Feminist Art Education

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Melissa Leaym-Fernandez and students from Holmes STEM Academy, Flint, Michigan, To Honor Our Mothers. © 2018 The Elephantworks Studio/Melissa Leaym-Fernandez

Judy Chicago is a contemporary pioneer of feminist art and art education. In both her practices as an artist and educator, Chicago focuses on empowering the voices and artful contributions of women in cultural and pedagogical environments. Her most recognized work, The Dinner Party (1974-1979), is an installation that re-presents women throughout time and place, in a manner that disrupts the patriarchal narrative of history. The Dinner Party is aesthetically striking in its monumental size (576 × 576 in/1463 × 1463 cm) and for its fanciful use of craft materials that reference ceramics and weaving, which have a traditional perspective of embodying gender stereotypes. Overall, 1,038 women throughout ancient, modern and contemporary history, are given a seat at the table and accompanying information about each woman is available for the viewer to analyze. Another one of Chicago’s major works from the same era titled Womanhouse (1972), was an ephemeral artwork, exhibition space and pedagogical ‘happening,’ made in collaboration with fellow feminist artist/educator Miriam Schapiro and their students at California Institute for the Arts (CalArts). In addition to being an immersive work of art that explored feminist values, Womanhouse was a seminal element of Chicago and Schapiro’s feminist art pedagogy. Before getting into an explanation of Chicago et al’s approach, it would be helpful to have a definition of feminist art education. Feminist art education is not just teaching and learning about women artists; it is a dialectic framework, which aims to emphasize the intersectionality of gender identity, and build an understanding for other individuals’ expressions of gender outside of traditional gender binarism. Therefore, Chicago and her colleagues were conscious about making their curriculum participatory and empowering for students with different life experiences.

The Feminist Art Program that Chicago created was realized in the 1970s, while she was teaching art at Fresno State College in Fresno, California (Today, the school is known as California State University, Fresno). The program was intended to be a seminal initiative for the creation and presentation of feminist art. She taught a core group of artists that included Dori Atlantis, Susan Boud, Gail Escola, Vanalyne Green, Suzanne Lacy, Cay Lang, Karen LeCocq, Jan Lester, Chris Rush, Judy Schaefer, Henrietta Sparkman, Faith Wilding, Shawnee Wollenman, Nancy Youdelman and Cheryl Zurilgen.

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The front page of the exhibition catalog for “Womanhouse” (January 30 – February 28, 1972), feminist art exhibition organized by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, co-founders of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) Feminist Art Program. Photo and design by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville

After Judy Chicago left Fresno State, the Feminist Art Program was reestablished at CalArts by Chicago and Schapiro (it also continued at Fresno State College under the direction of Rita Yokoi and Joyce Aiken until 1992). At CalArts, Chicago and Schapiro continued developing a curriculum for their students based on participatory learning and artmaking. The pedagogical framework included analyzing, creating and assessing works of art created by women, with a central aim of conveying individual and collective feminist values. The program’s academic and pragmatic foundation focused on a shift from the patriarchal narrative of art and history, and an expression of students’ lived experiences within a communal environment. It was during the program’s iteration at CalArts that Womanhouse was realized. The old Victorian home was a symbolic and necessary setting for Womanhouse to aesthetically confront stereotypical gender roles. Collaborative efforts on behalf of both students and faculty led to the transformation of a former domestic site into a venue intended for women artists to develop artistically, socially, emotionally and professionally.

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Melissa Leaym-Fernandez and students from Holmes STEM Academy, Flint, Michigan, To Honor Our Mothers. © 2018 The Elephantworks Studio/Melissa Leaym-Fernandez

