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Feminist Art Project

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The Feminist Art Project at Fresno State disrupted the norm, in a time of new ideas and campus friction, it moved itself a safe distance from campus and broke from institutional customs. The content and ideas presented by Judy Chicago and her students were shocking and uncomfortable at the time, even still today for some. The message and even the presentation of the message of this program can still illicit strong responses when discussed with current students and residents of the San Joaquin Valley. While some will extoll the virtues and benefits that the Feminist Art Project created for feminism and female students, others will focus on the shocking and sometimes startling content created by Chicago and her students. Regardless of a commenter’s individual opinions and taste, most can agree that the work begun by Judy Chicago and the Fresno Feminist Art Project created an opportunity for change and conversation that is continuing today.

Those that can only focus on their negative responses to the art and its message would do well to look beyond the art and study what its lasting effects have had on not only the California State University system but the message it has created for feminism and art in general. Rather than become cynical and contemptuous of Chicago and the Feminist Art Program because one disagrees with the presentation of their message, a viewer should focus on the opportunities it created and continues to create for women to share their experience and open a conversation on what it means to be a woman

As we begin to study the beginnings of the Feminist Art Program in Fresno we need to understand the culture that surrounded then Judy Gerowitz that led her change not only her name but her entire focus as an artist. Gerowitz struggled in a world that would not see her as an independent woman leading her to legally change her name. She would simultaneously advertise her new chosen surname of Chicago as well as her solo art show “One Woman Show” in the October 1970 issue of Artforum. Within the advertisement Chicago would explain that she had “divested herself of all names imposed upon her through male social dominance”. It was within this male dominated and oppressive art culture that she sought to break out on her own and “undo the damage I’d done myself competing in the male art world”.

Chicago would identify the male foundations of the world around her and seek to reinvent herself as an artist and her understanding of art in order to fully express her creativity and teach other women to do so was well. By “redoing” her own education and providing other women support she sought to help herself and others create a strong sense of self necessary for an artist. She was quoted as saying “women in our culture have not been able to express their creativity through the fine arts in the same way or to the same degree as men have: their potential has not been given the same interest or their achievements the same recognition”. As Judy observed and was acted upon by the environment around her, it caused her to seek a voice and change, not only for herself but for other female artists. She sought to “transcend” her typecast female role and instead “ascend to a level of human identity”, a process which would pit her against the patriarchal establishment of the time.

The Feminist Art Program developed by Judy Chicago was a truly unique and new means of educating and molding students on the Fresno State campus. When Chicago first began teaching on campus she faced adversity from students disrupting her classes and message. This antagonistic environment from male students and the patriarchal establishment that she sought to defeat led her to petition the Chair of the Art Department Heinz Kusel to allow her to create a space for herself and students off campus. By moving the students and the learning area a safe distance off campus Chicago was able to have the freedom to work with the students, safe from the oppressive patriarchy on campus. Not only was Chicago’s choice to move the students off campus an innovative idea, she also attacked the traditional instructional styles of the time. Chicago directed students to pursue art from a seemingly reverse approach from traditional pedagogy, rather than being assigned to create art in a specific medium or style, they were given assignments to complete about specific concepts or social issue.

Concepts and ideas for students to represent in their art were developed from time spent in the “rap room” where the students would hold consciousness raising sessions and discuss their own experiences and views. Once Chicago had given a student a social issue or concept to work with they were encouraged to use new art forms to fulfill their art. The students were encouraged to use new media forms in order to create a new voice, more conventional styles of art would present their views and experiences with the “cultural baggage” associated with the styles. These newer forms of art such as performance art, films and installations allowed the students to create a voice to their issues that was fresh and new. The students also converted conventional feminine tasks such as needlework and dressing up into new modes to pursue their artistic expression. Rather than conform to the pedagogical standards and hold mix-gendered classes pursuing traditional art methods, Chicago chose to attack the status quo and develop a new standard to instruct her students.

Judy Chicago’s teaching style and program was relatively unknown and completely counter-culture, introducing the question of why the female students sought to participate in such a program. The students who pursued to enter the Feminist Art Program seemed to be drawn by not only Judy Chicago and her teaching style but the freedom that learning in a purely female environment created. Just as Chicago felt stifled and oppressed by the patriarchal standards imposed upon her and her art, the students desired to feel the freedom of expression that they saw men had. Students recognized that with the guidance of Chicago they were able to express themselves creatively and freely as the men in their culture and that their achievements and potential would be shown the same acknowledgment and appreciation. It was this new playing field and rulebook that the female students craved and sought to participate in. Rather than be compared and viewed through the lens of the patriarchy they were able to create a new standard and be seen as equals to their male counterparts.

