Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party depicts and celebrates the lives of mythical and historical women, each of whom represent a historical period in Western civilization. The work, which opened at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art in March 1979, features 39 place settings, each containing a painted, often carved, porcelain plate featuring a vulvar-butterfly motif on a runner decorated using a variety of fiber art techniques.
The Schlesinger Library’s collection of Judy Chicago’s papers contain drawings, notes, and unfinished embroidery samples documenting the creation of The Dinner Party runners. Drawings, ranging from rough sketches to fully defined representations of elements on the runners, were given to needleworkers to embroider. Because almost all of the work on The Dinner Party was completed in Chicago’s studio, many of the artist’s instructions were given orally. Similarly, problem-solving sessions were conducted in person, leaving little record of the exchanges. A small number of files contain notes from Chicago and the needleworkers hinting at problems that were encountered and the agreed-upon solutions. When viewed alongside the unused and often unfinished embroidery samples, the notes provide a great deal of insight into the creative process of creating the runners.
One of the key elements of The Dinner Party is the runners on which the plates rest, but they were not part of artist Judy Chicago’s original conception of the project. Chicago initially planned to use white tablecloths with a phrase about each woman embroidered in a circular pattern around her plate. Following several failed attempts to execute the design through hand and machine stitching, Susan Hill, one of the first volunteers to join The Dinner Party team, suggested embroidering smaller pieces of cloths placed over the tablecloths. Another volunteer, Pearl Krause, suggested extending the imagery of the plates onto the runners. Chicago designed all of the imagery on the runners, which were executed by a team of needleworkers. Over the three and a half years it took to create the runners, Chicago worked with the team to find the appropriate embroidery style for each runner.
Files on the runners also document the experiences of The Dinner Party needleworkers. Chicago provided the creative vision for The Dinner Party and researched various forms of needlework, but because she was not a needleworker, she relied on these artisans to tell her when an embroidery method was not working and to suggest possible alternative ways of executing her designs. Workers were also expected to engage in consciousness-raising activities in which they learned about women’s history and women’s liberation. Needleworkers’ notes and letters record some of their contributions as well as their reflections on working on the project. For some workers, the experience proved to be transformative. One such worker, Adrienne Weiss, wrote: “Here at the studio I have begun to understand how art can operate to educate and sensitize people. I’ve begun to understand that if you can show people, visually, a model for a goal people can then point to that model or image as an example. I think that is part of the power of making images.”
Judy Chicago has written five books about The Dinner Party, including Embroidering Our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework, which focuses on her collaboration with needleworkers and the techniques used to execute the runners.
Further information on the creation of The Dinner Party and other works by Chicago can be found in her papers at the Schlesinger Library. An exhibit featuring selections from Chicago’s papers is on display in the Schlesinger Library lobby from February 26 to September 30, 2014.