Disappointment Turns Into Inspiration
Recently I drove 2 1/2 hours to the small town of Belen, NM to see the art project inspired by the 50th Anniversary of the groundbreaking California Womanhouse experience. I had high expectations and ended up feeling disappointed which I realized was an opportunity to identify what type of exhibit I want to create.
Grab a nice cuppa and let's start at the beginning.
Judy Chicago's real name Judith Sylvia Cohen and she was born in Chicago, IL. At age of three she began to draw and was sent to the Art Institute of Chicago to attend classes and by the age of five Chicago knew that she "never wanted to do anything but make art".
Not only did she make art but she made radical feminist art in the 1970s pointing out how people had made art synonymous with genius and genius synonymous with men.
In the fall of 1971 Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro founded the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts.
"The aim of the Feminist Art Program is to help women restructure their personalities to be more consistent with their desires to be artists and to help them build their art-making out of their experiences as women."
The idea for Womanhouse was sparked during a discussion they had early in the program about the home as a place with which women were traditionally associated, and they wanted to highlight the realities of womanhood, wifehood, and motherhood within the home. Along with more than 20 students and artists, Chicago and Schapiro transformed a dilapidated Hollywood home into an interactive art piece dedicated to women.
The artists replaced broken windows, did electrical work, refinished floors and took on other hard labor. The house included 21 feminist installations such as “Bridal Staircase,” “Nightmare Bathroom,” “Eggs to Breasts,” and “Linen Closet” (below). It was the first major installation of female-centered artwork, and has maintained a lasting, international impact.
For over five decades, Chicago has remained steadfast in her commitment to the power of art as a vehicle for intellectual transformation and social change and to women’s right to engage in the highest level of art production. As a result, she has become a symbol for people everywhere, known and respected as an artist, writer, teacher, feminist and humanist whose work and life are models for an enlarged definition of art, an expanded role for the artist, and women’s right to freedom of expression.
Flash forward to 2018 and Chicago is included in TIME magazine's top 100 most influential people. And in 2022 she is inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
And where does she live? In little Belen, New Mexico about 30 miles south of Albuquerque.
When I drove to Belen I didn't know any of this about Judy Chicago. I just showed up because I had heard that there was a new Womanhouse installation utilizing 19 New Mexican artists. And this time they were calling it Wo/Manhouse 2022 and exploring social issues affecting people across the gender spectrum.
In fact, I had seen their initial call for artists to participate and considered it but decided against it to focus on my paintings.
Once in Belen I joined up with fellow members of the New Mexico State Committee
of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (I recently joined this group) and we walked to the Through the Flower Art Space where there was information on Chicago and history on the original Womanhouse. Then we walked a few blocks to the unassuming house that was converted for this new Wo/Manhouse 2022 exhibit.
At the house we were met by Megan Malcom-Morgan, the Executive Director of the Through the Flower Art Space who escorted us through the house explaining each artist's vision and installation. It was obvious she was proud of the artists and took time to point out small details.
Each space (room, hallway, bathroom, closet) in the house was an art installation--some spaces, like the living room, housed two artists. After walking through the entire house I felt like whereas the idea was solid, the execution was lacking. Almost every artists relied on words combined with objects to convey their idea, as if they didn't trust the viewer to understand their message without hitting them over the head with literal signs.
As an example, the laundry room was full of small white handmade paper dresses hanging on laundry lines with stuff written on them: children's poems, child abuse statistics, sad stories. I had to stop and read each dress to understand. However, what if instead the dresses were pegged to the wall with knives, bullets, and paper mache fists while the wall plaster itself was a mix of hair and children's teeth with tiny red splatters and NO words were used. Which would have been more impactful?
Afterwards we had a debriefing with Megan Malcom-Morgan and I was impressed. She is probably in her late 30's and an upbeat liberal. Her story of how difficult it had been to build the Through the Flower Art Space in a small, rural, conservative town was heartbreaking. She had endured personal attacks including the local pastor giving a 45-minute service calling her a Jezebel. But she persevered and raised the money for the art space and the Wo/Manhouse 2022 independently of the town. All that despite the fact that her husband was the town mayor at the time.
In my opinion, she was living what so many of the artists in the Wo/Manhouse 2022 were trying to show.
Life as a woman is damn hard.
Yesterday I was trying to explain all of this to Rob. As the conversation evolved I started talking about how I would make my "Rattlesnakes" exhibit more sensory, somatic, and experiential so that the viewer walked out feeling something without having to read a word.
Which reminded me that when we feel jealousy or disappointment it is a life road sign pointing us to what we want.
Lesson Learned: The next time I see an open call for artists to participate in a big project I will apply. And when I eventually make my "Rattlesnakes" exhibit it is going to be everything I wished Wo/Manhouse 2022 could have been.