The University of Louisville has accepted a significant gift of art from feminist art pioneer Judy Chicago. The International Honor Quilt, a large collection of small quilts honoring women from all over the world, joins the university’s collection today. The quilts, with their documentation, will be available for study, research and exhibition.
The International Honor Quilt is actually about 600 small triangular quilts created and submitted to Through the Flower, the feminist art nonprofit Chicago founded in 1978. The quilt project grew out of Chicago’s now-iconic exhibition “The Dinner Party,” a table set with ceramic art that honors more than 1,000 significant female historical figures.
The exhibit opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1979, where it was seen by 100,000 people. And every time Chicago spoke, she’d hear the same refrain.
“I used to get asked all the time, why didn’t you put this woman on, or why didn’t you put that woman on, even though I had been very clear about the criteria,” says Chicago. ”I thought why don’t I make a place for all these people who feel passionate about one or another woman? Because after all, ‘The Dinner Party’ was always intended as a symbolic history of women in Western civilization, not a definitive history.”
Chicago and her foundation staff created a kit that would help artists create a two-foot-long quilted triangle.
“It’s kind of like, no good deed goes unpunished, because as ‘The Dinner Party’ traveled around the world for the next ten years to a viewing audience of a million people, we would get literally dozens of quilts mailed to us,” she says. “We exhibited them with ‘The Dinner Party,’ so the quilts have traveled all over the world, too.”
By the time “The Dinner Party” tour ended, Through the Flower was the proud owner of more than 600 small colorful quilts, along with documentation of each of the women represented. The quilts come from all over the world. Some are in honor of public figures, like artist Frida Kahlo. Others honor everyday women, like those Chicago calls “the Stella quilts,” twelve triangles made by each of one woman named Stella’s twelve children.
As Through the Flower began to shift its focus from art exhibition to educational resources, the organization began looking for institutional partners. “The Dinner Party” is now part of the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, but Chicago wanted to find a meaningful home for the International Honor Quilt. Louisville-based quilt expert Shelly Zegart, a friend of Chicago’s, suggested the University of Louisville.
Curatorial studies professor and gallery director for the university’s Hite Art Institute John Begley says the university will catalog the quilt pieces and create curricula based on the exhibit.
“It’s a social history document as much as is an art project,” he says. “There are certainly interesting art connections, but there are also connections to women’s history, gender studies.”