A collaborative art installation created by ten women incarcerated at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic is now on view at the Brooklyn Museum.
It's called Women of York: Shared Dining and honors women including Eve, the Virgin Mary, Princess Diana, and Malala Yousafzai.
WNPR's Diane Orson spoke with Elizabeth Sackler who facilitated the project. She’s the founder of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at The Brooklyn Museum.
Sackler said she went to York prison to do a one-day workshop on the The Dinner Party by artist Judy Chicago. The work is considered an icon of feminist art and is on display at the Center. It looks like a very large banquet, and honors more than 1,000 women in history.
Elizabeth Sackler: At the end of that afternoon, one of the women said ‘Oh my goodness, why don’t we do a whole table like The Dinner Party?' And we were all delighted at the idea.
Diane Orson: Did you continue to stay involved in the process as it evolved?
Oh, absolutely. I was up once a month for six months. The women, of course, worked on it everyday, and an exceptional librarian there assisted the individuals. And the women worked beautifully as a group. They had not before. But I did go up every month and gave them feedback, or "crits" as we would call it in art school, but also to discuss the different elements of the table as we have them in The Dinner Party.
One of the things that the women loved so, was it was the first time they had been asked to think about a woman they would like to honor, who had been inspirational and meant something important in their lives. And they each had indicated at that first workshop, that it was the first time they as women were honoring women.
Can you describe what their installation looks like?
It's very beautiful in its way. It is much smaller, of course, than The Dinner Party. There are nine women and it has all of the elements of The Dinner Party. They have their plates, they have their runners. We had determined that using sporks and paper napkins and Styrofoam cups, I said to them, I felt that that indicated the external reality of their lives day to day; whereas their creation of their plates and their runners were their internal lives. It's very beautiful to see.
What do you think this works tells us about the incarcerated women that created it?
I think that each woman, I know that each woman had an opportunity to express, not only express themselves, but there were very significant personal insights for each woman and there were external changes for them both in terms of their own sense of self and esteem, and also in the ways they worked in a group.
During the process, were there things that surprised you?
I was very taken with the way in which the women handled the tools, the paintbrushes, the paint, with great respect and with gratitude that they were participating in a project that was bringing them out of the reality of their world. But they were extremely present without facade, without any kind of attempt to impress, they were simply present.
Programs, both educational and artistic as this one, are really vitally important to people who are incarcerated. Without having the opportunity to expand and express, people live in an inhumane circumstance and cannot achieve a place where they can reenter society as active participants in a civil society.
Women of York: Shared Dining is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through September 13.