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The Legacy of the Woman's Building and How it Lives On

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Sculpture, the "Naked Lady" by artist Kate Millett is positioned atop the Women's Building, December 13, 1978 | Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

From 1973 to 1991 the Woman's Building was an epicenter of both the Feminist Art Movement and the Los Angeles Community Arts scene. Standing in the elite pantheon of other important and historic L.A. literary spaces like the Watts Writers Workshop, Beyond Baroque, and the World Stage, the Woman's Building not only featured poetry but also showcased visual arts, dance, performance art, film, political activism, graphic design and experimental theater. This week L.A. Letters examines the legacy of the Woman's Building and reveals how the spirit lives on to this day.

Founded in 1973 by artist Judy Chicago, graphic designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, and art historian Arlene Raven, the Woman's Building was first located near MacArthur Park in a structure that once housed the old Chouinard Art Institute. The three founders had all been affiliated with the California Institute of the Arts. Together they started the first independent school for women artists, the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW). They took the inspiration and name for the Woman's Building from a structure built by Sophia Hayden for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago that displayed exhibitions of cultural works by women from around the world.

Among the hundreds of articles and several dissertations covering the history of the Woman's Building, perhaps the most definitive account is the book "Insurgent Muse," written by Terry Wolverton and published by City Lights. Wolverton moved to Los Angeles in 1976 to study at the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW) and ended up remaining involved in the Woman's Building until 1989. In her own words, she says, "I spent thirteen years -- from 1976 to 1989 -- at the Woman's Building, beginning as a student in the FSW, then becoming a teacher, program director, exhibiting artist, publicist, typesetter, newsletter editor, grant-writer, board member, development director, and eventually executive director."

Wolverton notes in her introduction that, "Rather than attempt a comprehensive history, I've chosen to focus on the activities I was most directly involved and that best illustrate certain premises I want to highlight." In spite of this caveat, the book offers an extensive history and a deep examination of the spirit and ethos that defined the monumental site. She begins by discussing the zeitgeist of the early 1970s as the Woman's Building was coming to rise, and why the founders felt it necessary to begin the first independent academy for women artists.

Sheila de Bretteville, Helen Alm Dawn, and Cheri Gaulke outside the front door on Spring Street, Fall 1975 | Photo: Woman's Building Image Archive
Sheila de Bretteville, Helen Alm Dawn, and Cheri Gaulke outside the front door on Spring Street, Fall 1975 | Photo: Woman's Building Image Archive

Wolverton notes that the founders, especially de Bretteville, "did not want to replicate another ivory tower, and sought to align this new school with the burgeoning women's movement in Los Angeles." Their hope was to "Push for better inclusion of women in the mainstream art world and the utter redefinition of art and culture within a feminist context." A central thrust within this redefinition was to develop women's artistic identity and sensibility and the expression of these influences through their artwork. To this end, the Woman's Building when it first opened included multiple galleries, theater companies, a coffeehouse, Sisterhood Bookstore, Womantours Travel Agency, and the offices of the National Organization for Women. The idea was to be a one-stop public center for women and their artistic, social and political needs.

In 1975 the Woman's Building moved to a three-story converted red brick warehouse at 1727 North Spring in the liminal stretch where Chinatown and Lincoln Heights meet. Wolverton arrived in Los Angeles shortly after the relocation to study at the Feminist Studio Workshop. In her book she describes the troubled state of mind she was in before she left the Midwest. Wolverton left Michigan in her early 20s after reading about the Woman's Building in a magazine. Her book's narrative about the era strikes a perfect balance between weaving her own personal history with the collective history of the Woman's Building. Following a failed suicide attempt, she decided to leave behind "the constricted fictions of the Midwest, its constipated possibilities, the cold, the drab, the predictable gaze that would not see you in your full dimensions. You came to put the fragments of your life together, following that spark, to re-knit the woman to the artist, the body to the brain, the spirit."

Over the years of 1973 to 1981, hundreds of women similar to Wolverton came from not only all over America but all over the world to study at the Feminist Studio Workshop in the Woman's Building. As the years went on the Woman's Building evolved with the times. Wolverton was a central figure in the Lesbian Art Project during the late 1970s. Consisting of a wide range of performance pieces, workshops, and many visual art exhibits, the project "engaged in creating a myth of the lesbian as artist." One of the landmark programs from the period was the 1979 event, "An Oral Herstory of Lesbianism."

In 1981 the Feminist Studio Workshop at the Woman's Building ended, but the space continued and the programming changed to evolve with the times. Wolverton explains that the FSW closing occurred because of "economic shifts and the sea change in social attitudes that followed the election of President Ronald Reagan." Nonetheless the Woman's Building continued on until 1991 with art making, exhibitions, and education for women artists. During the 1980s Wolverton was deeply involved with projects there, like the Great American Lesbian Art Show, the Incest Awareness Project, and the White Women's Anti-Racism Consciousness-Raising Group.

Wolverton describes her own evolution as the times changed: "We'd gone from being hippie Outlaw artists to being landlords, business managers, and board members," she says. "I suppose one might say we grew up. For our love of the Woman's Building, our commitment to its vision of feminist art, we entered a world of balance sheets, granstmanship and marketing. It was a turn of events rich with irony."