Chicago has continued to support the work of women artists through the creation of the Judy Chicago Art Education Collection and the Judy Chicago Art Education Award. Teaching artists have developed significant participatory art educational projects by incorporating research done via Judy Chicago Art Education Collection at Penn State’s Eberly Family Special Collections. This unique collection is a living archive dedicated to feminist art education. For example, two projects by recent awardees, Melissa Leaym-Fernandez and Chelsea Borgman, reference seminal feminist works by Chicago and Schapiro in order to inspire their students to consider progressive concepts of gender.  2018 awardee, Melissa Leaym-Fernandez realized the concept for her project To Honor Our Mothers, in collaboration with third, six, seventh and eighth graders at Holmes STEM Academy in Flint, Michigan. The project was inspired by The Dinner Party’s use of traditional craft or domestic art (textile arts and ceramic media), as well as its thematic celebration of influential women throughout history. To Honor Our Mothers celebrates women and specifically the role of motherhood, in the eyes, minds and hearts of their children. The students were asked to interview their mothers (or other individuals in that role such as aunts, grandmothers, caregivers) with respect to fears they had as children, the people they love and admire, dreams and aspirations and facets of daily life that make them happiest. The mothers’ answers were synthesized into words and symbols that represented each student’s mother, and were sewn to form squares that were assembled as a large quilt. When displayed, the collective quilt of the students’ mothers presents a positive, diverse portrait of womanhood and inspires a discussion on individual and collective identity.

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Miriam Schapiro, Dollhouse, 1972, wood and mixed media, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Gene Davis Memorial Fund, 1997.112A-B

2019 awardee, Chelsea Borgman, is developing a feminist art educational project partially inspired by Womanhouse, called Inside the Dollhouse. This in-progress collaborative artwork references Dollhouse (1972) by Miriam Schapiro and Sherry Brody, which was displayed within the Womanhouse installation. Borgman’s goal is to use the form and function of a dollhouse to create an immersive environment for teenage girls to address critical social and cultural issues that affect their lives as both students and young women. Each of the ten participants will create a room within the dollhouse that raises consciousness around gender identity, in hopes that it will foster an ongoing dialogue within their community and beyond.

Philosopher and gender theorist, Judith Butler, describes gender as being “constrained by available historical conventions,” and posits that we perform gender roles, which are determined by sociocultural factors (Butler, 1988). A feminist art education employs the action of artmaking to deconstruct the polarity of gender. It does this via creating new spaces for gender to be perceived and performed outside of the dominant ideologies of gender identity. Based on a recent study by a marketing firm called Ipsos, there is further optimism that awareness of gender fluidity is shifting on a larger scale. According to the study, “nearly half of Americans now see gender on a spectrum, rather than along the binary….Half of women and 4 in 10 men say that gender is a spectrum. That number jumps dramatically among people between ages 25–34 (55%). It’s even higher among LGBTQ people, 84% of whom see gender on a spectrum” (Sosin, 2020).

25 years after Judy Chicago developed the Feminist Art Program, she returned to teaching with her photographer husband Donald Woodman. They have expanded the seminal feminist art curriculum that Chicago introduced.  The goal of their curriculum, is to make feminist art education relevant for individuals of all backgrounds. The benefits of applying a feminist art education program in a coed and multigender environment is that the paradigm of gender is diverted through socially engaged classrooms and assessments, which value multiple perspectives and diversity (Keifer-Boyd, 2011).

Woodman’s perspective on feminist art and pedagogy is that feminism should be experienced as nonhierarchic and non-binary. He says “how I define myself as a feminist is that I do not support a dominant paradigm whether imposed by men or women. Society rewards either gender for supporting this dominant structure. My personal experience has shown that both men and women can be equally supportive of a dominant paradigm.” (Woodman, n.d.). Woodman believes that feminism should be framed as issues of values rather than gender. By focusing on values there is more flexibility to perform outside of conventional gender ideologies. The value of feminism is its ability to transform cultural and political life via intersectional advocacy of social, economic and intellectual equality.

Chicago and Woodman mapped out their feminist art curriculum as a three part participatory learning process. The first phase is Preparation, which includes content specific tactics for learning and contextualizing feminist values. These methodologies for investigating the concept of focal points include: readings, research, self-presentations, team/group building, content search and artmaking goals. Assigning these objectives, sets up the foundation for a collaborative pedagogical environment where personal experience is transformed into content-based expression as a tangible form (Keifer-Boyd, 2011).

