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The Hidden Stories of L.A.

INSURGENT MUSE: Life and Art at the Woman's Building, By Terry Wolverton, City Lights Books: 244 pp., $17.95 paper EL PUEBLO: The Historic Heart of Los Angeles, By Jean Bruce Poole and Tevvy Ball, Getty Conservation Institute/ J. Paul Getty Museum: 132 pp., $24.95 paper

September 29, 2002|JONATHAN KIRSCH | Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to the Book Review, is the author of "The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People."

An unremarkable three-story brick building sits on North Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles, hard by the concrete channel of the Los Angeles River and the railroad yards behind Union Station. The unwelcoming industrial district was called "Dog Town" by local gangs because an animal shelter was once located there. But, for 16 years, the structure served as the site of the Woman's Building and, therefore, as ground zero in the feminist art movement.

"For years this obscure section of decrepit streets and aging structures was the starred capital on my personal map of Los Angeles," writes Terry Wolverton in "Insurgent Muse." "The Woman's Building provided a community in which a woman was encouraged not only to speak, but to find her authentic voice and cultivate an audience eager to hear it."

The tale that Wolverton tells in "Insurgent Muse," which is both a work of history and a heartfelt memoir, begins in the roiling 1970s. Set free and afire by the counterculture and the civil rights movement, women were beginning to make new demands on themselves and the world around them.

Artist Judy Chicago, graphic designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and art historian Arlene Raven provided a focal point for the energies of what Wolverton calls "Second Wave feminism," when they opened the women's art center that they called the Woman's Building.

"[The center] was a collision of history and politics and art," explains Wolverton. "It was poetry, painting, performance. It was the dope you smoked on the fire escape, the Friday nights you stayed late trying to figure out how to pay the bills. It was the first book you self-published on the antique printing press; it was the consciousness-raising group you hated."

Three galleries were devoted to artwork by women, and three women's theater companies staged their productions in the auditorium. A coffeehouse, a thrift shop, a feminist travel agency, an office of the National Organization for Women and the late, lamented Sisterhood Bookstore were all housed there.

At the heart of the Woman's Building was the Feminist Studio Workshop, founded by Chicago, De Bretteville and Raven as an alternative to more conventional art-education programs such as the one at the California Institute of the Arts, where all three had served on the faculty.

Wolverton--artist, poet, novelist, teacher and one of the enduring literary lights of Los Angeles--was a participant in the events that she describes in "Insurgent Muse." She started as a student in the Feminist Studio Workshop, worked at the Woman's Building as everything from a typesetter to a grant writer, and ultimately rose to the position of executive director.

She reveals much about herself and her journey to feminism, including her experiences of childhood sexual abuse, several attempts at suicide, her self-discovery and self-definition as a lesbian and an artist and the rebirth that she experienced when she arrived in Los Angeles as a refugee from the Midwest.

"I was no different than many of the women who came to be part of the Woman's Building, dragging lifetimes of damage like battered suitcases: Our brothers who raped us, our rapes at the hands of strangers, the strange voices in our heads, our heads full of secrets and shame, our shameful women's lives," she writes.

Indeed, Wolverton suggests that the Woman's Building is "a seamless representation of women's place in culture." The building like the women who flocked there, was an overlooked feature of the landscape on the margins of a glittering metropolis.

"It was anger at this circumstance that had struck the spark, anger that had provided the fuel," explains Wolverton. "That, and the ether of imagination."

And yet, even though the Woman's Building closed its doors in 1991, Wolverton insists that nothing really ended: "Does the dream expire when the alarm shrills," she asks, "or does it live on, unseen in daylight?" As seen through Wolverton's eyes, so vividly and so intimately, the Woman's Building was and is a source of redemption.

"I never talk about a suicide 'attempt,' " she writes of her wrist-slashings and overdoses. "Instead I say this: At the age of twenty-one I committed suicide, that the effort was successful, that a part of me was killed off and something else was reborn."

Here we glimpse the immensity of what the Woman's Building represents to Wolverton and so many women like her: "When people wonder at the meaning the Woman's Building continues to have for me, they must consider that my story there began with resurrection, and I came to it mucky and tender and quivering as any newborn."

Not far from the site of the Woman's Building is a more familiar neighborhood whose real historic significance is often overlooked. The tourist attraction that we know as Olvera Street, first developed in the 1930s, is the place where the original pueblo of Los Angeles was founded more than 200 years ago.

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