Insurgent Muse
Insurgent Muse
Life and Art at the Woman's Building

Interview with Terry Wolverton

What is the lasting significance of the Woman's Building to the art scene in Los Angeles, and to the "art world" in general?

WOLVERTON: A) The feminist art movement was part of a great movement to democratize the arts by broadening to include women, people of color, and other marginalized voices. While problems remain, there is no question that the arts now reflect a multiplicity of viewpoints beyond that of white, privileged males, both in Los Angeles and in the western world.
B) The Woman's Building, in particular, pioneered or furthered a number of significant processes and practices within the arts, most of which have gone on to be adopted to some degree within mainstream culture. These include:

i) utilizing autobiographical experience as the subject for artmaking
ii) restoring the credibility of "craft" materials (fiber, clay, etc.) that had been considered lesser due to their association with women and with domestic life
iii) working collaboratively and/or within community
iv) demystifying the "lone genius" theory of art and demonstrating the value of supportive community to art makers
v) evolving a method of mutual and supportive criticism that is designed to nurture the artist and further the work according to the artist's intentions, rather than to "screen out" those artists or works of art that have not yet fulfilled their intentions

C) Numerous artists came out of the Woman's Building or felt the existence and support of the Building to be a critical element in their artistic development; these artists are still working and impacting the artistic life of our time. They and others are also teaching younger artists and keeping alive the methods and philosophies of feminist art to the present day.

Why write this memoir now?

WOLVERTON: In the last several years, I've been approached by numerous young women researching their theses or dissertations on the feminist art movement. I sense in this generation of women a hunger for the kind of community or context for their work that existed in the 1970s. I think that the vision of what we attempted, as well as the mistakes we made in trying to achieve it, offer an important roadmap for the next group of pioneers. I also think that as a culture, having first vilified and then mocked the seventies, we are now ready to look more openly at the decade and better understand our personal and social histories.

Who were some of the key figures to emerge from the Woman's Building?

WOLVERTON: Founders Judy Chicago, Sheila de Bretteville, and Arlene Raven have all continued to make a significant contributions to their fields. Nationally recognized artists such as Judy Baca, Betye Saar, Lili Lakich, and performance artists Rachel Rosenthal, Barbara Smith, and Suzanne Lacy are among the many women who credit the Woman's Building for early support in their careers. Singer/songwriter Phranc came to the Woman's Building while still a teenager. Writers Deena Metzger, Eloise Klein Healy, Wanda Colemen, Mitsuye Yamada, Bia Lowe, Aleida Rodriguez, Michelle T. Clinton, and myself found significant support for the development of our work.

How did the activities of women at the Woman's Building affect the visibility of women artists in LA, California, and nation/world-wide?

WOLVERTON: Prior to the feminist art movement, women artists had almost no visibility in Los Angeles. A survey of the LA County Museum of Art taken in 1971 showed that in the previous decade, the museum had exhibited 80 one-person shows, and only one of them was by a woman artist. Activism both within and around the Woman's Building had a number of effects:

a) it put the issue of representation for women artists on the radar of every gallery and museum director in the area (parallel actions were taking place in New York, Chicago, Minneapolis and perhaps elsewhere)
b) it drew talented women from across the country to move to Los Angeles in order to nurture their work in a supportive environment
c) it emboldened women artists to expect and to demand more for their careers, and to attempt projects they might once have been reluctant to undertake
d) it validated women artists to develop their own style and content, rather than to mimic the prevailing male sensibilities of the day
e) it inspired women around the world to recreate this vision of empowerment for women artists in their own countries and communities

How did the activities of women at the Woman's Building affect the visibility of, more specifically, lesbian artists in LA, California, and nation/world-wide?

WOLVERTON: As far as I am aware, no one had attempted to fuse the words "lesbian" and "artist" prior to that happening at the Woman's Building; no one had previously suggested that there might be sensibilities in the art of lesbians that could be observed and theorized. "Naming" creates reality, and the activities by and for lesbian artists that took place at the Woman's Building created a ground on which these creators could stand, a context for the work they were producing. It is my belief that these activites not only provided this context for the artists of the 1970s but also created a climate of acceptance for the next generation of lesbian artists who began to promote their work in the late 1980s.

What were the most significant programs of the Woman's Building?

