Story of birth celebrated in Pasadena Museum of California Art’s last exhibit

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Brody Albert. Strata, an exhibition curated by Sarah Mitchell, stands on display at the Pasadena Museum of California Arts in Pasadena, California on Sept. 14, 2018. Nancy Zhou/The Occidental

The Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA) is currently showing “Judy Chicago’s Birth Project: Born Again,” a pointed commentary on gender, femaleness and motherhood. The collection is predominantly comprised of sewed images of maternity and the birthing process. According to the PMCA’s description, the project challenges the idea of birth as masculine and medical, and instead presents maternity as vital, spiritual and real. Judy Chicago, an American feminist artist, designed the images, which were then sewed by a team of 150 female artisan needleworkers. Chicago and her team created the artwork more than 30 years ago, between 1955 and 1980, which the museum reassembled for this exhibition.

The images show maternity as a varied experience. Figures experiencing birth either writhe in pain as in “Birth Tear,” or watch their bodies expectantly as in “Through the Flower.” Some figures appear to lactate or hold a pregnant stomach. Chicago’s bodies often radiate lines outwards, becoming both distorted and enormous. In this way, hair is given special attention and often flows outward without register. The collection spans a wide range of thread colors, from bright red to metallic gold.

The curator of the exhibition is Viki D. Thompson Wylder, Ph.D., who has worked in the museum field for 25 years. She studied Chicago’s work for her dissertation and spends her summers assisting the artist. Thompson Wylder said the relationship between Chicago and the needleworkers is collaborative, and that artisans often bring their ideas about how to stitch the designs to Chicago.

“Judy was ahead of her time with many of the concepts that are in ‘The Birth Project,’” Thompson Wylder said. “I think [the pieces] are a lot about women’s autonomy. They are about women taking control of their own bodies, and feeling good in their own bodies, feeling good about whoever you are. I think that [since 30 years ago] the world has kind of caught up with her.”

Thompson Wylder refers to the image entitled “The Crowning” as particularly progressive in its depiction of sex and gender. The work of art illustrates a baby’s head beginning to emerge as it crowns during labor. The piece is stitched in yellow and purple, and metallic thread is used around the head of the baby. The arms are wrapped around the legs, and the figure’s head faces towards the crowning as if to watch. Lines extend outward from the body, framing the scene.

“If you look at the component parts, that figure actually has male and female parts,” Thompson Wylder said. “I know that Judy as a person feels like we all should be able to express who we are, no matter who we are, and feel comfortable doing that.”

The exhibition features an “incubator space,” an educational room that enhances the artwork by providing more information about the exhibit, hands-on activities and the opportunity for story-sharing between visitors. The space provides stations for all ages, an important feature for parents traveling to the exhibit with children. There are colorful pillows in front of the video about Chicago, a macramé knotting station, books such as “Letter to my Daughter” by Maya Angelou and a mirror labeled “This is what a feminist looks like.” In the middle of the room, visitors can read or write notes expressing thoughts of the exhibit or personal narratives of birth, motherhood and patriarchy.

Feeling empowered as a young and independent woman, Katie Benmar (first year) smiles in the mirror at “the Birth Project” exhibition at the Pasadena Museum of California Arts in Pasadena, California on Sept. 14, 2018. Nancy Zhou/The Occidental

“We called it ‘The Incubator’ because we wanted to incubate ideas, feelings and thoughts in this space, and it also alluded to the incubation of babies in the birthing process,” said Susana Smith Bautista, the executive director of PMCA. “We thought [of] the sensitive and also powerful nature of the themes in the exhibition — birth, motherhood, creation, women’s rights — and [thought] it would be important to provide our visitors with some historical context.”

The images are anatomically detailed. Visitor Audrey Tien admires Chicago’s complete images and complexity. She finds that the exhibit turns a graphic story into art that is approachable.

“I think it’s really beautiful, the way she used lines to portray the whole birth. It’s not too provocative that way,” Tien said.

The exhibition depicts crownings, vaginal tearing, umbilical cords and the many emotions of maternity in graphic detail, which may be initially jarring to some viewers, so PMCA provides a book of images from “Judy Chicago’s Birth Project” as a preview for parents who would like more information before deciding whether to bring their children to the exhibition.

PMCA also provides many other educational opportunities alongside the artwork. A family guide is available to all visitors to help facilitate conversations between parents and children. The guide asserts that Chicago’s images are natural and important.

“There are many valid reasons why people are hesitant to introduce children to nudity in art, including religious doctrine, family values, political views and personal comfort,” the guide reads. “However, early exposure within the appropriate time and place can provide a sense of commonality, well-rounded worldview, visual literacy, art history and technique and an outlet for expression.”

According to Thompson Wylder, Chicago’s pieces are often referred to as symbols, and she writes about them as such throughout her dissertation on Chicago. Thompson Wylder defines a symbol as something with the power to create long-lasting moods and motivation. She said she remembers talking to one woman at the Hartford Seminary, where the piece “Guided By The Goddess” from “The Birth Project” was displayed after the original exhibition. The image shows many figures holding the hands and drinking the breast milk of a floating woman. Her hair spreads outward, becoming those same figures. The piece was initially met with shock.

“Over time, the image seemed to create a different feeling in people. They came to accept the idea that the female could be sacred as well as the male,” Thompson Wylder said. “It changed people.”

“Judy Chicago’s Birth Project: Born Again” is one of the Pasadena Museum of California Art’s last exhibitions. The exhibit and the museum both close Oct. 7. PMCA is open 12–5 p.m. Wednesday–Sunday and noon–9 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month until its final day.