Creation Scroll, color trial proof – section one, 1981-1983
lithograph, gold leaf and Prismacolor on handmade paper
31.5 x 93.5”
Courtesy: Through the Flower
From now through March 16th, the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery is showcasing the work of trailblazing feminist artist Judy Chicago. Chicago came to the College of St. Catherine in the January interim of 1975 to hold a Feminist Art Workshop where students participated in consciousness-raising, assertiveness training, studio and individual work, and journal reading. The artist broke into the art world with power and confidence, and wanted other women to do the same. She was critical of meekness and encouraged her students to assert themselves in the male-dominated art sphere. During this time, Chicago also had an exhibit titled “Metamorphosis” in the gallery on campus that resonated profoundly with students. After her time here, she also worked with instructor Sr. Ann Jennings on a feminist revision of Genesis, which would later play a part in her conceptualizations of birth, womanhood, and spirituality in the Birth Project.
In the 1975-’76 academic year, the College of St. Catherine offered the controversial Arts Core Program for Women, which used the same techniques of the Feminist Art Workshop and allowed students to empower each other and themselves. The program was divisive within the Arts Department, and there was much misunderstanding from those not involved. In February of 75’, faculty voted to place a one-year moratorium on the program, and it never returned.
Now, after forty-three years, Judy is back at St. Kate’s. At least in spirit. The exhibition is titled “Judy Chicago’s Birth Project: Born Again,” it was curated by Dr. Viki Thompson Wylder and organized by Chicago’s nonprofit Through the Flower. The showing includes selected prints, textiles, and needle-works featuring childbirth imagery from Chicago’s original “Birth Project.” It can be found in the West gallery and is in direct conversation (perhaps debate) with a showing in the East gallery titled “After: Birth,” which highlights contemporary feminist ideology that contrasts, yet draws from, ideologies present in Chicago’s work.
The “Born Again” exhibition here is one of four across the country. “Birth Project” pieces were shown at Florida State University in fall 2016, this summer there will be an exhibition in Pasadena, and in 2019 there will be one at the University of Northern Colorado. Each showcases different pieces, but the name and the intention are the same.
Curator Dr. Viki Thompson Wylder, from Florida State University Museum of Fine Arts, has a goal for the exhibition, “I think the Dinner Party gets talked about a lot, and I think the Birth Project deserves to be talked about, also. There were 84 exhibition units that were created…They’ve never all been shown together; I don’t know if they ever will. This was an effort to put some of them together, so you could have at least a sense of what the whole project involved.”
Dr. Thompson Wylder goes on to highlight the relevance of the work for feminists today, “She really did these works, in my view, about 25 to 30 years before their time. She has addressed issues that are just kind of coming to fruition now.” Wylder continues, “She did her part to inject images of pregnant women’s bodies and women giving birth into Western culture.”
The works also had a very personal and profound impact on Wylder, “When I first saw those images was in the 1980’s, when I was in my forties. They began to change my view of my own body and my own self. They helped to engender in me a greater sense of confidence in who I am.”
Gallery director Nicole Watson values the works greatly, but expressed some hesitation in taking on the exhibition, “The one thing that I worried about was, is it still going to feel relevant? Would its message still be as important now as it was in the mid-1980’s?” She explained how current events helped her make up her mind, “[Those hesitations] were long before Trump was elected, that was long before the #metoo movement, it was long before the Women’s March. A lot had happened in that time. Part of me was feeling discouraged by that, but another part of me was like, this seems like a perfect time to have this conversation.”
Though Watson did take on the exhibition, she acknowledges some challenging aspects of the work, “Part of the reason Judy Chicago’s work can be a little difficult today for some of us is that it really reduces a person to their biology, which feels really problematic in this ‘post-modern’ society and culture. I feel like what [Chicago] was after, was considering making artwork that was specific to women’s experiences and validating their experiences through art and making it subject matter, which at the time, art-historically, was not very popular.”
At the opening reception on February 3rd, faculty, students, artists, and community members all gathered to celebrate and join together in conversation about the new exhibitions.
Sharon Doherty, women’s studies professor and director of the Center for Women, commented on the tension between the two galleries, “[Judy Chicago] was really focusing on the idea of universality, and I know she was trying to disrupt the stories that were patriarchal stories of universality, but I don’t agree, really. I don’t agree with her, but I think the work is really important and powerful. If you start breaking it up and looking at different people’s different kinds of experiences, the stuff [in the East gallery] is more, it’s just more intersectional, where hers is more claiming ideas of universality, and I think it’s important for us to think about those things back and forth.”
Another faculty member in attendance was Cecilia Konchar Farr, professor of English, who also commented on the exchange between the artists’ works, “I love the conversation between [the two galleries], you can tell [the East gallery] is younger feminism, and it’s irreverent and funny and powerful, but it clearly learns from [Chicago’s work].”
There are two upcoming events related to the Judy Chicago exhibition. There will be a Q&A with Kris Wutterland, local embroidery artist for the Birth Project, on Friday, February 16th from 12-1:30 PM in the gallery. On Wednesday, March 7th there will be a panel discussion, “Everything Was New: The Arts Core Program for Women at the College of St. Catherine.” It will take place in the Visual Arts Building Lecture Hall, Room 102 from 7-9 PM featuring instructors (including Sr. Ann Jennings) from the program as well as students. More information can be found on the gallery webpage: http://gallery.stkate.edu/