When I moved to New Mexico for graduate school, three things intrigued me about the state: the Santa Fe Opera, Taos, and the fact that renowned feminist artist Judy Chicago, creator of The Dinner Party, lived in Belen.
I spent my first year in NM living in Taos Canyon; my second year here I made a pilgrimage to the “other” SFO, but it took me a long, long time to get around to seeing Judy Chicago’s work and influence. (I was flat out intimidated). Finally, in my 16th year in the Land of Enchantment, I took the plunge.
It all started with an event posted on DCF’s events calendar – a Memorial Day weekend lecture given by artist Betye Saar. I had learned of the Liberation of Aunt Jemima as an undergraduate, and I was curious what this artist who had combined a life of activism and art had to share.
I arrived at the lecture as in the middle of introductions. Needing to be as close as possible to the speakers so that I could hear/speechread them, I made my way up front, sitting down just as the wave of introductions rolled my way. Famed artist Judy Chicago stood at the front of the room, insisting that each person introduce themselves before Betye Saar began her lecture.
My admiration for Judy Chicago kicked up a notch – as much as I dislike introducing myself, I really liked this practice of acknowledging each person in the room. It reminded me of collaborative and consensus-driven meeting practices I had learned years ago at my alma mater, a women’s college known for arts and activism. (Fancy that).
After Betye Saar’s fascinating lecture, which began as a spoken word piece, I spoke briefly to Susannah Rodee, director of the Through the Flower, the nonprofit feminist art organization founded by Judy Chicago. I mentioned that I had always wanted to visit the foundation, noting that the train ride to Belen would make for a fun day trip.
Less than two weeks later, I found myself at the Alvarado Transportation Center, waiting for the 1:03 pm train to Belen.
As I made my way to the platform, I felt a curious sense of déjà vu. At first I couldn’t place it. These days the majority of my train boarding takes place in the mid-Atlantic region of the country – as different as it gets from the southwest. But there was something about the sunshine, and the plants, and the architecture that tickled my neurons…
Finally, I figured it out – I was remembering a train station in Toledo, Spain. There’s not much physical similarity between the two, but something about the Alvarado station resonated.
The similarity was quickly dispelled when I boarded the train – instead of chatting with a Nigerian economist about Toledo, I found myself sitting next to a retired professional bull rider and resident of Belen who now raises cattle. He had taken a ride north to Albuquerque to buy a new starter for his tractor, which he needed to have running so that he could cut and bale his hay. He pointed out the Southwest Livestock Auction grounds in Los Lunas from the upper deck of the Railrunner as we passed, noting the rarity of these sites in our state now.
Once in Belen, I headed over to Through the Flower – it is a short walk from the Railrunner station, just over the bridge and left (south) through old downtown Belen. For those interested in making a full day of it, you can pick up a brochure of walking tour that takes you through the highlights of Belen, including the old Harvey House museum.
I was more interested in learning about Through the Flower than exploring Belen. The first thing I noticed upon arriving at the foundation was the signage: the foundation's logo is unmistakably Judy Chicago.
After stepping over the threshold, the second thing I noticed was a tidy arrangement of wooden pallets; I learned that these housed works by Sheilah Wilson, one of two winners of the juried competition New Mexico Feminists Under Forty. (This is one of Wilson's images that was waiting to be installed).
Through the Flower is in a small building that houses archives and a small library; a few art works from The Birth Project are also on display. The Birth Project is a large scale art project with 85 works designed and supervised by Judy Chicago and crafted by 150 needleworkers from all over the world.
Each piece on display is accompanied by documentation panels crediting the needleworkers and providing a look into their own worlds. The exhibit includes descriptions of the various techniques used, from needlepoint to embroidery to batik to quilting and more.
As a mother, I found these pieces quite provocative. The subject matter is the crowning – a moment during the birth process when the infant’s head becomes visible. I contemplated these words by Chicago:
If men had babies, there would be thousands of images of the crowning.
Judy Chicago, 1981
This quote, plus the variety of media and needlework composing The Birth Project pieces, as well as the interviews of the women who worked on this project, subverted my paradigm.
You see, I learned to sew before I even started school - I can remember working a simple cross stitch while sitting in the break room of my great-grandmother’s Hawaiian fabric and notions store. Playing with scraps of fabric was as much part of my childhood as learning to ride a bicycle.
Yet, on some level, I bought into assumptions about the value of these crafts and later, the distinction between fine craft and art without critically assessing just where my assumptions had come from. (It certainly was not the family store, operated by powerhouse women who could wield a needle with the best of them).
As a women’s college graduate and feminist, I was not expecting this nudge towards new discoveries and frameworks.
I’m grateful that venues like Through the Flower provide support to feminist artists in New Mexico, and raise awareness of New Mexico women who have made a difference in art through such projects as the New Mexico Women’s Cultural Corridor.
This weekend I’m hoping for another nudge from a feminist artist.
Through the Flower is hosting an opening on Saturday, June 13 of an exhibit of Sheilah Wilson’s art, This Is Only One of the Possible Redemptions.
If you time it right, you can catch the Railrunner south to Belen in time for the opening (from 2-4 pm) and the gallery talk, which is scheduled to begin at 3 pm.
And if you cannot make your way to Belen, according to Through the Flower, The Albuquerque Museum has the largest and most representative collection of Birth Project works of any institution. Contact the museum for details about viewing these pieces.
Header (Top Image)
The Creation 1984 Judy Chicago
Modified Aubusson tapesty; wool, silk and gold threads
42 x 168"
Woven by Audrey Cowan
Photo by Donald Woodman
Sheilah Wilson images courtesy of the artist and Through the Flower