Proud legacy

Nancy Youdelman keeps the spirit of the Fresno State Feminist Art Program alive
Nancy Youdelman speaking at the Leon and Pete Peters Education Center as part of Small Explosions by Laura Meyer exhibit.
Nancy Youdelman speaking at the Leon and Pete Peters Education Center as part of “Small Explosions” by Laura Meyer exhibit.
Carlos Rene Castro

Nancy Youdelman still recalls walking down the Fresno State hallways in 1970 and seeing a notice for an all-women’s class that she said was life-changing.

“There were a lot of things that were unusual about it. First, it was gender specific. It was only for women,” Youdelman said. “All of us chipped in and we rented a huge studio space off-campus in an old building that had housed the Fresno Community Theatre. So it was really big and it was kind of a mess and the first part of the class [Judy Chicago] had us clean it up. She taught us how to build, and we built a 40-foot wall. Most of us had never done any of that, so that was amazing.”

Youdelman was one of the original 15 students in the Feminist Art Program. The program, which was founded by Judy Chicago during the 1970-71 academic year at Fresno State, was groundbreaking because it was the very first feminist art class in the country.

Jill Fields, a professor of history and the founding coordinator of the Jewish Studies program on campus, is the author of “Entering the Picture,” a book that dives into the innovative work that was done within the Feminist Art Program.

“Judy Chicago had come to Fresno State because she wanted to represent her experiences of being a woman in art, but she was continually ridiculed in the art scene, even though she was an up-and-coming and successful artist, because it was an all-male dominated situation,” Fields said.

Fields said the program was founded to be egalitarian and there was often group discussion about the participants’ own experiences and challenges which would lead to the artwork produced, acknowledging and working toward consciousness change. This generated a lot of activity in the community, including artists coming from San Francisco and Los Angeles to see what was happening.

When the Fresno State art department exhibited Laura Meyer’s art exhibition “Small Explosions,” which recently finished its run at the Phebe Conley Gallery, it held an artist talk with Youdelman, in which she discussed her time knowing Meyer and her work.

The talk gave an enhanced perspective from someone who has known Fresno State for many years and has been influential in the university’s visual arts scene, including its Feminist Art Program.

“She had a background in costume design and theater, and one of her main contributions to the program was the development of performance art pieces,” Meyer said.

The program was a catalyst for Youdelman’s development, as she stated during the artist talk.

“Nancy and three others, Suzanne Lacy, Dori Atlantis and Jan Lester, created a 1972 performance-based piece called ‘I Tried Everything’ that was recently purchased by the New York Museum of Modern Art,” Meyer said. “This involved testing products that promised to increase the size of a woman’s breasts and documenting their use over a 14-day period.”

Youdelman similarly states that the atmosphere in the class was novel as Chicago’s teachings of looking inside oneself for inspiration gave her the idea for “Rivalry Play,” in which themes of jealousy and aggression between two women were prominently displayed.

Joyce Aiken, who taught feminist art after Chicago left Fresno State, remembers having Youdelman in class and emphasizes how her work has been important for the artistic community.

“She works a lot with taking ordinary objects and embellishing them with really interesting textures and colors and ornamentation,” Aiken said. “I just think she’s a very valuable artist that we have from the Valley because we don’t have a lot of people who exhibit nationally from here and Nancy does. I think that’s a very good thing for us and for her too.”

After her time at Fresno State, Youdelman, along with nine other original class members, went to the private school CalArts, where she would work again with Chicago on Womanhouse, a feminist art installation developed by Chicago, Miriam Schapiro (a fellow educator) and other students and artists that was seen by over 10,000 visitors in its month-long exhibition.

Youdelman received her four-year degree at CalArts and then attended UCLA for graduate school in sculpture.

Youdelman continued to learn and work in her art studio before she had two children and went back to Fresno State where she taught from 1999 to 2013.

A connection to Fresno has always been present in Youdelman’s life as her mother was born in the city in 1913. Though Youdelman states her mother may have, at times, worried financially about her work, she was still very encouraging and even bought her a film camera that she used for her art.

To the city itself, Youdelman states that it is “peaceful here [and] things grow really well here. I have a whole garden around my studio and I have big windows I can look out of. There’s not a lot of distraction so I can work uninterrupted.”

“Wedding Shoes” piece by Nancy Youdelman. (Courtesy of Nancy Youdelman)

Youdelman’s work has been featured in exhibitions in New York, Miami, and Europe and is currently featured in Los Angeles at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

She continues her art with two recent examples of her sculpture, including wedding shoes sealed with encaustic and a sewing chair covered with sewing needles, pin cushions and buttons.

The Feminist Art Program at Fresno State would last into the ‘90s, and Youdelman is one example of how Chicago’s vision helped the art world as a whole.

“She wanted to help female art students become professional artists because there were students who would drop out or would get their degree but not continue their careers and she was trying to break through that pattern,” Fields said.

Youdelman states that though times have changed a lot for women, there are still opportunities for growth and equality.

“Women do have more say, but there’s still a long way to go in certain ways. Someone the other day was just telling me that she gets a lot of flak because she’s very assertive and people just react in a bad way to that. I think that there are a lot of changes that have gotten better, but my point was, there’s still a way to go,” Youdelman said.

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