Still Serving – Sage Magazine

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    Still serving
    Artist Judy Chicago helps create ‘Dinner Party’ school curriculum
    Guest essay by Martha Burk

    Judy Chicago. We all know the name, even if we’ve never seen “The Dinner Party,” her internationally renowned work of art that has toured the world and created a new artistic paradigm. Like the pieces she creates, Chicago is flashy, feisty and unapologetically feminist.

    I caught up with her in Belen, where she lives with her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, in a renovated 1907 railroad hotel that serves as their living and studio space.

    Because I am a woman who came through the women’s movement in the 1970s, it was a comfortable conversation.

    Far more than someone who merely produces beautiful art, Chicago is an intellectual who has spent her life bringing the rich history of women to light through creativity.

    That desire was the genesis of “The Dinner Party,” and it’s the reason I’m visiting with her now. The educational nonprofit organization Through the Flower, which Chicago founded in 1978 to sponsor programs on women in history, will bring the national launch of a K-12 educational curriculum for “The Dinner Party” to the Roundhouse in Santa Fe on May 1.

    Feminist art

    The road that got Chicago where she is today was often rough and rocky.

    “In the 1960s when I started in the California art scene, you couldn’t do anything that might be considered ‘feminine’ and make it as an artist,” she says. “To succeed, you had to model yourself and your art on men and what men did, in both persona and art.”

    The women’s movement changed all that — not only for Chicago but for millions of women around the world. Women, including many writers, were stepping out of old stereotypes, making their own space and bringing female perspectives to the table.

    “All of the (feminist authors) I read became my community and support structure to create feminist art,” she recalls.

    And create she did. When “The Dinner Party” opened in San Francisco in 1979, 100,000 people came to see it.

    That’s right: 100,000.

    For an art exhibit!

    For this symbolic history of women in Western civilization, Chicago purposefully chose to use techniques traditionally used by women — ceramics, chinapainting and needlework — to create the work.

    The monumental installation consists of a triangular dinner table with 39 plates and runners representing historical female figures. The table rests on an immense porcelain Heritage Floor, made of 2,304 hand-cast tiles inscribed with the names of 999 other important women. Each was painstakingly researched and documented on hand-written cards by a dedicated volunteer team — hard to imagine in this day of instant Internet information.

    Saving history

    Though not every critic was kind to Chicago’s creation, its impact on those who saw it transcended the opinions of the art establishment.

    “I got letters from people saying the piece had changed their lives,” she says. “They never knew there were so many women who had done these remarkable things and been all but lost to history.”

    But isn’t that still an ongoing problem? Judy’s answer is an unequivocal “yes!” And that’s precisely why the K-12 Dinner Party curriculum was created.

    The curriculum was developed by a distinguished group of academic art scholars in consultation with Judy Chicago and working art teachers. Organized around learning activities called “Encounters,” it highlights and celebrates the significant achievements of women in the Western world.

    Is she worried that it will be seen as a “girls’ curriculum”?

    “No,” she answers emphatically. “Girls study what men did, and that’s not considered studying a boy’s curriculum. What we’ve created is a human curriculum. Boys have just as much right to know about what women have done as the opposite.”

    Premier artwork

    Now permanently housed at the renowned Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, “The Dinner Party” is considered the seminal (Chicago laughs at the word) feminist artwork of the 20th century.

    For her, the new companion curriculum is the culmination of more than 30 years of work teaching women’s history through art.

    How did she persevere, through lean financial times and harsh criticism?

    “My inspiration and drive came from my parents,” she replies. “Particularly my father. He believed in and exemplified equal rights. He taught me that the world could change, and I had an obligation to contribute to that.”

    With that, we part ways — our conversation is over for now. But thanks to the inspiration and dedication of pioneers like Judy Chicago, the dialogue about the contributions of women to history and culture will continue and flower for generations to come.

    Martha Burk is an editor for Ms. magazine and senior adviser for women’s issues to Gov. Bill Richardson.

    ‘Dinner’ time

    WHAT: National launch of “The Dinner Party” K-12 curriculum, featuring Judy Chicago, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish and Stuart Ashman, secretary for New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs

    WHEN: 3 p.m. May 1; refreshments to follow provided by Zia Diner

    WHERE: State Capitol, Santa Fe

    HOW MUCH: Free, but seating is limited and must be reserved. Call Through the Flower at 864-4080 or e-mail info@  

    “I got letters from people saying the piece had changed their lives,” says Judy Chicago about the reactions she continues to get for her piece, “The Dinner Party.”

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