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Return to the Source

Women gather at the spot where many found their voices in the '70s and blossomed


On a desolate stretch of Spring Street, beyond downtown's high-rise chessboard and the pungent crush of Chinatown, the only signs of life besides the occasional passing sedan or pacing yard dog are pink balloons, tied to the facade of an old brick warehouse and tugged by an intermittent wind.

Even without balloons, the stout red-brick building has long resembled some sort of out-of-season blossom. Which is what this structure--the Woman's Building--was in its heyday: the outgrowth of a stubborn life force pushing out of inhospitable, if not impossible, circumstances.

On this glowing Sunday afternoon, there is not just one bloom to marvel at on the building's grounds, but many, a garden of activists, teachers, mothers, performance artists, poets. Art pieces themselves, they're draped in bright silks or dress-down denim, hair freshly hennaed, gelled or cropped close, bodies ornamented with Bakelite bangles, tattoos or cat's-eye glasses.

Nearly 100 women (and a smattering of men) ascend the crumbling concrete steps. And when they squeeze through the doors, they reignite the spare interior simply with their presence.

Many of these women grew up here, and the ideas that flourished inside have lived on in their works and memories. Founded by graphic designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, art historian Arlene Raven and artist Judy Chicago, whose project "The Dinner Party" sought to recognize women's achievement and expression in history, the Woman's Building became a North Star on a dream map for women who were looking to redefine their lives and work.

Until it closed 10 years ago and was converted to artists' studios, it was a safe haven for those embarking on political and/or artistic endeavors and desiring a woman-centered environment in which to do so. And its history--rich, splintered, groundbreaking--is the subject of a new book, "Insurgent Muse: Life and Art at the Woman's Building" (City Lights) by Terry Wolverton--a good enough excuse for a long overdue party.

Just as they once traveled great physical distances, often from small towns in wide-open states, now, decades later, these women have journeyed from university posts, nonprofit chairmanships, their artist studios and their backyard barbecues to pay tribute and again reassess.

A Collage of Memories

Bits of memories are offered up, forming a collage: "Remember the dances on the third floor? Consciousness-raising on the railroad tracks? Dianic Mechanics? When we tore a whole car apart and then did performances about it?"

Back in 1973, the plan was to create a space that would offer instruction and discussion in a wide range of disciplines--creative writing, graphic design, performance art, video and visual arts. The descriptor "public center," Wolverton explains in the book's introduction, "signified the wish to make a place for women artists in the mainstream, while 'women's culture' revealed more subversive intentions." Here women would be encouraged to delve into a range of studies often cast to the margins--women's spirituality, lesbian politics and making art that reflected a woman's point of view, unfiltered by male sensibilities.

As well as creating a meeting place, the founders developed an alternative program--a philosophy of spirit--for women's art education. Called the Feminist Studio Workshop, or FSW, its goal was to link the pressing issues of the women's movement with a basic arts and art history curriculum. The center grew to offer a range of resources--galleries, theater groups, a Sisterhood Bookstore annex, an office for the National Organization for Women, a coffeehouse and a feminist travel agency.

It was a place to "experience oneself as both woman and artist," writes Wolverton, who tried on incarnations ranging from student to teacher to executive director in her 13-year association. For women, she explains, the center was an antidote to a culture that "proved to be a funhouse mirror, distorting and diminishing, a surface into which you walked and then disappeared."

It was a community--lesbian, straight, artists, activists--that encouraged all involved to develop an "authentic voice," says Wolverton. And it provided an audience eager to hear and challenge those voices.

This late summer party is no different, observes Eloise Klein Healy, watching conversation fly. "It's like a sauna in here!" she continues, fanning herself with one of the pink programs outlining the day's events--an opening ritual, music, readings and remembrances. "But it always was. When it would fill up and things got going, it was always like this. This buzz," she says, chuckling.

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