout history.”
“The Dinner Party” traveled around the world from 1979-96. It was not without controversy, particularly over the fact that she didn’t create it by herself. As it was, it took five years to complete. The Brooklyn Museum has remedied that with acknowledgement panels, listing the 129 women and men who worked on it under the direction of Chicago.
Then there are the vulva-inspired motifs. As Chicago has had to explain many times over the years, “Much has been made of the imagery on (the) plates, which have often been described as vaginal. (They) were created with the goal of establishing a visual iconography of female agency, something that is sorely lacking in art history prior to ‘The Dinner Party.’ Although phallic images abound in art and architecture … comparable female images are scarce.”
The “International Honor Quilt” recently donated to U of L is a companion to “The Dinner Party.” Because Chicago was being asked why certain women were not on “The Dinner Party,” in 1980 she sent out a call for quilts honoring women. The two installations ended up traveling the world together.
The 2-foot quilted triangles (duplicating the shape of “The Dinner Party”) that comprise the “IHQ” celebrate women’s achievements both large and small. Through the Flower, the art organization Chicago founded in 1978, eventually received more than 600 pieces from all around the globe. The triangles are shown individually and as a collective, and were made by both professionals and amateurs in various media and techniques. Each depicts a woman or women’s organization that influenced the creator, from grandmothers to Mother Teresa.
After “The Dinner Party” was acquired by the Brooklyn Museum in 2007, the “IHQ” was archived at Through the Flower. But the foundation preferred to find an institutional partner for it, a permanent home like “The Dinner Party” at the Brooklyn Museum and Chicago’s archives at Harvard University.
Louisville came to the rescue.
Zegart is the main reason the “IHQ” is here. “I was the catalyst for it all,” she says. “Judy stayed with me in the ’80s, and when this came up, she remembered my name.”
Chicago was here in 1985 to create the “Hot Flash Fan,” a collaborative project now in the permanent collection of the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She worked on this large homage to menopause with more than 50 local and regional artists, including the originator/principal coordinating artist Ann Stewart Anderson.
Another Louisville-Judy Chicago connection is with the Auerbach family. Both the late community activist Minx Auerbach and her daughter Penny Auerbach Friedberg have served on the board of Through the Flower. The organization also has an educational fund in Minx’s honor.
The Minx Auerbach Lecture in Women’s and Gender Studies is an annual event at U of L. Chicago was a speaker, and “since they were both strong women, they got along well,” remembers son Dr. Keith Auerbach. “Then Judy asked my mother to be on her board … which my mother served on until she got too sick to continue, at which time my sister served on the board in her place.”
Zegart thought the University of Louisville might be a good home for the “IHQ” and mentioned it to Kay and Jim Grubola. The Grubolas are artists who are well connected to the community; Jim is U of L’s director of graduate studies in studio art, and Kay is the vice president of the Kentucky Quilt Project.
“Shelly called us to see if we thought U of L would be interested,” Kay says. “What Jim and I found intriguing about this was although the ‘International Honor Quilt’ is not directly Judy’s work, it was a model for public statements like the AIDS Quilt — they contacted Judy to find out how she did it. Some of the quilt pieces are amateurish, while others are exquisitely made. But each piece has a letter of information that describes the woman who made it. It’s a snapshot of what the woman’s life was like at that time. When scholars start researching these materials, the letter will be as important as the quilt pieces.”
U of L’s Hite Art Institute was indeed interested. At the Feb. 26 press conference announcing the acquisition, Provost Shirley Willihnganz exclaimed, “I can’t tell you how grateful we are for this amazing gift. The University of Louisville is proud to be the new home for the ‘International Honor Quilt.’ We plan to use the power of its creation by hundreds of women to reach out to the public and across the university community in collaborative ways that further its impressive educational impact.”
The quilt “is an artistic treasure, also a social treasure …,” continued Willihnganz, and it “really commemorates the achievements of women.”
“It is through institutions that history is transmitted, that art is transmitted and that women’s achievements become known,” Chicago said at the press conference, looking every inch the artist with gray-streaked red hair, tinted glasses and dark lipstick. “It’s fabulous that attention is going to be called to women known and unknown through the ‘International Honor Quilt’ at the University of Louisville. It seems like the absolute perfect place.”
