“They were a way of her trying to figure out how to use china painting,” Hermo explains of the body of work. “They were also a release of the frustration Judy was feeling when she realized she was just one woman facing down the epic problem of the lack of women’s representation in history.”
As Chicago’s research and skills developed, so did the scope of the installation. Additions included a floor upon which 999 additional women’s names would be inscribed, along with cutlery, chalices, chairs, and banners. Chicago acknowledged that she’d need help to realize her full vision, so she began to enlist research assistants and scores of volunteers to help with production, whether embroidering, painting ceramic plates, or scrawling the names of historical figures onto the 2,304 hand-cast porcelain tiles that would make up the floor.
Several posters soliciting help appear in the exhibition. “WANTED: Researchers in women’s history interested in working with artist and writer Judy Chicago on innovative and unusual project celebrating women’s culture,” reads one such notice. For Hermo, the posters “symbolize very different ways the studio reached out to budding feminists, artists, and hobbyists—people who were fascinated by ceramics and embroidery,” she says.
By 1977, Chicago’s Santa Monica studio was filled with helpers. Some 400 women and men would lend a hand before she completed the work in 1979. This collaborative effort reflected the network of feminist activists and artists that had begun to proliferate across the country. One photo in the exhibition shows an aerial view of the Thursday night potluck Chicago hosted for volunteers in the studio; a large group sits around a long table covered in tupperware, colorful plates, and shiny beer cans.