Prior to the Birth Project few images of birth existed in Western art, a puzzling omission as birth is a central focus of many women's lives and a universal experience of all humanity—as everyone is born. Seeking to fill this void Judy Chicago created multiple images of birth to be realized through needlework; a visually rich medium that has been ignored or trivialized by the mainstream art community.
Between 1980 – 1985 Judy Chicago designed dozens of images on the subject of birth and creation to be embellished by needleworkers around the United States, Canada, and as far away as New Zealand. Formatted into provocative exhibition units which included both needlework and documentary materials these works toured the U.S. and Canada and were eventually placed by Through the Flower in numerous institutions where they are on public view or used as part of university curricula.
Needlework in all its forms was 'women's work,' and as long as I was compelled to deny my identity as a woman in my life and in my work I never considered it as a medium for art-making. It would have been humiliating to me if a male artist or dealer discovered me sewing a button on my artist husband's shirt or sitting at the embroidery machine or a loom. It would have confirmed the already taken-for-granted idea that my place in life was either supporting my husband's aspirations or working in the 'minor arts.'...
This not to suggest that I believe the value judgments assigned to 'art' versus 'craft' are right or just but rather to define the background of aesthetic assumptions against which I developed as an artist. If hiding my womanly feelings and eschewing all womanly skills would guarantee my participation in the art community then that is what I would do.
During the creation of the Birth Project, Judy Chicago traveled extensively to meet and work with the over 150 needleworkers from the United States, Canada, and New Zealand who participated in this project. These women worked in their homes sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. The principles Judy Chicago used in this collaborative process grew out of her philosophy that people can be empowered by art through making, viewing, and owning it.
My first ideas in developing imagery for the Birth Project involved using the birth process as a metaphor for creation. Long before I finished The Dinner Party I became interested in creation myths. In 1975, while I was having an exhibition at The College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota, I met a radical nun who collaborated with me in writing a reinterpretation of the myth of Genesis from a female point of view. As soon as I could, I began trying to build a visual analog to this myth—one that would affirm the fact that it was women who created life. When I approached this subject matter again in preparation for the Birth Project I went to the library to see what images of birth I could find. I was struck dumb when my research turned up almost none. It was obvious that birth was a universal human experience and one that is central to women's lives. Why were there no images? Attracted to this void, I plunged into the subject.
Since there were so few images I decided that I would have to go directly to women, ask them to tell me about their birth experiences, and then use that raw material in the development of images. It is very unusual for an artist to work out of direct experience rather than out of the history of art. It requires building a form language almost 'from scratch.' In addition, gathering testimony about birth meant asking women to let me be involved with them on a very basic level. Many of the women I talked to had never spoken to anyone about their birth experiences. As I listened, studied, and read I realized that it was not only birth I was learning about but also the very nature of this subject which was shrouded in myth, mystery, and stereotype. I knew that I wanted to dispel at least some of this secrecy.
The completed Birth Project consists of more than 80 exhibition units designed by Judy Chicago and executed under her supervision by these skilled needleworkers. The pieces range in size from very small petit point works to a twenty-foot long crochet work and are presented with documentation that contextualizes the art and educates the audience about needlework, birth, and the reality of women's lives.
In the "Birth Project" the content, birth, the essential female experience [was] fused with needlework, a traditional form of women's art. Working with the "Birth Project" stitchers was like being in touch with one aspect of the continuum of women's history; the medieval workshops where women stitched together for the glory of the church; the all-female Renaissance guilds where women embellished royal robes; the nineteenth-century quilting bees where women coded secrets into their quilts. But this time we were using needlework to openly express and honor our own experience through this unique form which has both contained and conveyed women's deepest thoughts and feelings throughout the history of the human race.
It is possible that in some future generation child-rearing will be seen as the crucial activity of a culture and the raising of future generations will be the most prized and rewarded profession. It is possible the time will come when both women and men will share the responsibilities of child-rearing equally. But that is not the case now. Exploring the subject of birth brought me face-to-face with the fundamental cause of women's oppression; as soon as one gives birth to a child, one is no longer free. And, tragically, that lack of freedom is reinforced and institutionalized by the very nature of society.
It may be a high-school girl being deprived of an education because she becomes pregnant; a woman on an airplane desperately trying to quiet a frightened, screaming child while everyone stares at her in disgust; a long-married mother of three whose husband leaves her, her income thereby reduced to poverty level; or a highly gifted artist whose conflicts between self-fulfillment and her child's needs tear her apart with guilt. Whatever her situation, every woman who has a child is punished for having done the very thing which society tells her is her womanly goal.
The administration and exhibition tour of the Birth Project were skillfully coordinated by Mary Ross Taylor and were carried out under the auspices of Through the Flower, which both owned and toured the work. The exhibition tour came to an end in 1987 after almost one hundred shows; the work was seen by more than 250,000 people.
Through the Flower, utilizing its Birth Project Placement Program, has gifted exhibition units to qualifying institutions including: birthing centers, hospitals, universities, and museums. In 2012, Judy Chicago and Through the Flower gifted two Birth Project pieces to the Birth Rites Collection located in Manchester, England, where it was part of a series of tours and exhibitions of their collection. (The BRC is the only collection in the world devoted to art about the subject of birth.)
It has been my privilege and my burden to open the door on a secret reality, one that even most women would like to deny. I have tried to express what I've seen—the glory and horror of the birth experience itself, the joy and pain of pregnancy, the sense of entrapment that goes along with the satisfactions of giving life. I certainly do not feel that I have even begun to convey all that the birth experience (or, more importantly, the deep gratification many women say comes with raising a child) is like. I have only tried to suggest, through my art, that this is a subject worth confronting, a subject rich in meaning and in significance for women's lives, and—because women are over half the population, because everyone is born, and because children have to be raised—a subject worthy of attention of the entire human race.