When I walked into The Birth Project exhibit in the Judy Chicago retrospective at the the de Young Museum in San Francisco in November of 2021, I felt I had walked into an ancient Goddess temple. The overwhelming feeling was one of reverence and quiet awe. The room was dark, the pieces were backlit. There were also clay Goddesses in a lit case in the center, replicas by Chicago of sculptures crafted by ancient foremothers. The room was an homage to the divine feminine, birth as a sacrament, woman as the creator and creative force in the universe. The walls pulsed power from the vibrant, energetic — almost volcanic—engorged vulvas opening to birth new life in all its many forms. I took in a deep breath, released gratitude and love and felt my body swell in recognition of its own power: To birth life.
“The series consists of mixed-media fiber work, designed and painted by Chicago but stitched and quilted by collaborators who translated and, in many cases, extended her images by their own hand. One of the central images from the project, Earth Birth (1983) is a feminist reenvisioning of the Creation myth, depicting the explicit birthing of the world as a singular, matrilineal event: in radiating waves of pain from deep within the great goddess Mother Earth….Quilted by a collaborator, Jacquelyn Moore Alexander, Chicago’s deity fuses painterly concerns with needlework traditions, the reclamation of a medium that has both amateur and feminine associations”(In the Making 42).
Nasty Woman Artist Judy Chicago (b. 1939) is a feminist artist who has created some of the most ground breaking installations in the modern era including Womanhouse, The Dinner Party, The Holocaust Project, The Birth Project and most recently, The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction. Chicago’s commitment to history in general, women’s achievements, and the pursuit of her own artistic interests, combined with her articulate intelligence and activism, is an inspiration to Nasty Women everywhere.
For The Birth Project, Chicago designed and painted the images, and then created patterns and invited women textile artists to do the weaving, stitching, quilting, and embroidering. She felt the experience of women giving birth was grossly underrepresented in art and wanted to change that. She also felt that the textile arts had been undervalued in the art world and wished to elevate that art form.
When Judy Chicago decided to take on the theme of women giving birth from a woman’s perspective in the late 70s, she found almost no precedents to draw upon. In her recent autobiography, The Flowering, she reflects that one of the reasons she couldn’t find any was because they had been erased, therefore inaccessible to her:
“At the time, Frida Kahlo’s work was still relatively unknown in the United States, and I was not yet familiar with her treatment of this theme. It would be decades before I would discover that another form of erasure has to do with the omission of subject matter not deemed important by men, birth being a crucial example. In 2015, I went to Milan to see the exhibition The Great Mother, which included my work. The show was a revelation, as it demonstrated that the themes of birth and motherhood had been addressed by a number of female artists dating back to the early twentieth century, but most of their work was previously unknown”(177).
Chicago deliberately chose not to have a child and devote herself to her work. “Discovering that most successful women artists had been childless, I consciously chose to pattern my life upon theirs”(Flowering 178).
She began to gather groups of women who had chosen to have children and engage them in conversation about their experiences of the birth process. Soon she was invited to be present to and participate in many birth experiences. She was impressed and awed by the momentous power in this event.
“I was particularly struck by the strength of the vulva as it expanded and contracted in childbirth; its power was overwhelming, having little to do with sex (although it is always referred to as a sex organ) and everything to do with the life force. I thought then that if everyone was brought up with a familiarity with the birthing vulva, it would be difficult to imagine the female gender as passive. To my mind, the childbirth experience qualified as a heroic struggle, which caused me to wonder again at the absence of images and the mystery surrounding the subject”(Flowering 180).
For this project she worked collaboratively with Sally Babson, a dressmaker and quilter who offered to take on the administration and direction of the project. Chicago had the idea of creating designs that would be stitched by various women who could work out of their own homes. Chicago had seen the designs many women who did needlework were offered at the time and wanted to include images of birth for them to stitch.
When Chicago was working on The Dinner Party, which included a lot of textile arts, she familiarized herself with needlework and visited many stores that supplied the materials to understand more. This is where she came into contact with the needlework kits most women needleworkers used. Chicago points out that “needlework” includes embroidery, appliqué, quilting, macrame and more. “Needlepoint” is a different form where one uses a gridded canvas. Many people confuse these terms.
“The introduction of needlework kits (or patterns) dates back to the Renaissance, when the idea developed that women were incapable of infusing designs with life, a concept that harkens back to Aristotle. Because only men were considered capable of such creative acts, needlework designs became the province of male artists, who began to produce pattern books for women, whose lives were becoming more circumscribed. The reformation continued this process as women were increasingly confined to the domestic sphere”(Flowering 182).
Part of the power of Chicago’s needlework collaborations is that they are patterns designed by her in honor of this awesome subject: women giving birth. The volunteers were given everything they needed to then create it with needlework of their choice in their own homes.
Please visit this link to Judy Chicago’s website for a gallery viewing of The Birth Project up close. The images are very high quality, allowing one to examine the stitching and fine detail. Worth your time.
Chicago had a huge response to her call for participants. Many of the volunteers had seen The Dinner Party and been moved by it and impressed by Chicago’s work.