Feminist Studio Workshop (L to R) Anne Mavar, Brit Val Kierkegaard, and Terry Wolverton | Photo: Woman's Building Image Archive
Feminist Studio Workshop (L to R) Anne Mavar, Brit Val Kierkegaard, and Terry Wolverton | Photo: Woman's Building Image Archive

In the midst of all the other programming there were frequent writing workshops and poetry events over the years, featuring many important writers like Deena Metzger, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Eloise Klein Healy, and Wanda Coleman. Metzger in particular was an important writing mentor for Wolverton. The events were supplemented with the production of literary publication projects, including "Manteniendo El Espiritu," edited by Aleida Rodriguez, and "Women for All Seasons, edited by Wanda Coleman.

As the 1980s went on the economic shifts in America made it much more difficult to keep the bills paid. Federal funding for art programming was literally sliced in half. Nonetheless the Woman's Building managed to last all the way until 1991 through a variety of creative means. Wolverton herself remained there until 1989, even acting as the Executive Director towards the end of her time there.

The social conditions of the 1980s caused the zeitgeist emerging from the Woman's Building to shift to a larger picture from the original vision. Wolverton describes how the ethos of the Woman's Building evolved during this time: "Our understanding of oppression grew more sophisticated as we began to perceive patterns and linkages between women, people of color, political exiles, immigrants, poor people, gays and lesbians. Whereas once we might have believed that ending sexism would transform the world, we now saw oppression as a web with many strands that would require alliance, not separatism, to untangle."

With "Insurgent Muse," Wolverton offers a thorough portrait of the Woman's Building, from its utopian beginnings to the eventual demise. In the book's conclusion she notes how many of her co-conspirators from the era are now carrying on the work in various locations like public schools, universities, galleries, and writing workshops. "The Woman's Building was at one time like a seedpod," she writes, "where we clustered together, enclosed and safe, as we gathered our potential; then the pod burst open and we were scattered in the wind to sow ourselves in far-flung gardens."

Wolverton herself has gone on to write 11 books of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. She has edited 11 other anthologies and mentored hundreds of writers through her various writing workshops and teaching profession at Antioch University. In 1997 she started Writers at Work on Fountain Avenue in Silver Lake, where she carries on the spirit of the Woman's Building with writing classes, frequent workshops, Kundalini Yoga, one-on-one consultation and meditation. Most of all, she "dispenses the medicine of encouragement."

Sheila de Bretteville hanging up her 'Pink' poster in the streets, 1975<br />  | Photo: Woman's Building Image Archive
Sheila de Bretteville hanging up her 'Pink' poster in the streets, 1975<br /> | Photo: Woman's Building Image Archive

The Leimert Park poet A.K. Toney has known Wolverton since the mid-1990s and been published in a few of her anthologies. "Terry Wolverton is a pioneer in the discipline of poetry," Toney says. "No one has done more for Los Angeles poets in the last 20 years than her, whether she is consulting, writing, creating new forms of poetry or conducting workshops and retreats that help poets refine their craft and get published. She is truly a heroine for the Los Angeles Literary scene."

Writers at Work is having an open house on Sunday, October 5, where all are welcome to come see the space and learn more about the many events and workshops emerging there. The event starts at 2 p.m. with a free workshop followed by refreshments and information about all of the programs offered. Then at 3:30 there will be a reading featuring longtime Writers at Work participants Wendy Adest, Pablo Alvarez, Angela Brinskele, Cara Chow, Yvonne M. Estrada, and John David O'Brien. Wolverton will be hosting the festivities and the door is open to all.

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The diverse programming offered at Writers at Work has lasted 17 years because Wolverton loves to serve the needs of writers. Professor and fiction writer Cheryl Klein says, "If I won the lottery, Terry Wolverton would be one of the first recipients of my personal genius grant fund. She's a true Renaissance woman, in that she produces rich poetry and thought-provoking prose, AND she has an amazingly organized mind that can nail the problems of the publishing world and dissect what's not working about a plot. (She taught me how to plot a novel, which my MFA program failed to.)"

For Wolverton, she credits all that she has become from her years at the Woman's Building, which has taught her "the necessity of space, having territory one can claim, ground in which the community can take root." In the final page of her book she writes, "In the shadow of Dodger Stadium, we discovered the mythic, the sacred, and savored the richness of life that comes from planting oneself in that ground." The legacy of the Woman's Building lives on in spaces like Writers at Work and Antioch College, where Eloise Klein Healy founded her progressive MFA writing program. Similarly, one of the founders of the Woman's Building, Sheila de Bretteville, has created several public art projects honoring the lives of women such as Biddy Mason State Park in Downtown Los Angeles.

Wolverton acknowledges that there were more events, exhibits and remarkable women participating at the Woman's Building than she could ever possibly name in one book; nonetheless she captures the powerful spirit that emerged from the site and does an excellent job explaining why it was so important and how it still lives on. Salute to Terry Wolverton and the hundreds of women who participated at the Woman's Building; they are all queens in the landscape of L.A. Letters.

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