The Chicago Women's Graphics Collective: An Introduction by Stacy S.

(This is a selection from Stacy's BA thesis for Northwestern University, "Sisterhood is Blooming". It has been edited for clarity and context.)

"Taking feminist themes
through metamorphoses of thought
A translation in color and print
By process, collective art"
-The CWGC catalogue 1973

The Chicago Women's Graphic Collective was founded as a cultural artistic committee or "work group" of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union in 1970. Shortly after the formation of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, in September 1970, Estelle Carol, Tibby L., Helene M., Candida H., Barbara C., and Valerie W. formed the Chicago Women's Graphics Collective. The collective, composed of women interested in promoting the agenda of the women's liberation movement and other political and social causes, did not require its members to have formal academic training. The collective recognized that art could be revolutionary and a powerful vital voice of the movement without requiring stylistic standards.

March 22, 1970 in the newsletter of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, an article appeared entitled "Art Collective Forming" by Estelle Carol, calling for a creation of the Women's Liberation Art Collective. Its original goal was "to bring women who want to share ideas, share skills, resources, and criticism in visual and literary arts."

The Arts Collective wanted to produce posters for groups in Chicago working with the new left to advertise events/issues. Carol felt that the quest for liberation was "Overlooking the importance of beauty and creativity" and the responsibility of an Arts Collective was to give women an opportunity to discover their own potential in the shared experience of artistic creation. The collective was not to be limited to only a few artists but "to all our sisters." The principle was to form a collective of art that required practical training but anyone who wanted to contribute could join.

The meaning and function of the Collective would will be up to the members. So far the only project is to service all women's liberation groups in Chicago who need posters to advertise events and issues, or to raise funds for our ever- growing programs. As a movement seeking to build a society that truly fulfills the material and psychological needs of both women and men, we must not overlook the beauty and creativity in our present search for new life styles, a new schema must be adopted. It is the responsibility of an Art Collective to give women the opportunity to discover their own potential and share the experience not only with fellow artists, but with all our sisters.

Initially the Collective had an ancillary function in relation to women's liberation. It would "service" all the women's liberation groups by creating posters that promote cultural events, but not exist as a separate political organization.

On January 15, 1971 the Graphics Collective issued a statement :

Women artists in Chicago have gotten together, sparked by a growing consciousness of the women's liberation movement, to form a women's art collective. Using printmaking as a medium (silk-screening) will allow wide distribution of large, original prints to large numbers of people at low cost. The women in our group feel there is a need for both high quality women s graphic art and for women artists to identify and work within a collective. A collective gives us the opportunity to support each other in our art work. As well as to combine resources for a workshop that has a greater variety of materials and equipment than each woman alone maintain (ending the exclusivity of art). Also belonging to a collective makes identification with the larger women's movement more real. As women artists and revolutionaries, we believe that a visual image communicates with people and expresses the tone of a movement in a special way that cannot be filled by words. Because people communicate through art and because art is a part of being human, it is a necessary part of the growing revolutionary counterculture. A large part of energy, time, money has gone to putting together a silk-screening workshop in the home of one of our members We are interested in producing political and non-political prints although right now we are working on posters with only women's themes.

The Collective assumed a greater responsibility within the movement because they operated as an autonomous organization The art produced was intended to promote cultural events and raise the consciousness level of women not involved with organized women's liberation groups. However, the posters became viable forms of communication between women liberationist non-liberationists and the artists. Belonging to a Collective made "identification" with the larger women's movement more tangible for the artists who did not want to contribute to the radical feminist organizations focus on establishing a dogmatic rhetoric and theory. The women did not separate their identities as artists and revolutionaries. Their role was to communicate through visual images the goals of the women's liberation movement. By organizing as an all-women's collective, they were attacking the traditional view of art as an exclusive domain of men.

The formation of a Collective implied that working as artists autonomously was a patriarchal notion and thus excluded women. Effectively organizing as a collective liberates women artistically and politically. In 1972 there was a shift from guerrilla actions aimed at museums to protest the lack of women artists exhibited, to the creation of organizations whose focus was on long-term changes within existing institutions. From 1972 onward, organizations such as the Women's Art Center in Los Angeles and the New York Women's Caucus worked towards including women artists on a professional level such as in women's organizations centers galleries conference and publications. In aiming to combat the exclusion of women artists in museums academies and galleries women created alternative organizations. Organizations such as the Women's Art Center became highly institutionalize as new standards and criteria were created for women artists. A distinct of definition feminist art emerged from these organizations.

For example the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts directed by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro used the term feminist art to refer to art that consciously focused on the political, social, and/or personal art experiences of women. Feminists deconstructed the myths of femininity and traditional representation of women. However a feminist art incorporated specific definitions of female imagery. A profusion of women's sexual and erotic art and use of sexual imagery such as circles domes, egg spheres, biomorphic shapes, identified a work as an example of feminist art.

