Photo Credit: Detail from subRosa, International Markets in Flesh, Courtesy of Faith Wilding.
A Studio of Their Own: The Legacy of the Fresno Feminist Art Experiment
Legacy / History
The United States’ first feminist art class was established at Fresno State College (now University) in fall 1970 by visiting artist Judy Chicago and fifteen students. The group’s first project was to rent and refurbish an off-campus studio space, on Maple Avenue in downtown Fresno, where they could make and discuss their work “without male interference.” In spring 1971 the class became a full-time 15-unit program. Program participants spent most of their time together, taking turns leading reading groups and critiques, often collaborating on their artwork, and even preparing and eating their meals in the studio.
Judy Chicago and members of the Fresno Feminist Art Program on the front porch of the feminist studio at 1275 Maple in Fresno, 1971. Photograph by Dori Atlantis.
The Fresno Feminist Art Program made a radical departure from traditional art classes. Instead of being oriented toward developing skills in a particular medium, such as oil painting or bronze sculpture, class projects had a conceptual basis, with no limitations on the media to be used. Program alumna Faith Wilding recalls that ideas for artworks arose during group discussions organized along the lines of feminist “consciousness raising.”
"The procedure was to “go around the room” and hear each woman speak from her personal experience about a key topic such as work, money, ambition, sexuality, parents, power, clothing, body image, or violence. As each woman spoke it became apparent that what had seemed to be purely “personal” experiences were actually shared by all the other women; we were discovering a common oppression based on our gender, which was defining our roles and [sense of] identity as women."
Thus, in Wilding’s words, the “unspoken curriculum” of the Fresno feminist program was “learning to contend with manifestations of power: female, male, political, and social.”
Rejecting the modernist paradigm of the autonomous artist/genius creating his work in isolation from the rest of society, the Fresno Feminist Art Program emphasized the value of collaboration. Each participant brought her personal history, interests, and desires to the group, and each contributed to the outcome of the experiment. Graduate students Faith Wilding and Suzanne Lacy, for example, had extensive backgrounds in political and community organizing. Even before joining the feminist art program, Wilding and Lacy initiated a feminist consciousness-raising group on the Fresno State campus, and in spring 1970 Wilding offered a course on feminist theory and practice, “The Second Sex.” Lacy and Wilding’s activist backgrounds informed the group’s use of consciousness-raising as a learning tool and a political strategy. Entering the program with a background in theatrical makeup and costume design, Nancy Youdelman established a “costume room” in the feminist studio. Youdelman’s enthusiasm for self-transformation and role-play helped inspire the group’s experiments with performance art. Dori Atlantis, who studied photography before joining the class, served as its unofficial photo-historian. Atlantis also served as photographer for many of the groups’ collaborative performance projects, including the Costume series in which participants enacted culturally-scripted female roles or “types,” including the Bride, the Whore, the Entertainer, and the Kewpie Doll.
The Fresno Feminist Art Program served as the model for many better-known feminist projects and programs, including Womanhouse, a collaborative feminist art exhibition that attracted national media coverage and introduced the broader public to feminist art. Womanhouse was the first project carried out by the relocated Feminist Art Program after it moved from Fresno State to the California Institute of the Arts in fall 1971. Like the creation of the feminist studio in Fresno, the production of Womanhouse began by laying claim to a separate space, apart from the main campus, and then repairing and refurbishing it to meet the needs of its new occupants. Many of the art-making strategies initially developed at Fresno State—including collaboration, the use of new “female” media such as costume and performance, and an emphasis on gender issues—were deployed in public for the first time at Womanhouse.
The Feminist Studio Workshop, a fully-accredited, independent feminist art school established in conjunction with the Los Angeles Woman’s Building in 1973, realized the goals of the Fresno Feminist Art Program on an even larger scale.
After the departure of Judy Chicago, the feminist class at Fresno State continued for many years under new leadership. Rita Yokoi taught the class from 1971 to 1973. Joyce Aiken took over in 1973, directing the class for nearly twenty years, until her retirement in 1992. In 1973 Aiken and her students established Gallery 25 in downtown Fresno as an all-women’s cooperative gallery. Aiken and her students were also instrumental in establishing the Fresno Art Museum’s Distinguished Women Artists Series and the Council of 100, a group dedicated to promoting quality programming, including work by women artists, at the museum.
Essay by Dr. Laura Meyer, September, 2009.
1275 Maple as it looks in 2009 photo courtesy of Nancy Youdelman
Front Porch of 1275 Maple as it looks in 2009 photo courtesy of Nancy Youdelman . ...........
The fifteen female students selected to work at the Fresno Feminist Art Program were: 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.