Judy Chicago said when she moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s to study art, she regularly heard, “You can’t be a woman and an artist, too.” Chicago went on to found the Feminist Art Program in Fresno, Calif., to break away from the kind of institutional sexism she said was common in arts education.
Chicago, born Judy Cohen, is back in her hometown to be honored Tuesday by the women’s board at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
The artist was raised on the city’s North Side. Chicago said the name change came from her first art dealer in California who used to call her “Judy Chicago” because of her “incredible Chicago accent.”
Chicago’s father was a labor organizer, she said, and it was her parents who shaped her future as an equal rights arts educator. “I was raised in a family that believed in equal rights for women,” Chicago said. But, she joked, “The problem was they never told me the rest of the world didn’t feel the same way.”
As a child, the artist said her father encouraged her to participate in the political discussions happening in her family’s home. Politically active friends sat in a circle where both men and women shared their opinions on a specific topic. Chicago said that became the origin of her teaching. “One of the things I learned from that really early is that the loudest voices don’t always have the most to say.” Chicago said it was there she learned how to give “women and quiet men” space for their opinions.
Chicago founded the Fresno Feminist Art Program in 1970 as a space for women to use their personal experiences to fuel their art. Chicago still calls the original 15 students her “Fresno Girls.” Chicago employed what she called the “circular pedagogy” from her childhood in the program. She said in the 1970s, it was considered “very radical … because women’s experiences were not considered important subject matter.”
The arts icon admits arts education today is “ostensibly better.” But, she said, “there’s still institutional bias built into the curriculum.” For example, Chicago pointed out, “so few contemporary art history classes include serious discussion of the history of feminist art.”
You can’t talk to Judy Chicago without mentioning what’s often considered her most seminal work: The Dinner Party. The triangular table features 39 intricate table settings honoring important women from history. Chicago completed the work in 1979 and admitted the 39 women represented at the table is “just the tip of the iceberg” of women who have shaped Western culture.
Judy Chicago is still very active in transforming communities through her art. She caused a bit of a stir last year when some residents in Belen, N.M., where Chicago lives, were upset when the city was going to help fund her community arts space. “I’m a lightning rod. I never thought it would happen,” Chicago joked. The artists backed off from the city-funding model and instead used private funding.
“Lightning rod” is one way to describe the feminist art program. On Tuesday, the MCA is calling it a “visionary.”
Carrie Shepherd is a news reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @cshepherd.