“There was some discussion about my insistence on retaining aesthetic control, until Sally pointed out that the reason she—and she assumed, other people—were drawn to work with me was the quality of the art that had resulted from precisely this process.
We talked about my patterns, which Sally and I had put up on the wall. I was gratified by the response of the women present (most of whom had children) who said that my images seemed to express many of the complex feelings they had about their respective birth experiences, which reassured me I was on the right track”(Flowering 185).
In the short video in the “Meet the Artist” series from Art Basel 2019, Chicago relates that
“Young women artists often ask me how I feel about being called a feminist artist, as if there was always a category for feminist art. Feminism is about a different paradigm for the world that allows space for everybody. The Birth Project was one step in my development as a feminist artist.”
Read our other pieces about Judy Chicago:
Judy Chicago: Feminist Art, Collaborative Works and ChangeMaker
Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party: Celebrating Women Across Time
It is important to understand how huge a project this was. In her work on The Birth Project, Chicago worked with 150 volunteer stitchers from around the country. She went through a process of reviewing their work multiple times in person—traveling across the country to New York, Houston, Chicago—all over. If she could not get to the artist, she would have them send the work to her to see how it was going and review the piece. She did this 3-5 times a year for a period of 5 years with each of her collaborators.
There was an incredible amount of communication and interaction between the artists.
”I tried in my collaborations to make room for my collaborators to have agency,”(NSC video), she notes. She was actively inviting them to engage with the theme and invoke their own creative gifts and skills.
In this time Chicago was able to see the reality of many women’s lives. How so many put themselves and their artistic goals second to the needs of their family.
Many women she worked with had been artists with aspirations before they were married and had children but put those goals on hold once children arrived. Some were only able to devote 2 hours a week to their project.
She was able to witness how incredibly overwhelmed women are. Even worse, many suffered from the hard time their family or spouse gave them for wanting to pursue their art and ambition through participation in this project. For many of them it was a chance to pursue a long-lost goal, others were engaged because of their strong devotion to feminism and the message of the work. They all very much wanted to be a part of this groundbreaking project.
Chicago praises Jane Gaddie Thomson, the artist who collaborated with her on Birth Tear, as:
“one of the best needleworkers I’ve ever worked with. She developed her own personal way of doing these fades [the fading colors on the quilt] and that was to work with 9 needles at a time. I think it’s important to understand that not only was there an iconographic void about the subject matter, there was a total void about how needlework is done. Now why would that be? Because it’s what women do”(Art Basel, Meet the Artist).
In another video about The Birth Project, Chicago continues this theme:
“What women do is not considered important. ‘Oh, it’s just needlepoint.’
Jane Gaddie Thomson who devised a method of stitching to translate my blends in which she used 9 needles simultaneously, each one strung with three stands of thread, which she first had to strip apart because DMC floss comes in 6 strands, after which she had to cut 18 inch lengths. Then she would systematically thread her needle with a blend and then she would blend. When she got to the end of the blend she would do it again. Now, let’s talk about the amount of time in our history that is given to the paint strokes of the great male painters. Why is equal time not given to the incredible array of needle techniques that women have used for centuries? Because what women do isn’t important”(NSC Video).
Thirty-four years later and Chicago yet has to make this point.
Of Frannie Yablonsky’s work on The Crowning, Chicago laments that there has:
“never been any discussion about the technical achievement of this piece nor has there ever been any art historical look at the fact that around the border she wrote the names of all 4 of her great-grandmothers and the number of children they had had to commemorate a tradition in her family that she felt connected to” (NSC video).
Still, to this day, these artists and these masterpieces have not received the due attention they deserve from the art world.
I can say that the technique and technical skill is evident when one stands before these pieces. They are masterful and exquisite. The use of fabric and stitching as the medium is genius in the way that it gives the exhibit a multilayered and multifaceted look at women’s lives and gifts throughout time as well as an immediate and 3D feel for the subject matter.
I could have stood there in that exhibit room in the de Young Museum for so much longer examining these pieces. Backing up to take in the image in its wholeness as created by Chicago before moving in close to see the handwork in each stitch, and understanding that a woman artist had volunteered her time to stitch it.
It’s an amazing achievement. I hope as many people as possible are able to stand before at least one of these pieces of art at some point in their lifetime. Add it to your bucket list.
Judy Chicago, Frannie Yablonsky, Jane Gaddie Thomson, Jacquelyn Moore Alexander, Audrey Cowan, Sandi Abel and hundreds more needleworkers who worked on this project are all Nasty Women Artists.
Theresa C. Dintino 2022
The Featured Image at the top of this post is a detail from Judy Chicago, The Creation, 1984. Modified Aubusson Tapestry. Weaving by Audrey Cowan
Chicago, Judy. The Flowering: The Autobiography of Judy Chicago. Thames and Hudson, 2021.
Schmuckli, Claudia, with Jenni Sorkin and Janna Keegan. Judy Chicago In the Making. fine arts museums of san Francisco, Thames & Hudson. 2021.
You Tube: Meet the Artists|Judy Chicago|The Birth Project. Art Basel. Jan 9, 2019.
You Tube: Nasher Sculpture Center. Judy Chicago Discusses Material and Labor. June 3 2019.