Lesbian Art Herstory: The Lesbian Art Project and GALAS

Text by Birthe Havmoeller, January 28, 2011

Illustration for the Lesbian Art Project by Terry Wolverton

Illustration for the ‘Lesbian Art Project’ (LAP) by Terry Wolverton, 1978

I have been looking back at lesbian art projects and exhibitions in the late 1970s, when lesbian artists began to fight for their seat in history and took the first steps on the way to raising public awareness of lesbian art as something more than a hidden subcultural phenomenon. Two important projects at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, USA, pop up as major events in my lesbian art herstory: The Lesbian Art Project and GALAS.

The Lesbian Art Project (or LAP) was founded by art historian Arlene Raven in 1977 as a project of the Woman’s Building, a feminist art organization she had co-founded. She wanted to conduct art historical research about lesbian artists. She was joined by a group of her students (Kathleen Berg, Nancy Fried, Sharon Immergluck, Maya Sterling, and Terry Wolverton) who called themselves the Natalie Barney Collective and who expanded the scope of the project to include art projects, educational workshops and events. In 1978 and 1979, the project was co-directed by Raven and Wolverton.
In her book Insurgent Muse: Life and Art at the Woman’s Building (City Lights Publishers 2002) Terry Wolverton gives a very personal and heartfelt narration of her work with The Lesbian Art Project, an endeavor which she describes as “consisting of equal parts art historical research, community building, activism, group therapy, heavy partying, and the kind of life-as-art performance sensibility inherited from the Fluxus artists and so prevalent in Southern California art of the 1970s.”

Stereotypes and norms were a good material for art at the end of the 1970s. In a pair of images shot by photographer EK Waller from the beginning of the Lesbian Art Project you see the Collective first dressed up as “butch” and then as “femme” – however they were not identifying themselves as either butch or femme, as who wants to live a stereotype?
Terry says in the book: “We are after nothing less than an exploration of the meaning(s) of ‘lesbian,’” and the collective “imagine[s] the Lesbian Art Project as a springboard from which to launch a reinvention of the lesbian community.”

They felt a need for a platform and context in which their works could be produced and understood and they set about to create just that through investigating their own lives and experiences as lesbians as in those days all feminists felt that the personal is political. Forming a community and being a family was also very important to them.

LAP launched worksharing groups in which lesbian artists could present their work to others for feedback and dialogue, consciousness-raising groups around specifically lesbian topics and a second hand clothes shop to raise money for the Woman’s Building.

In its second year, LAP was reinvented. Theorizing about the roles of lesbian artists Terry articulates a new vision of lesbian community, mapping archetypes within a lesbian community: The Organizer, The Visionary, The Artist, The Mentor, The Mother and the Lover (see the above illustration). Terry tells that they launched a “Program of Sapphic Education to not only inspire art making, but to build lesbian consciousness and community, and the six symbols are my attempt to identify the archetypal functions required to fulfill this vision.”

In 1979, when lesbian visibility still not was safe, it was a time for dykes to party: “A heart-shaped pillow sheathed in pink lamé [designed by Nancy Fried]. One of the dozens that festooned the Woman’s Building performance space for LAP’s “Dyke of Your Dreams Day” dance, our own saucy retort to the rituals of Saint Valentine. Though we disdain the culture of heterosexuality, we still feel free to steal whatever seems useful and transform it as we see fit.”

Later the same year they created An Oral Herstory of Lesbianism, a big performance piece collaboratively created by thirteen lesbians through a three-month process of workshops, conducted by Terry. The sessions utilized theater games, writing exercises, and consciousness-raising to explore our experience as lesbians. An Oral Herstory of Lesbianism took place at the Woman’s Building, set in a pink gauze performance space. The 13 performances constituted the last art event created by LAP.

In Spring 1980 Terry Wolverton went on to help organize (with a collective that also included Tyaga, its founder, Jody Hoeninger, Bia Lowe, Louise Moore, and Ba Stopha) the Great American Lesbian Art Show (GALAS) at the Woman’s Building featuring works by out artists: Lula Mae Blocton, Tee Corinne, Betsy Damon, Louise Fishman, Nancy Fried, Harmony Hammond, Debbie Jones, Lili Lakich, Gloria Longval and Kate Millett.

Terry writes: “GALAS is not simply this exhibit, but a yearlong project to bring national recognition to lesbian art and artists. It is the brainchild of the artist Tyaga, an openfaced blonde with a crew cut. She has assembled a collective of women to plan a national exhibition of lesbian art. Inspired, without question, by the Lesbian Art Project, GALAS sprang up in the wake of LAP’s demise. In addition to expected locations such as New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago, there were also shows in Bozeman, Montana; Winter Park, Florida; Lawrence, Kansas; Alexandria, Virginia; and Anchorage, Alaska.” The show got a feature article and a review in the Los Angeles Times, and a review in Artweek. It was the first time that lesbian art got this kind of mainstream recognition.

Later that year a presidential election turned the lesbian artists’ ‘revolution’ upside down. “The disappearance of arts funding [in the 1980s] and the emergence of economic hard times [sent] the Woman’s Building scrambling for the cover of mainstream respectability, making us think twice before using the word ‘feminist,’ let alone ‘lesbian,’ in grant proposals, brochures, or exhibitions.” And the next explicitly lesbian art show was not opened in Los Angeles until ten year later in 1990: All But the Obvious, curated by Pam Gregg, – a show featuring visual art, writing, perfomance and video with works by Laura Aguilar, Janet Cooling, Catherine Opie, Millie Wilson, Kaucyila Brooke, Della Grace, Nancy Rosenblum, Tracy Mostovoy, Collier Schorr, Laurel Beckman, Beverly Rhoads, Catherine Saalfield, Jacqueline Woodson, Gaye Chan, and Monica Majoli.

‘All But the Obvious’ opened at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) in Los Angeles, and the Lesbian Art Project and GALAS was forgotten by that time, as Terry discovered when she interviewed the new generation of queer female artists (of the All But the Obvious group exhibition). None of the emerging artists in 1990 had heard about their creative feminist sisters/colleagues of the 1970s. Oral herstory is not an integrated thing in the (visual) world of a lesbian artist community scattered all over USA.

Insurgent Muse: Life and Art at the Woman's Building
I guess that we are still fighting for our place in the mainstream art history and I hope that this post has made you so curious about Terry Wolverton’s book that you will go and order your own copy.

Details about the book:

Insurgent Muse: Life and Art at the Woman’s Building by Terry Wolverton
Publisher: City Lights Publishers (August 1, 2002)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0872864030
ISBN-13: 978-0872864030

Related Link

Terry Wolverton’s website
The Woman’s Building – an online archive