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What Will the Women's Center For Creative Work Be?

Soyoung Shin, a participant in the Collage Night workshop at the Women's Center For Creative Work, stands by the collages during the end of the night critique. | Photo: Robby Herbst.
Soyoung Shin, a participant in the Collage Night workshop at the Women's Center For Creative Work, stands by the collages during the end of the night critique. | Photo: Robby Herbst.

It's a wet Friday in late April and I'm at the threshold of 2425 Glover Place for the first time. Until recently, this building had been an office for an adjacent window factory. Today, it's the new Women's Center For Creative Work (WCCW). Sarah Williams, one of three founders of the WCCW, tells me they've signed a five-year lease on the place. I'm glad because the way property in the Los Angeles enclave of Frogtown is moving, I doubt in five years time an illusive, expansive organization like WCCW will be able to afford a location like this, next to the L.A. River near the freeway.1 I arrive this morning unclear of what this Women's Center will be.

Williams and co-founder Kate Johnston are dressed in work clothes. With volunteers they've been tearing out walls and ripping up carpets. Johnston is deciding if an archaic alarm box should stay up. There's a table with a to-do list, a drop cloth, dusk masks and tools. Williams tells me I missed meeting the ladies of WINTER (Women In Non-Traditional Employment Roles) who they're working with on changes to the space; also a sauerkraut-making workshop, a kombucha workshop, a fashion/wardrobe repurposing event called Fash Mash, a feminist reading group and a pot-luck for women at Alexandria House (a transitional women's shelter). Though under-construction, WCCW is b.u.s.y.

Entrance area of the Women's Center For Creative Work under construction, April 2015. | Photo: Robby Herbst.
Entrance area of the Women's Center For Creative Work under construction, April 2015. | Photo: Robby Herbst.   

Tangibly, the new Women's Center For Creative Work space is a head-room atop the largish entrance area, and a spine of a corridor with other rooms coming from it. These rooms include a kitchenette and two baths. Across from the kitchenette will be a lounge serving as the main branch of the Feminist Library On Wheels (FLOW). FLOW was incubated with the WCCW. If the interior of the former office had a look, I'd say it was western eclectic.

Now the head-room is used for WCCW meetings. The entrance area is a day-studio-space used by members of WCCW's community of artists and writers. It's also the room for the many workshops WCCW hosts. Two of the spaces coming from the corridor will be rented to women-run arts organizations. The web based art publication East Of Borneo recently signed a lease. There will be a small outpost for Otherwild; the rad and queer fashion and crafts retailer in Echo Park. The Otherwild outpost will be stocked with items useful to WCCW visitors and renters. I imagine pragmatic stuff like office and art supplies, not the Celebrity Lesbian Fist toys (JD Samson, Eileen Myles, Cathy Opie) Otherwild carries (but we'll see what qualifies as pragmatic). Ultimately, several arts organizations will function from here. And one-way to envision what the WCCW will be is a shared office and work-space for professional women in the creative fields.

A Women's Dinner in the Desert. | Photo: Thea Lorentzen.
A Women's Dinner in the Desert. | Photo: Thea Lorentzen.

Another way to imagine the WCCW is a platform for an emerging community and its emerging politics. Since its inception, as a dinner party in the desert near Joshua Tree National Park, the WCCW has functioned as a strategically expanding group of creatively identified women. They find cause in proximity to the "women" frame. WCCW's second event, a second dinner party, occurred right next to the 1970s-era Woman's Building on Spring Street in Downtown L.A., which operated there until 1991. A tour of that landmark was part of that dinner. Attendees of "A Women's Dinner In The Desert" (2012) were invited to bring themselves and friends to "A Women's Dinner In The City" (2013). The invitation included an extensive biographical section describing 90 of the attendee's art practice and interests. This was a tangible way to get 90 in-the-know women to meet 90 other in-the-know women. Shortly after, at the second Los Angeles Printed Matter Art Book Fair, the exclusivity of this network took a welcomed hit when the WCCW generated a massive list of people interested in being a part of their activities.

