Works in Progress

Works in Progress

I had never fully considered the social and cultural content of the color pink until I saw Sheila Levrant de Bretteville’s 1974 broadside Pink. Designed for an American Institution of Graphic Arts exhibition, de Bretteville’s piece examined the color from a feminist perspective. She invited women from all walks of life to submit statements and artworks illustrating what it meant to them, using these to construct a graphic “quilt.” This work eventually became a poster copied and displayed throughout Los Angeles, De Bretteville’s home at the time—and earned her, she has said, the nickname “Pinky.”

re:Pink, a sequel you can be a part of, is a cornerstone of Sheila Levrant de Bretteville: Community, Activism, and Design, a retrospective on display at the Yale University Art Gallery through June 23. The artist earned an MFA in graphic design from Yale in 1964 and went on to make significant contributions to the fields of feminist/activist design and education over the following 60 years. In 1973, she and two colleagues, artist Judy Chicago and art historian/critic Arlene Raven, established the Woman’s Building and, within it, the Feminist Studio Workshop, an educational center in downtown Los Angeles “focused not only on the development of artmaking skills… but also on the development of women’s identity and sensibility, and the translation of these elements into their artwork.” From 1990 to 2022, de Bretteville returned to New Haven to serve as Yale’s director of graduate studies in graphic design, along the way becoming the first tenured woman at the Yale School of Art.

The exhibition ranges from examples of her work as an MFA candidate to later public art installations “recogniz overlooked individuals and draw attention to formerly marginalized communities,” as one wall description puts it. Her earliest professional accomplishments included brochures and advertisements she created for Italian manufacturer Olivetti’s Programma 101, one of the first all-in-one commercial desktop programmable calculators, while living in Milan in the late 1960s. In 1969, she joined the faculty at CalArts in Los Angeles and served as in-house designer, creating a provocative poster that paired modernist typeface with found objects including a jack (representing play), a pinecone (nature) and a fragment of computer motherboard (technology).

A similarly provocative and sometimes playful spirit can be seen in the exhibition’s programs, posters, T-shirts and broadsides illustrating her personal and political concerns. They include Reticenza-Omertá-Complicitá, a poster she created while working in Milan to protest censorship in the Italian media, and Womanhouse, a 1972 catalog for the first large-scale feminist art exhibition in the United States. One of my favorite displays was a roll of stickers imprinted with the phrase “Your Vagina Smells Fine Now Naturally,” part of an early-’70s rogue campaign challenging the marketing of feminine hygiene products, in which de Bretteville and her CalArts students surreptitiously placed the stickers on product boxes in L.A. drugstores and supermarkets.

Two decades later alongside 16 of her Yale students, she instigated the development of New Haven’s Class Action Collective, a group still dedicated to using design to effect social change. On December 1, 1993, the organization staged an AIDS awareness installation in downtown New Haven storefronts to commemorate Day Without Art, for which window mannequins sported T-shirts with the words “Positive” or “Negative.”

I found myself especially fascinated by de Bretteville’s public art installations—conveyed mostly by photos, written documentation and models—which more fully represent her shift to using design as a way to engage the public with social issues and undersung figures. Biddy Mason: Time and Place is a particularly poignant example of this. It’s a 1990 tribute to Mason (1818-1891), who was born into slavery yet gained her freedom prior to the Civil War. She moved to California and became a successful nurse/midwife, real estate entrepreneur and, in 1872, co-founder of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. Located in downtown L.A. close to the site of Mason’s home, Time and Place is composed of an 82-foot-timeline set into a concrete wall that mixes images, text and embossed and embedded objects.

In addition to Path of Stars, a series of 21 granite stars highlighting figures from the city’s past in the sidewalks of the Ninth Square, New Haven is home to an installation de Bretteville created in 2003 for the renovated James Hillhouse High School’s entrance lobby. She notes on her website that “the architects had already installed 16-inch square tiles on all the walls. I inserted a Kente-cloth colorful frieze of Bisazza gold-flecked tiles within which 4-inch golden ceramic tiles had quotes from decades of grads.” Contacting these individuals was reportedly a painstaking process, given that the school didn’t have an up-to-date alumni list. Much of her information came from a former school newspaper as well as a poetry workshop led at the time by Elizabeth Alexander, which gave de Bretteville access to contemporary students. She didn’t quit researching until “the quotes I had collected gave a very full picture of how things had changed not only at the school but in the world beyond” over the years.

This may seem crass, but I’m a tad disappointed the gallery isn’t selling replicas of de Bretteville’s Eyebolt Necklace, a piece she composed out of a common metal fastener with a loop on one end that looks like the biological symbol of womanhood and is meant to represent “strength without a fist.” It was the inspiration for one of her best-known creations, a diazo lithograph advertising the 1975 Woman’s Building conference “Women in Design: The Next Decade,” featuring a procession of eye bolts across an architectural grid. After creating the necklace design in 1972 for her Feminist Studio Workshop co-founders Judy Chicago and Arlene Raven, de Bretteville gifted similar necklaces to other women who shared her enthusiasm for women’s culture—and in 1978, members of the FSW reportedly created 500 to sell in celebration of the 5th anniversary of the Woman’s Building. So why not, YUAG? A male docent I chatted with agreed, saying he’d like to give one to his sister. Then again, those of us who want such a necklace can fashion our own version with a trip to the hardware store—probably the most feminist move anyway.

Speaking of taking things into our own hands, I was glad to see re:Pink, an obviously popular stop, inviting gallery visitors to write or draw what the color means to them. I contributed an anecdote about my older brother who, as a high school student in 1968—six years before Pink put another dimension on it for me—was the first man I knew who regularly wore a baby pink button-down. Despite my mother’s protestations that “that’s not a man’s color” (and it generally wasn’t at the time), my brother prevailed, changing forever my perception of pink as something belonging solely to girls. He became a minor hero to me for this daring move, just as de Bretteville became a major hero to so many more.

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville: Community, Activism, and Design
Yale University Art Gallery – 1111 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Wed 10am-5pm, Thurs 10am-8pm, Fri 10am-5pm, Sat-Sun 11am-5pm
(203) 432-0601…

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Images, featuring views of the exhibition Sheila Levrant de Bretteville: Community, Activism, and Design at the Yale University Art Gallery, photographed by Jessica Smolinski.

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