As feminist artists struggled to find a way to make clear how their work fit into the larger movement for women’s liberation, they experimented with a variety of names that distanced themselves from the elitest (and to them sexist) art world. Early on some women used the phrase “female creator” but that sounded a bit too much like a diety. Artists out of the New Left often used the term “art worker” and in 1976 a group comprised of Nancy Angelo, Candace Compton, Cheri Gaulke, and Laurel Klick, all students in the FSW, formed calling themselves the Feminist Art Workers.
As their first joint action, the Feminist Art Workers organized a tour of Northern California and the Midwest in 1977. Angelo and Klick piled into Gaulke’s beat up VW van, and they took off to spread the gospel of feminist art pedagogy. The Feminist Art Workers shared work done at the Woman’s Building through lectures and slides shows on Grandma Prisbrey, women performance artists in Southern California, the Woman’s Building, and the Los Angeles Women’s Video Center. Additionally, they gave more general presentations on the process, product, and ideology behind the Feminist Art Workers, the mass media’s role in violence against women, and feminist art as political art.
The group kept a collective journal as they traveled and drew their performance material from there. The Feminist Art Workers offered a variety of workshops and performances. Topics included the concept of collaborative art making, work sharing and supportive criticism, consciousness raising, creating support structures for women, and journal writing as a means of creating a private, non-judgmental place for self-exploration.
At the Midwest Women Artists’ Conference they created an audio tape of the women reading their journal entries which played as a background to the performance. The first part of the piece symbolized the pitfalls of individualism. The Feminist Art Workers created a paper “road” that encircled the audience. The image of “the road” represented the journey to feminist consciousness and community. Both Angelo and Klick struggled down the road alone. Both women then sat at a table on the stage, ignoring each other, while they unsucessfully attempted to feed themselves with very long forks.
Cheri Gaulke appeared on the stage and performed a dance based on the fairy tale , The Red Slippers, about a little girl who put on a pair of shoes that would not stop dancing until her feet were cut off. In this version of the Red Slippers, the represented Gaulke’s conflicting desire to dedicated herself completely to the women’s movement and her exhaustion from working so hard. As Gaulke explained on the tape playing in the background, her exhaustion resulted from her conviction that she alone had to complete the work of the women’s movement. Finally, Klick and Angelo helped Gaulke remove her shoes and led her over to the table, where they proceeded to feed each other with the long forks. Finally, the joint effort to remove Gaulke’s shoes and the act of feeding of each. The images in this piece celebrated the power of the feminist community. Obstacles along the way included individualism symbolized by the effort to feed themselves with the long utensils and Gaulke’s exhausting dance. This unsuccessful effort symbolized the pitfalls of individualism, while the achievements made when the women worked together, illustrated by the joint effort to remove Gulke’s shoes and the act of feeding each other highlighted the power of community by illustrating that that “together the burden is not so great.”
The Feminist Art Workers used the image of feeding each other for a metaphor for a supportive feminist community in several other pieces. The imagery derived from childhood story told to Angelo’s by her mother about the difference between heaven and hell. Hell is a banquet where everyone is trying to feed themselves with four-foot long forks, while in heaven the forks are used to feed each other. The Feminist Art Workers first performed “Heaven and Hell” in 1979 at the National Women’s Studies Association meeting where it served to reinforce the feminist content of the conference by offering an artistic interpretation of the power of community. In its 1981 incarnation, the Feminist Art Workers turned Heaven and Hell in to an event for two hundred people who participated in the action of feeding one another. Heaven and Hell perfectly illustrates the efforts of the Feminist Art Workers to “function as facilitators of a transformation with our audience/participants.”
The work of the Feminist Art Workers invited dialogue through their involvement with the audience. The content of their performance pieces such as Heaven and Hell focused attention on the power of feminist community. Finally, the Feminist Art Workers hoped to transform culture by creating a strong feminist community that would become an agent of change.
While the Feminist Art Workers continued to pursue their theme of community, they also began to use their work to bring about more specific social transformation. In addition to their efforts to create an empowered community of women, The Feminist Art Workers, also tried to raise consciousness in the general population by providing information about political issues. In May 1978 for example, they joined in public protest against Proposition 13, a measure which limited property taxes and thus curtailed public funding for cultural and community service organization. In Draw Your Own Conclusions: Know on 13 the Feminist Art Works walked around during lunch time at the Music Center fountain, a crowded downtown public area, wearing sandwich boards of large drawing pads and asked people what they would lose if Proposition 13 passed. The artists then asked them to draw on the pads a picture of that loss, such as a day care center or an art program. As Laurel Klick noted, it was “a real Feminist Art Workers approach . . . to give people the information [about the impact of proposition 13] and let them draw their own conclusions.” This piece hoped to personalize the political by showing the impact on individuals of political decisions.
Bill of Rights (1980) spoke to another pressing political issue, the Equal Rights Amendment. Controversy arose when the College Art Association decided to Hold its 1980 conference in Louisiana, which had not ratified the ERA. A compromise, engineered by Suzanne Lacy, was reached that the conference would be held in New Orleans, but that protests would occur. The Feminist Art Workers were invited to do a piece. They printed dollar bills with facts about unequal pay and distributed them on the street at the convention. The Feminist Art Workers dressed a members of the hotel staff distributed dollar bills created by Woman’s Building member sue Maberry that helped lobby for the ERA by conveying information about the barriers to and need for passage. The tag line asked “What are you going to do about it?” in an effort to spur convention attendants to action. The action proved so successful that they repeated it several times over the next two years. Bill of Rights (1980) spoke to another pressing political issue, the Equal Rights Amendment. Controversy arose when the College Art Association decided to Hold its 1980 conference in Louisiana, which had not ratified the ERA. A compromise, engineered by Suzanne Lacy, was reached that the conference would be held in New Orleans, but that protests would occur. The Feminist Art Workers were invited to do a piece. They printed dollar bills with facts about unequal pay and distributed them on the street at the convention. The Feminist Art Workers dressed a members of the hotel staff distributed dollar bills created by Woman’s Building member sue Maberry that helped lobby for the ERA by conveying information about the barriers to and need for passage. The tag line asked “What are you going to do about it?” in an effort to spur convention attendants to action. The action proved so successful that they repeated it several times over the next two years.
Repeat performance of Heaven or Hell 2011