In addition to co-founding WCCW, Johnston is a graphic designer; her sensibility infuses WCCW and its history. Johnston's MFA thesis project at California Institute Of The Arts influenced the circumstantial naming of the WCCW. With that first invitation to A Women's Dinner In The Desert, she tells me she'd casually attributed the social art-inspired event to a "Women's Center For Creative Work" because... well, she could. Lateralism was the name of the fictitious social movement she developed a graphic campaign for in her thesis. Horizontalism is a theory for social-movements with no leaders. This was a political party for anti-hierarchical horizontalism. She tells me how she was inspired by Occupy in 2011 -- the way that broad movement's name became a meme; a platform whose meaning could be transposed on any number of encampments and causes and publics. According to Johnston, the name "Women's Center For Creative Work" she identified as host for these two dinners was a similar invention. At its genesis there was no "party" surrounding the WCCW, just the platform the name suggested. A platform where politics could emerge through the subsequent assemblage of women.

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On Friday, May 1 a WCCW house warming and fundraising party happened with three bands: Jung Money, Lilacs, and Cassandra. The acts were eclectic, representative perhaps of that there's no particular feminist ideology, overarching aesthetic or explicit praxis advanced by WCCW; there is something identifiable in the Woman's Building of Judy Chicago and The Feminist Arts Workshop. That night in the crowded foyer, sounds were reminiscent of spoken-word-performance-art-hip-hop, Black Sabbath-soaked, riot-grrrl, drone-metal and neo-Stevie Nicks. The artist Amanda Yates Garcia, known as the Oracle Of Los Angeles, led an invocation to bless the new space:

    All entities who do not serve life, beauty and love, we banish you.    
    We banish you, we banish you, we banish you!    
    All Corrupt and corrosive spirits, we banish you!    
    We banish you, we banish you, we banish you!    
    All cynical entities who do not know compassion, all entities intent on causing discord,    
    We banish you, we banish you, we banish you!    

Amanda Yates Garcia, Oracle of Los Angeles, performing a blessing and power invocation ceremony at the WCCW opening event. | Photo: Sarah Williams.
Amanda Yates Garcia, Oracle of Los Angeles, performing a blessing and power invocation ceremony at the WCCW opening event. | Photo: Sarah Williams

Except for these sort of politics of creating intentional space, I didn't find much underlining of explicit "women's issues" at the WCCW, though I'm sure you can find it if you seek it out. And this seems to be the point and politics for Johnston and Williams. "On Instagram we follow the Radical Brownies. On one of their posts, they captioned it as 'The Revolution will be Joyful,' and that really resonates with us," they said in an email. "This all started with a dinner party." They went on to explain, "Deep at the heart of it we're very interested in how we can nourish the community and what can grow from there, and sometimes people need space to have serious political discussions, or a place to work, sometime they need to work on their teaching skills, sometimes they need to make money, sometimes they need emotional support. All of these things have a very direct correlation to women's ability to sustain and or foster a creative practice and we would say supporting them is a feminist practice in itself."

On the evening of June 2, I catch the second half of a collage art making workshop attended by nine enthusiastic women and three men. The workshop isn't a consciousness-raising session. Individuals aren't encouraged to manifest the material conditions of their gendered labor. It's a lesson and a supportive collage jam.

With Johnston's conception of the WCCW as a vessel whose meaning is filled by its participants, you can see an aestheticization of the Occupy assembly -- a sight where people come to meet in common; through their socialization, they democratically articulate their values. In this regard, what the WCCW can be is answered step by step, as a culture is constructed there in workshops and events.

Supporters of WCCW tell me one thing they're attracted to is how open and supportive it is. At Collage Night, Soyoung Shin made an imaginative two-sided artwork held together by orange tape. She described it to me as such: "I glued a woman onto a scene of Poland and then cut a hole into the collage, and creased that corner. I put tape on the bottom and dragged it on the floor picking up the detritus from other people's collages... when I presented it for critique, I kept spinning it around."

Shin moved here from Seattle soon after she graduated from college. She describes what she does now as "freelance software, web and video work." She said she was attracted to the Los Angeles art scene's dynamic reputation. At the WCCW she has found a vibrant community in their many classes and events. She had helped organize the Fash Mash event. At Collage Night Williams suggested her collage's reversibility is like Shin's approach to fashion.

Talking with Shin, I easily imagine creatively oriented women developing their voices in proximity to the WCCW; this cohort itself might, through practice, incubate a shared contemporary feminist praxis. I float this vision to Shin who says she's invested in the WCCW, but her artistic ambitions aren't quite as heady.