During the next couple of years, the Hite Art Institute will create the Center for Art and Change to house the “IHQ.” While fundraising hasn’t officially started yet, U of L hopes to raise around $2 million for the endowment. The governing committee, although not finalized, will probably consist of Zegart, the Grubolas, Hite Art Institute gallery director/faculty member John Begley, and a representative from Through the Flower.
The Louisville Area Fiber and Textile Artists (LAFTA) is one of the local organizations with plans to give to the “IHQ” and its Center for Art and Change.
“The LAFTA executive committee had decided to donate to the fund for the quilt but we had not decided when or how much,” says committee member Joanne Weis. “That was in part because we had been informed that the fund wasn’t established yet and in part because we weren’t sure we wanted to donate to an endowment as opposed to a part of the project. We feel this is an important position for LAFTA to take — i.e. support of a key piece of textile art — and we plan to take the issue of the nature of our involvement to the membership.”
The mission of the Center for Art and Change states it “will become a significant research center focused on art and social change that demonstrates the power of art to affect women’s lives and change history.” Future plans include establishing a public lecture series, initiating K-12 school programming and providing research opportunities for scholars.
“We have this great collection of quilts,” Jim Grubola says. “Instead of seeing them as a static collection, scholars should be able to study them. The quilts would serve as a catalyst for change. For example, exhibitions could be about individual stories, such as black women or an organizational theme. Initially we would have a large show that would kick off the Center where all the quilts would be shown. Maybe show the ‘Hot Flash Fan’ at the same time. That’s the great thing about having a piece like this — it has different venues of exploration.”
They have already established two graduate research assistantships. Hillary Sullivan is one of the “IHQ” student researchers working with Begley in the Critical and Curatorial Studies program. She attended the press conference, because it was “especially significant for me in that it aligned perfectly with my personal research interest in feminist art … Judy Chicago is one of the biggest names in feminist art, and to hear her talk about her work and the ‘International Honor Quilt’ was invaluable.”
At the press conference, Sullivan asked how the “IHQ” can serve and relate to men. Chicago explained that men have always assisted in the fight for women’s equality, including those who were at the first women’s rights convention in 1848 in Seneca Falls, N.Y. But, she continued, “It’s not enough for women to change; men need to change as well.”
Locally, the “International Honor Quilt” has drawn both excitement and concern. LAFTA’s Weis is all aboard. “I personally got excited and brought it to the committee. I feel it is true art,” she says. “What (Chicago) did there, asking people to create, to communicate, something they value. It’s a visual expression on a woman they value. Some are primitive, not artistic, but that’s beside the point. There’s a lot of authenticity there. We’re not going out on a limb and taking something of no value.”
Another LAFTA member is not so sure. “Like a great number of other artists, Judy Chicago has a big ego,” says Bette Levy. “She involves hundreds of people to produce her work without necessarily giving them name recognition. But on the other hand, she gives recognition to their stories … Lots of artists have production crews now. She just was ahead of her time in using other people to produce units of her work.”
Chicago celebrates her 75th birthday in 2014. Museums and galleries will do the same with a series of exhibitions and events throughout the year. She is often asked if things have changed since she was a young artist. “Obviously there are many changes worth celebrating,” she says. “For example, women and artists of (color) are exhibiting widely and are free to be themselves in their work in ways that were completely impossible when I was young. At the same time … most schools continue to run a male-centered curriculum, and a survey showed work by women artists makes up only (a small percentage) of major permanent collections in the U.S. and Europe. Given that it is major exhibitions, museum collections and art publications that will define the historical record, it is clear that at the top level of the art world, it is pretty much business as usual when it comes to women.
“And my David and Goliath story is not the only one … The moral of this story is that even if there’s a long way to go, art can still strike a blow for freedom for everyone.”
When discussing the “International Honor Quilt,” it is important to stress that Judy Chicago did not create it but will forever be associated with it, as she should be. While many of the makers are known, their names are not published on a regular basis (that should change with its new home). Her name and her fame bring attention to it.
There’s also the question of what to label the quilt collective if it’s solely based on the skills (or lack thereof) of the various creators — craft, folk art — or skip the whole thing and call it a historical object. Art, with a capital A, is all-inclusive, but it is important to make educated judgments on technique and quality.
Perhaps Zegart says it best. “The ‘International Honor Quilt’ is more than just an artifact to hang in a museum, but a living and breathing testament to women’s worth and power to change society. And Louisville is the perfect place for it to live and grow in its impact.”