The new students of the Feminist Art Project faced difficulties and stresses that come with being the opening act of a new movement and artistic scene. One of the greatest challenges that the students encountered was breaking from their own as well as society’s expectations of art and stereotypes they faced as women. By moving the project off campus into its own space the women would be able to study their own history and begin to create agency for themselves as women and artists, breaking away from the expectations that were imposed upon them. Not only were the students struggling with learning their new voice and abilities, they were also challenged with being open and vulnerable with each other as women while discussing their own experiences and views in the rap room and during consciousness raising sessions.

Reactions by students to the sessions held in the rap room varied from terror to freeing, but it is doubtless that the sessions pushed and challenged the students to grow and learn from each other. Chicago understood how challenging the sessions were on the students but saw them as necessary to making the students grow and learn to communicate rather than withdraw from each other and difficulty. The students also faced financial and skill challenges as they entered into this new program. The studio space itself was rented by the students at a cost of twenty-five dollars a month, a considerable sum at that time for a student to pay. The students also faced the challenges of renovating the space themselves, this renovation task would test the students and show them what they were capable of accomplishing physically. The challenges that the students of the program would face helped to mold and grow their abilities and confidence as women and artists.

Students of the Feminist Art Project were faced with obstacles and challenges from the very beginning of the project, as the students learned and developed it would translate into their success as professional artists. Chicago described her priority with the young artists was to mold into them a “firm sense of self”. Chicago found that this was essential to becoming a great artist, as the students grew in their self-confidence they would carry this with themselves as they continued into their careers. Chicago contended that this change of personality and confidence would build stronger artists then if they were to focus simply on becoming better at creating art. It was this revolutionary thinking for the students that transitioned from simply “conceiving of ideas” to “actually working to one’s maximum capacity to fully realize the idea”. While the students would learn and practice how to work and create art, Chicago’s focus on changing their thought process and approach to how they conceptualized the art is what would enable them to become great artists and more successful in their careers.

Because of the incredibly different approach to art and instruction in the program, it was met with skepticism and criticism by those subscribing to the conventional. Students and staff at Fresno State felt Chicago was “very aggressive, very hostile”, “People hated Judy; they were so threatened.”  However, towards the end of the first year of the program hosted a “Rap Weekend” as a showcase for other women and educators to observe what the program had created. Chicago was anxious that attendees would be unimpressed with what the Feminist Art Project had created in that first year. However, Chicago was pleased to journal that after the show more women were open to the idea of creating more classes with a focus on women. As the program continued to grow and progress it matured into a full time 15 unit course for students. This difficult and challenging new program for students was its strength, the new standards created a desire for the students and other educators to continue to grow and develop feminist art.

The Feminist Art Project at Fresno State was revolutionary, establishing feminist art and even focused classes on women and their experiences. Many authorities establish that the establishment of feminist art began at the California Institute of the Arts. However, as we see that the methods and philosophies that were used in Womanhouse and CalArts were in fact grounded upon the work started by Judy Chicago in the Fresno Feminist Art Project. The strategies created by the Fresno Feminist Art Project of female body imagery and female media saw their launch with Chicago and her students. It was through these artist’s work that they were able to break from the long standing patriarchal art pedagogy and place feminist art and artists on an equal and balanced stage. Judy Chicago’s desire to reinvent herself and her art has created long lasting effects on feminist art, all of which came to fruition from her labor in creating the Fresno Feminist Art Project.

Often when a new and groundbreaking event or an idea is created, its success and lasting presence is bound to its creator. However, even though Judy Chicago only spent a year with the Fresno Feminist Art Program it created a lasting effect on feminist art in Fresno and continued to grow. Much of this success can be attributed to Chicago’s successor, Rita Yokoi. Yokoi would continue to develop the program and while she would still challenge the students to “questioning all aspects of their lives, including their approach to art”, she would fine tune aspects of the program itself. Yokoi was also focused on introducing the class and the art it created into the community around it. As the community grew around the program and continued to learn the effects of the feminist art it would create an environment for the feminist art movement in Fresno to grow and thrive. This focus on community involvement in feminist art would enable it to become mainstream and lasting.

Judy Chicago was an innovative artist and mentor in the feminist art movement. Supporters will praise the shocking change she brought to the conventional art pedagogy, detractors will remain shaken at the presentation and methods she utilized. Regardless of what group one finds oneself in, the lasting effects of Chicago and her development of the Fresno Feminist Art Project still sound today. Chicago created an opportunity for students and artists to create their own voice and agency, to speak with their art and words what it means to be a woman today. The work conducted by Chicago and her students created a conversation that we are still carrying as students today on Fresno State.

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