I ask Johnston and Williams to respond to the possibility that the party that may form around the WCCW be uncritical, even a-political, and to respond to criticism of horizontalism that suggest it's a libertarian form unable to coalesce a broad movement with demands, maybe even neo-liberal in its construction of power.

They defend as feminist the value of holding a vessel open for WCCW's public to shape, rather then imposing there a structure based off reinforcing known feminist politics. "It feels like a type of silencing, that you can only make work that is in relation to people who've already been deemed important to history or do work in direct relationship to their ideas about what's important," they said. Johnston and Williams added, "We're very interested in the balance between these theoretical and historical frames, and people's own making practices. But it's always about trying to ask questions and make more space, rather than restricting how people should think or feel or make."

Today Sheila Levrant de Bretteville is the director of Yale University's graphic design program. In 1973, along with Judy Chicago and Arlene Raven, she co-founded the Los Angeles Woman's Building. It developed a reputation as a significant institution and generator of feminist artwork and thought. Johnston considers de Bretteville a mentor and she sought her guidance in creating the WCCW. I emailed with de Bretteville and asked her to compare and contrast the contexts forming the Woman's Building and today's Women's Center. She responded: "A similarity is that Kate [Johnston] is inventing something she needs and others need, like we women who created the 1973-1990 Woman's Building." She added, "Having a place to discuss and make things in concert with others separated from patriarchal, conformist, hierarchical places is useful even if both places are also flawed."

Reflecting on differences, de Bretteville said that today "there is not the widespread resurgence of feminism that existed in 1973," and "even more importantly (today) there is much more understanding of the wider band-width of sexualities and practices: lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans, queer, intersexed."

Critically referencing the Woman's Building that opened at the Chicago Exposition of 1893, a precedent project for both the WCCW and L.A.'s Woman's Building, de Bretteville finds cause to ask the WCCW to learn from the past: "These younger women at WCCW surely need to learn from our 1973 mistakes as well as from our accomplishments."

"We have much more consciousness of racial inequality and the discrimination in earlier feminist movements," de Bretteville said. "A close reading of the 19th century Woman's Building and its Board of Lady Managers is that those white women were racist; they worked to keep women of color out of the Woman's Building leadership at the Chicago Exposition."

On another Friday in May, I make it to Glover Place to meet the Women In Non-traditional Employment Roles (WINTER). WINTER is a non-profit workforce development program aiming to diversify the job-rich, yet male dominated, building trades. These mixed-age women of color are at the end of a 10-week training program. They are learning on the job, collaborating with their instructors and the WCCW in its transformation. They're sanding and painting walls and doing light electrical work, wiring a ceiling-lamp in the foyer room. The 10-week program the ladies of WINTER sign-up for includes training in building techniques, a physical boot-camp, workshops on interview skills, and a program introducing them to the unions of the construction trades.

Photo: Gilda Davidian.

The trainees I talk to are bubbly, they are proud about being at the WCCW with WINTER. Wendy Sanford and Sylvia LaChapelle tell me they heard about WINTER's program through California's Employment Development Department, the public agency administering unemployment benefits. Taking a break from her work Sanford says WINTER is "educational and uplifting." She says there's "excellent instruction and job placement." She says she has done worker education programs through Labor Ready, but WINTER's program is more comprehensive and "it's specifically for training women." She says this as if the empowerment and bonds formed between her co-trainees is implicit.

LaChappelle says she's a recent transplant from Georgia. There she had a real estate license but has been unemployed here. And while her relatively older age doesn't appear to affect her ability to work this morning, she says she's ultimately hoping to find a slightly less physical job as a building inspector. She says she "likes real estate," that when it comes to building she "loves the renovating part" and "I love to take something and sculpt it into something beautiful."

After they've left Williams, Johnston, and I talk around the enthusiasm the workers from WINTER bring to the transformation of the building on Glover Place. Williams says she's been talking with a few of these ladies about leading workshops at WCCW. In addition to construction courses, WINTER students and instructors have mentioned leading workshops in gardening, soap-making, and crochet.

This is something I'd like to see. The perspective the women of WINTER bring to the definition and value of "creative work," I imagine it only adds gravity to the Center's orbit. So, what will a Women's Center For Creative Work be? I can answer, "anything its participants and organizers dare to make happen."


 

Notes:

1 The WCCW can afford the lease with support of members of the Women's Center, and grants from SPART, WHH Foundation, and the Pasadena Arts Council.

 


 

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