The second phase is Process, which includes tangible actions such as: work mode selection, media selection, formatting of decisions and making the ideal real. In this phase, presenting implicit ideas and emotions through visual forms, is reliant upon a dialogic inquiry approach of addressing societal challenges and sharing knowledge, experiences and goals as a collective.

The final phase is Artmaking, which includes the performative aspects of expressing and presenting the explorations and insights realized through the previous collaborative phases. A large part of the artmaking process within Chicago and Woodman’s curriculum is considering the audience and sustaining the viewer’s attention.

Through these teaching and learning approaches, the Chicago/Woodman curriculum brings men and women (or boys and girls) together to share a spectrum of experiences, while creating knowledge through aesthetic self-expressions that confront paradigms of gender, race, class and physicality. Chicago (qtd. in Keifer-Boyd, 2011) encapsulates the curriculum as “a model where the teacher helps to first make each student feel valued. Listening to what the students have to say, communicates the fact that what the students have to say is important, and that their experience is worthy of examination. Furthermore, in their experience there is potential content for artmaking, which also makes their experience important. If you can turn your experience into artmaking, then it validates your experience. It really is a very simple process, but sometimes implementing the process is not so simple. It has to do with going around in a circle, giving everybody time and space.”

Although traditional gender roles are subjective, they remain a predominant constraint in mainstream society.  As Butler, Chicago, Woodman and others (see: Lather, 1991; Ellsworth, 1992; Manicom, 1992; hooks, 1994; Forrest & Rosenberg, 1997; Tomlinson & Fasssinger, 2002) have expressed, gender is connected to the actions and ideologies of political, social, economic and cultural spaces. Feminism is always in flux, because our society both experiences progress and endures pitfalls in regards to the aforementioned actions and ideologies. As long as inequality exists between men and women, there will be a need for feminist values and curricula to empower the individuality and plurality of our voices and identities.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Butler, Judith (1988). “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal. 40 (4): 519–531.

Ellsworth, Elizabeth. (1992). Why doesn’t this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. In C. Luke & J. Gore (Eds.), Feminisms and critical pedagogy (pp. 90-119). New York: Routledge.

Forrest, Linda. & Rosenberg, Freda. (1997). A review of the feminist pedagogy literature: The neglected child of feminist psychology. Applied & Preventive Psychology, 6, 179-192.

Harper, Paula (1985). “The First Feminist Art Program: A View from the 1980s”. Signs. 10 (4): 762–81. JSTOR 3174313

hooks, bell. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

Keifer-Boyd, Karen. (2007). From content to form: Judy Chicago’s pedagogy with reflections by Judy Chicago. Studies in Art Education: A Journal of Issues and Research in Art Education, 48(2), 133-153.

Keifer-Boyd, Karen. (2011). Participatory art pedagogy. Judy Chicago Art Education Collection. Retrieved from https://judychicago.arted.psu.edu/participatory-art-pedagogy/

Lather, Patti. (1991). Getting smart: Feminist research and pedagogy within the postmodern. New York: Routledge.

Manicom, Ann. (1992). Feminist pedagogy: Transformations, standpoints, and politics. Canadian Journal of Education, 17, 365-389.

Sosin, Kate. “Study: Half of Americans Now See Gender on a Spectrum.” Newnownext, 7 Jan. 2020. http://www.newnownext.com/half-of-americans-see-gender-on-spectrum/01/2020/?fbclid=IwAR2Ya3DFfbCwlTMQauFCimIJZkDVY54tJrwd1e8n2oI6Mw_MiFp07soVNyw

Tomlinson, M. J. & Fassinger, R. E. (2002). The faces of feminist pedagogy: A survey of psychologists and their students. In L. H. Collins, M. R. Dunlap & J. C. Chrisler (Eds.), Charting a new course for feminist psychology (pp. 37-64). Wesport, CT: Praeger.

Woodman, Donald. “Feminist Artist Statement,” Brooklyn Museum Feminist Art Base. https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/about/feminist_art_base/donald-woodman

Woodman, Donald. DonaldWoodman.com. www.donaldwoodman.com.

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