The CWGC did not want to establish a formal definition of what constitutes feminist art. Any requirement seemed to replicate those associated with traditional male-art practices. Thus, any attempt to establish a strict definition of female imagery was viewed as a contradiction to the goals of the women's liberation movement. An institutionalization seemed to only replicate the evil hierarchical structure associated with traditional art. Collective organizations like the CWGC would instead concentrate on consciousness raising through art without excluding any women and their ideas.

Since the process of art making was emphasized and not the product membership was not restricted to women with a fine-arts education. Helene M's original idea was to create a collective of women who considered art "the life's work" or "source of identity" although the majority of women did not relate to art in this sense. The CWGC Developed a theory similar to the Women's Revolutionary Women's Revolutionary Co-op. The Co-op believed that all women are artists born with natural creativity but due to the socialization process their artistic qualities are never developed or promoted qualities

The Co-op did not believe that art should have "preordained" or standards established by institutions such as those of critics museums, and art history Such standards developed within a long tradition of art practice and criticism, appear based on gendered criteria and a fundamental presupposition that only men possessed the faculty for creative ingenuity.

The lack of representation of women in museums, the historical study of only male artists, and the critics' support of artists created by man deemed their art as "good art". The art created by women did not have an aesthetic value. The Co-op wanted all women to free themselves from these restrictions and cultivate their expression by participating as artists in collective organizations.

According CWGC to the CWGC the Co-op's art was not activist. The method of organizing was political in that it rejected the notion that a successful artist is one who academically trained in the fine art, but the art produced did not incorporate broader social politics. The CWGC wanted to integrate the idea that belonging to a Collective encourages free expression but maintain a fulcrum of revolution to activate a social change.

Although they were a "workgroup" of the CWLU, the Collective Graphics operated as an autonomous organization One selected member was required to attend the Union's monthly steering committee meetings as a representative of the Collectives concerns, ideas, and requests. The ideas of the CWLU'S central steering community and its other "work groups" including the chapters of Hyde Park, University of Chicago, Northwestern, and the West Side, were then disseminated among the other Collective members. Discussion about subjects such as structural policy, and membership did not always parallel the specific politics of the CWLU.

During the first few years of the CWGC, the volunteers used a makeshift studio space located on W. Cermak Avenue, and used equipment donated by community artists. After making posters specifically promoting the CWLU, the collective earned enough money to rent a small space in a building shared with the CWLU on Belmont Avenue. Only two members, Estelle Carol and Tibby L., earned a paid salary for the production of the posters.

The structure and membership of the Collective was never permanent but remained in a constant state of transition. The number of members fluctuated between five to twenty-five women. Members would work as committed artists, or volunteer on occasion. Non-members would often help with the physical printing process, depending on the number of posters the Collective needed to produce.

Collective discussion and criticism are important in our growing sense of how to make revolutionary women's art into the context of a small, interpersonal group which we see as the fundamental primary organizational structure of the women's movement.

The CWGC implemented designated sessions or "poster thinks", where slogans and designs were brainstormed upon. Individual ideas were encouraged and then either supported or rejected. However, only the woman who proposed an idea could also reject it. The woman could not be coerced by other members of the Collective to abandon her idea. Self- criticism was fundamental to the organization of the collective. The CWGC incorporated a utopian ideal in that each poster was not the responsibility of only one woman, and the group could not prevent her from printing her poster.

The fact that the Collective was a work group of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union helped facilitate the finances and lift certain "psychological burdens" The Union's central steering committee united the communication among the other chapters in Chicago. The three hundred and fifty dollars the Chicago Women's Liberation Union donated for initial costs turned to profit as the posters were sold in bookstores such as the Jane Addams and Pride and Prejudice Bookstores in Chicago, and by catalogue mail order. The CWLU disbanded in 1977, but the Collective survived until 1983. This illustrates the strength and importance of the organization as an effective and independent group created during the women's liberation movement.

The Chicago Women's Graphic Collective represented the CWLU's decision to be an action-oriented structure and different from the other radical feminist groups such as Bread and Roses of Boston and the Redstockings of New York. In Peg Strobel's draft article," The Chicago Women's Liberation Union: A Case Study in Feminist Politics", she notes that the CWGC served an ancillary function to the CWLU. The posters the CWGC produced was only "cultural work" and not intended to create a political agenda separate from the CWLU. Strobel criticizes the CWGC and the Women's Liberation Rock Band who played for fundraising and other events as being "narrow in scope" and not effective political components of the CWLU .

However, it could certainly be argued that the CWGC and the diverse images they produced were politically effective. For example on February 11, 1973, in a feature article in the Chicago Tribune a photograph depicts the outside walls of the Belmont El stop covered with the CWGC posters. Although the article was the only media coverage the CWGC received, the newspaper's photograph proves that the posters did warrant public exposure.

The posters communicated with women involved in the women's liberation movement as active participants and women involved in the movement in a support capacity. It is difficult to judge whether the posters reached women not interested in women's liberation.

The organizational structure of the CWGC was fundamental to its impetus and force within the Women's Liberation Movement. The analysis of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union and its structural philosophy frames the Collective and its fluidity as an organization committed to putting theory into practice through art.


Woman symbol