Two years ago, public historian and activist Elizabeth Sackler visited a high-security all-female prison in York, Conn. While there, she conducted a workshop devoted to Judy Chicago’s seminal feminist artwork, “ The Dinner Party,” a banquet table with 39 place settings each dedicated to an important woman in history. But, after crafting their own plates using paper products and paint, one of the inmates had a more ambitious idea.
“She said, ‘Why don’t we make a whole table like Judy Chicago’s?’” recalls Sackler. “And the artwork they ended up creating was so wonderful, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fabulous to see it actually next to ‘The Dinner Party’?”
Now you can. “Shared Dining” — created over six months in 2013 by 10 women at the York Correctional Institution — is finally having its New York debut at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art Gallery, where it will be on view alongside Chicago’s 1970s icon through September 13.
“Seeing the two works together really points to the strength of feminism as a way of looking at the world and the multiplicity of voices that have yet to be represented in museums,” says exhibition co-curator Stephanie Weissberg. “It also shows us that ‘The Dinner Party’ is only one suggested history — there are so many ways to explore women’s roles in society."
“Shared Dining,” like “The Dinner Party,” consists of a triangular table containing of place settings inspired by different women. The work’s 10 artists — who collectively call themselves “Women of York” — have fashioned plates, silverware and table runners devoted to such icons as Malala Yousafzai and Eve using only the materials available to them in the prison. When they needed some embroidery done for the tablecloth, they found another inmate who was an expert crocheter who used staples to do her needlework, since crochet needles weren’t allowed in the prison.
“Our resources were limited, but you become extremely resourceful,” says Kelly Donnelly, one of the artists whose setting is devoted to “feminine energy.” “I wanted movement in my piece, so to create a swirling effect I made these cords out of paper towels and water-colored them. I then made little button swirls to adorn my runner using cool and warm colors.
“My grandmother and great-grandmother were both seamstresses, so while I was twirling the cords I was thinking of them, celebrating and honoring them.”
Sackler says that her foundation has put together a Shared Dining curriculum and hopes to put on workshops in prisons in Scotland and England. “Doing this project, I really experienced firsthand how powerful creating art can be for a person,” she says. “People are addicted to creating — it is an essential part of being a human."
Follow Raquel on Twitter @RaquelLaneri.