The Dinner Party by
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I’ve written about my mother Jessie before and some of the things she’s told me – among them how to approach difficult tasks,  and how to rectify mistakes made – and I try to heed her words.   (See Elbow Grease   and Art Imitates Life)

Jessie was a high school art teacher,   and she painted in both oil and water color.   Not interested in selling her work,  she never exhibited,  but gave her paintings to friends and family,  many whom sat for her,  portraiture being a favorite genre.  (See Still Life)

She was also an avid museum-goer with eclectic taste in art,  and we went to many memorable art exhibits together.   One was Judy Chicago’s multi-media installation The Dinner Party that first opened in San Francisco in 1979 and a year later came to New York’s Brooklyn Museum where Jessie and I saw it.

“Don’t cry,” she said to me days before she died, “I’ve had a full and very happy life.”

My mother greatly admired Judy Chicago,  the contemporary American artist,  who is now still active in her 80s.   As you may know The Dinner Party Is considered the first epic feminist work of art.   To create it Chicago built a massive,  48 foot long triangular table with 39 place settings,  each with a dinner plate bearing the name of a prominent woman either from history or myth with designs or symbols denoting the woman’s life and accomplishments –   Sappho,  Queen Elizabeth I,  Sacajawea,  Sojourner Truth,  Susan B Anthony,  Margaret Sanger,  Emily Dickinson,  and Georgia O’Keeffe among them.

Each place setting also boasted ceramic cutlery,  a chalice,  and a richly embroidered napkin,  and throughout the work the artist drew vulva-like images leading some detractors to label the work pornographic.  “Too many vaginas!”,  said one.

But of course the artist’s mission in creating The Dinner Party was to celebrate women who for too long had been relegated to the back pages of human history.  Critics hailed it as an important and brilliantly conceived feminist manifesto..

In 2007 The Dinner Party became part of the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection,  and how I would have loved to see it there once again with my mother!   But it wasn’t to be,  several years earlier,  after a brief hospitalization my mother had died.   (See My Game Mother)

During those final heart-wrenching days I wept at her bedside and she chided me.

“Don’t cry,”  she said to me days before she died,    “I’ve had a full and very happy life.”

That was over 20 years ago,  and those words –  the last my mother told me – comfort me still.

Dana Susan Lehrman

JESSIE

 

Profile photo of Dana Susan Lehrman Dana Susan Lehrman
This retired librarian loves big city bustle and cozy country weekends, friends and family, good books and theatre, movies and jazz, travel, tennis, Yankee baseball, and writing about life as she sees it on her blog World Thru Brown Eyes!
www.WorldThruBrownEyes.com

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Characterizations: been there, moving, well written

Comments

  1. Khati Hendry says:

    May we all have that grace and equanimity when the time comes. Your mother sounds like a wonderful person and you have some wonderful memories. I love that she was a fan of The Dinner Party, which was quite scandalous at the time. Way to go, Jessie!

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Your mother’s final words were indeed comforting. The way things are looking in our country now, perhaps we need Judy Chicago’s voice once more.

  3. Suzy says:

    I also saw The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum, and loved it! How great that you and your mother saw it together. I can imagine how comforting her final words must have been. I’m sure both of our mothers would be shocked and appalled by what is happening now in our country!

  4. Marian says:

    Sweet tribute to your mom, Dana, and I’m glad you got to see The Dinner Party. I saw that original 1979 installation in San Francisco and my women friends all were inspired by it. In our Reconstructionist holiday services we use a poem by Judy Chicago (I hadn’t realized she was a poet). Very feminist. Let’s hope the younger generation finally wakes up.

  5. John Shutkin says:

    I’ve never seen “The Dinner Party” in person, Dana, but certainly well know of it and wish to see it in person on one of my visits to NYC (yeah; even some of us guys can be moved by feminist art).

    And bless your dear mother, not only for her museum going example but, as Khati noted, for her “grace and equanimity” as she neared her end. And what a beautiful tribute you have written for — and, I imagine, to — her.

  6. John Shutkin says:

    p.s. I assume you know, Dana, that “The Dinner Party” is housed in a wing of the Brooklyn Museum endowed by Elizabeth Sackler, a feminist and philanthropist who, happily, is is no way implicated in thr oxycontin scandals of other members of her family who benefitted from its sale.

  7. Kathy Porter says:

    I also saw The Dinner Party, although not with my mother. She would have loved it, though, as she became an outspoken feminist late in her life. I like how you use your and your mother’s common taste in art as an example of other commonalities.

  8. Betsy Pfau says:

    Dana, beautiful final words from a well-loved mother.

    Though I’ve not seen The Dinner Party, I am of course quite familiar with it. Judy Chicago did a solo show at the Rose probably 25 years ago about the Holocaust! It was an ambitious, expensive show. She spent a lot of time installing it and then gave many lectures, which I attended. She complained a lot that The Dinner Party didn’t have a permanent home at the time, but that has been remedied.

    And now we will all have to take to the streets again!

  9. Jim Willis says:

    Dana, a very moving piece and an interesting education about The Dinner Party exhibit. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it, which probably shows how deep my knowledge of art goes. The words your mother uttered sound like ones my mother used toward the end of her long life. The older I get, the more I understand what she and your mother meant: it’s fine; I’ve had a good life. I’ll probably say something similar to those surviving me as well. BTW, my dad was an artist, painting in oils and pastels, and his passion for painting carried him all the way to 97.

  10. Wow, it’s so rare (I think) that a dying person actually utters such wonderfully chosen words. Your whole story leading up to that final exchange was quite engrossing. Thank you.

  11. Dave Ventre says:

    Because of COVID, I was not able to visit my Mom before she died in April 1st of 2020. We had a tele-visit planned for the next day.I often speculate on what she would have said.

    The loss of a dear friend in October of ’21 was the first time I had heard the heartwarming phrase “May her memory be a blessing.” I am sure that your Mom’s always will be for you.

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