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ALLENTOWN, PA (April 29, 2009)--Students in Art Professor Jill Odegaard's Honors 260 class at Cedar Crest College have been painting furiously, but meticulously, in preparation for some of the most important party guests in history. At this particular moment, they are painting symbols and imagery on salad plates they plan to use for the party, but they could just as well be adding their artistic flourishes to martini glasses or other elements of the place settings.

The nine women in this special topics class, called simply "The Dinner Party"-after the groundbreaking feminist art piece created by Judy Chicago in the 1970s-are in the zone. They are putting the finishing touches on their work because the big day is fast approaching, but you get the feeling they'd continue for many more years if need be to get everything just right.

All this attention to detail, despite the fact that not a single invitee will attend.


dinner party

The "Dinner Party" is a symbolic celebration of the power of women from a historical and prehistorical perspective. Judy Chicago's original piece, which resides in the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn NY, is a triangular dinner table with 39 place settings for many of the most influential and important female figures of all time, both real and mythical. The installation artwork also includes 999 fabled names-both historical and contemporary-written on the floor tiles that support the table.

Odegaard said she has covered Judy Chicago's work in her Women Artist art history class for years, and that the idea for the stand alone course took shape after she took art students to the Brooklyn Museum to see Chicago's "Dinner Party" in 2002. The course came to fruition this year when she decided to teach a class for the honors program.

"When I took the students to see the ‘Dinner Party' and saw the art exhibit she had created, all I could think of was ‘wow,'" said Odegaard. "I think the course is important to our school as a women's college because it celebrates the accomplishments of women. It's a way for students to learn about some key women in history, as well as acknowledge that they get inspiration from these women."

This semester has been dedicated to learning about Judy Chicago's "Dinner Party," as well as identifying and researching women the students could invite to their own party, and creating the art piece.

The Cedar Crest College project has some interesting variations when compared with the original "Dinner Party." For starters, the student adaptation includes two parallel tables with nine place settings each: one table with a place setting for each of the students, and another table with place settings for women they admire and from whom they draw inspiration. They have also tweaked the "Dinner Party" concept to make it a cocktail party, complete with salad plates, martini glasses, cloth napkins, and even a pair of shoes for under the table. Shoes?!?

"The shoes, which are different based on the personality of each guest, allow us to symbolically put ourselves in someone else's shoes," said sophomore nursing student Stephanie Scully, of Middletown DE.

Most of the students chose to invite accomplished women who are associated with their fields of study to the party.

For example, Scully chose Australian physician and activist Helen Caldicott. Caldicott was a highly regarded doctor who also fought against French nuclear weapon testing in the Pacific Ocean in the early 1970s, citing its potential impact on her homeland. She sparred for some time with officials in France and Australia--at great expense to her family life--before the testing ceased. Later, she would elevate her fight against nuclear weapons proliferation, which included speaking out about possible local contamination in the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1980. The Smithsonian Institute named Caldicott as one of the most influential women of the 20th Century. She currently lives in Australia.

"I had no idea who she was before I saw her name in a magazine article of the 100 most influential women," said Scully. "I'm a sucker for the underdog, and I was impressed by the way she kept fighting when it would have been easier for her to quit. I found a lot of quotes from her where she said, ‘I couldn't sit back and do nothing.' I would like to know what her vision of the future might be."

Freshman psychology major Kayla O'Hara of East Greenbush, NY, invited female basketball star Sheryl Swoopes to the cocktail party. O'Hara plays basketball at Cedar Crest, and she invited Swoopes not only because of her talent, but because of her courage to come out as openly gay during her professional playing career, which appears to have ended earlier this year.

"She has overcome a lot. I'd like to ask her how she dealt with the media backlash, just how tough it was for her. It's not easy for people in the spotlight to be themselves," said O'Hara.

Sophomore art major Lindsey Wagner of Lusby, MD, invited American artist Audrey Flack to the party.

"She was a rebel. At a time when it was expected that women would be good wives and start families, she did her own thing," said Wagner. "She started out doing abstract expressionism when it was the main thing in the art world, but when she realized she didn't enjoy it, she moved on to photorealism-despite the fact that people told her she would regret it. She didn't let others dissuade her, which I admire. I'd like to ask her what made her so strong."

Other students participating in the "Dinner Party" project, and their invitees, include: Sarah Wessells, a senior social work student from Allentown, PA, who chose Swedish social worker and activist Alva Myrdal, Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 1982; Jillian Webberson, a sophomore art student from Norton, MA, who chose French ballet dancer Sylvie Guillem; Michelle Tetreault, a senior biochemistry and forensic science student from Southampton, NJ, who chose Pakistani politician Benazier Bhutto; Beth Bailie, a senior art student from Upper Black Eddy, PA, who chose poet Maya Angelou; Katie Brown, a freshman genetic engineering student from Worcester, MA, who chose genetic engineer Christiane Nusslein-Volhard, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1995; and Sally Wright, a senior nursing student from Orefield, PA, who chose the Guerilla Girls, a group of female artists who fight discrimination against women.

The Cedar Crest College "Cocktail Party" was unveiled to the campus community at the campus' Health and Wellness Conference on Tuesday, April 28. The public can come to campus to see the work, which will be on display from April 29 through May 1 in the Tompkins College Center, Alcove B.



Last Updated: 4/29/09