WOLVERTON: There were so many it would take several books to recount them! I'll start with the Feminist Studio Workshop, a two-year educational program for women in the arts. It was this program that brought me from Detroit to Los Angeles and to the Woman's Building. Between 1973 and 1981, hundreds of women came from across the country and around the world to be part of this program that included studio classes in visual arts, performance art, video, creative writing, graphic design and book arts, as well as consciousness-raising, critique groups, and myriad opportunities to develop community with other women artists from across the country.

Next I'll move to particular art forms: performance, video, writing and the design and printing arts. I devote a chapter to my own involvement with performance, but I was one of a large number of women and collaborative groups of women involved in this art form. The Los Angeles Women's Video Center both used the medium of video to allow women to make personal artistic statements, but also offered training in the medium that might enable a woman to find employment in the industry and produced a series of groundbreaking PSA's about feminist issues that were aired on public TV. The literary arts had two primary modes of activity: a) the Women Writer's Series brought in nationally and internationally known writers to read their work at the Woman's Building (Adrienne Rich, Meridel LeSeuer, Margaret Atwood, and Rita Mae Brown are just a few of the luminary writers who appeared over the years); and b) writing workshops —both ongoing and short-term — that allowed emerging writers to find their voice, hone their skills, and deepen their content.

The design and printing arts were an enormous program of the Woman's Building. There was a large and well equipped letterpress printing studio that was accessible for a very low membership fee (or free to students in classes) to anyone wishing to produce their work in multiple. There were myriad classes and workshops in graphic design, fine printing techniques, and various book arts strategies. There was a three-year residency that offered women the chance to learn letterpress printing by making a postcard dedicated to one's personal heroine.

There was Ariadne: A Social Art Network (a project similar to the Lesbian Art Project in its relationship to the Woman's Building), which enlisted women to participate in large-scale collaborative performance works. Out of Ariadne grew the Incest Awareness Project, a three-year endeavor to use art to raise consciousness about the sexual abuse of children. This multi-faceted project is described in detail in the "Recovery" chapter of the book.

From the 1980s on, the Woman's Building sponsored commission projects, funding artists to create new works (posters and broadsides, video, performance and installation art, literary arts).

I could continue, but my point is that the Woman's Building was an 18-year undertaking by thousands of women who devoted their energies to myriad large- and smaller-scale projects, of which I could only discuss a few in Insurgent Muse.

Why do you think the this history is largely unknown by younger feminists & lesbians today? Why are the many amazing achievements of the Woman's Building generally not spoken of?

WOLVERTON: I think there are three primary reasons:

A) At the end of the 1970s, there was a powerful backlash against feminism and feminist projects. The mainstream media went about ridiculing and discrediting the women's movement, and it became cool to bash feminism or at least to distance oneself from it. Within the academy, theories arose to challenge the theoretical tenets of 1970s feminism, and distortions and erasures occured because of this.

B) There was a desire on the part of many (though not all) at the Woman's Building to become an enclave of alternative culture, to embrace the margins and refuse to strive to achieve status in the mainstream. This stance allowed us to live by our own values and rules, but it also led to increased perception of marginality and therefore invisibility.

C) Cultural events that happen in Los Angeles (except those that occur within the entertainment industry) are perceived as "regional." If the Woman's Building had been sited in New York City, we'd be in all the history books.

Do you feel that there's a need for such an institution now? (The Woman's Building clearly provided crucial grounding in which to grow & develop your art. ) If so, what functions would it fulfill?

The students I work with now do long for and thrive within the context of supportive community. I don't believe the convening issues for such community would be the same as they were during the years the WB existed — there isn't either the same kind of anger or the exhiliration of discovery. There is still delight when women can gather as women, but it seems more these days about private and personal nurturing rather than with a mission to change the world.

Those of us who, in the 1970s, attempted to change the world learned firsthand how heartbreakingly intractable the world can be, and we seem to have passed this heartbreak down to the next generation. It seems like the people trying to change the world now are the Buddhists (and those within similar spiritual traditions) and the suicide bombers.

Eleven years after its closing in 1991, I still have dreams about reviving the Woman's Building. I take meetings, I raise funds, I organize rooms. But in writing Insurgent Muse I realized that it isn't so much the institution itself that needs to persist, but the values of nurturing an art and culture that reflects and speaks deeply to its members, of honoring the creative impulse as a sacred spark that resides in all, not merely a privileged few, of supporting rather than competing with our peers —these values are what need to survive, long after the institution has faded from memory.