A third wave feminist approach to feminist oral history, this research essay blends both the visual and the oral as text. We critique a feminist artist's art along with her words so that her representation can be seen and heard. Focusing on three art pieces, we analyze the artist's body to conceptualize agentic ways to understand the meanings of feminist art and feminist oral history. We offer a third wave feminist approach to feminist oral history as method so that feminists can consider adaptive means for recording oral histories and challenging dominant symbolic order.

Joyce's house is perched on a bluff that overlooks the San Joaquin River. To get to her front door, you walk down an incline of plants and shrubs rather than across a flat lawn. In the gloom of a misty Fresno, CA, winter, Shane and Jennifer arrive for their 10am meeting. “Hey babe,” Joyce says as she pulls opens her door to share an embrace first with Jennifer and then with Shane. They enter her home, spacious and bright, and follow her noiseless footsteps to a glass table that serves as a breakfast nook. Joyce's eyes are knowing-orbs of grey-blue behind green-blue rimmed glasses. She sits in front of and below a modern art painting of oranges and reds.

Looking around her house, you see a balance of art gallery sophistication with home dwelling comfort. Well-organized and precisely lit, art of all types adorns the place: paintings, sculptures, pottery, and multiple examples of women's work. Seated with our pens, paper, and recording devices, we are handed chocolate cookies and strong coffee. Joyce laughs with us as we meander through life's plans and news. We giggle over the mundane—a bridesmaid outfit that Jennifer dreads to wear, the difficulties of the new puppy that Shane has just adopted. Joyce's laughter helps punctuate and pace the tales we tell of our present lives and of her past.

Entryway to Joyce's house. Photograph by Roe Borunda (Roetography).

Entryway to Joyce's house. Photograph by Roe Borunda (Roetography).

After Jennifer checks to make certain her smartphone is recording, Joyce moves into her story:

As a young woman in college, I had gone to my grandmother's funeral. I was just appalled at the whole ceremony. It may have been the first funeral I had been to. I remember it being so impersonal, just a really unpleasant experience. It was many years later, after having to go to other funerals, that I decided it was foolish to have such a joyless occasion. So, I decided to make my own coffin. My idea was that it was going to be a plain pine box. I had originally asked my husband if he would help me. He said he would not. He said he wasn't going to be embarrassed by my being buried in a pine box. I then decided that if that was going to embarrass him, then I was going to make something that would be worth the embarrassment.

What became an art piece titled The Coffin was the inspiration for her decades-long feminist art project, Honoring Death.1 

Joyce2 is an example of feminist artists who were emboldened by the US Feminist Art Movement. Encouraged by second wave feminism, feminist artists in the US Feminist Art Movement based their art in their socialized experiences as women. In The Power of Feminist Art, Norma Broude and Mary D. Gerard help define the timeline of this art movement's epoch as having roots in the 1950s and the 1960s, but primarily growing during the 1970s and then spanning into the 1980s.3 These artists prioritized their everyday realities over traditional art topics and art forms, often seeking new and/or under-regarded forms of expression. The Feminist Art Movement paralleled the larger US feminist movement in that its main drive was consciousness-raising, or a “‘method of using one's own experience as the most valid way of formalizing political analysis.”4 Within the pages of The Power of Feminist Art, Fresno State5 is declared to be the academic home of the Feminist Art Movement. Started by Judy Chicago in 1970, she left the Fresno State feminist art program after only two semesters to join the California Arts Institute. Rita Yokoi continued the program for four semesters before she left for the University of California, Los Angeles. Then, Joyce Aiken took over the program for more than twenty years.

Oddly enough, The Power of Feminist Art omits Joyce's important teaching legacy, but rather notes Joyce's successful US government lobbying. Joyce remarks that people interested in her feminist past are mostly interested in her political work, “Maybe it's because my art deals with death or maybe it's because they don't know how to talk about art.” In addition to her work with the feminist art program at Fresno State, Joyce also helped start what is now the oldest cooperative art gallery in the country; she was the founding president of the Coalition of Women's Arts Organizations (CWAO); she fought for the Equal Rights Amendment; and she was an active participant in the US Feminist Art Movement. Today, Joyce lives a seemingly average life in Fresno as an octogenarian, a conceptual artist, and an emeritus professor. Not so average, Joyce has had an influential effect on the US Feminist Art Movement and, therefore, on US feminism.6 

Starting in the early 1970s, Joyce began an art project that she named Honoring Death: An Artist's Last Performance. Spanning until its last installment in 2012, the overall trajectory of the project was the creation of a coffin, her burial dress and her shroud, multiple versions of her obituary, an array of possible obituary photos, a collection and display of quoted memories by friends and loved ones, a presentation of letters written to by-gone lovers, and a public viewing of her will. Some of the art pieces have been shown at the Fresno Art Museum and at Fresno's Gallery 25. Joyce has also shown her art in New York City, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, CA, and in other galleries and museums around California's San Joaquin Valley. The experiential focus of the US Feminist Art Movement is evident in Joyce's art and artistic perspective. Reflecting upon her artistic development, she said, “My work became more personal with an emphasis on the concept rather than the final product.”7 

We approached the lessons of Joyce's life as third wave feminists. For us, third wave feminism carries the gender-focused politics of the feminist waves that came before it. However, it is a feminism that must react to and enact itself within often contradictory, contemporary social articulations of gender. As Charklotte Kroløkke and Anne Scott Sørensen posit, the digitalization of the Internet, the prominence of globalization, and the appreciation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Questioning movement(s) are important contexts for shaping third wave realities.8 Third wave feminists are compelled to understand and express ourselves online; to relate to the embodiment of genders across cultures and around the globe; and to create coalitions with people who are united against oppression despite strikingly different social locations (e.g., gay is not the same as lesbian, and bisexual is not the same as trans). Typical of third wavers, we adapted our method to meet our ontological contradictions and heuristic wants. Perhaps not typical of what might be expected, Joyce's oral history offered opportunities to realize third wave feminism in exciting and revelatory ways.

Our oral history steps away from a contained narrative of a person's life and steps toward Joyce's voice intertwined with her art and then intertwined with a third wave feminist analysis. Like the third wave texts mentioned by Valerie R. Renegar and Stacey K. Sowards, we hope this essay “speaks to young women (and men) who may or may not call themselves feminists and who may or may not be familiar with the important historical legacies of the first and second waves of feminism in the United States.”9 Like conceptual or abstract art that does not embrace present truths in easily traceable mimetic forms, this essay and its method may seem to fail those seeking realism.

First, we explain how our oral history method is both an oral and visual combination of the narration process. Simply put, our method is a blend of both art and voice. Next, we provide our performance studies-influenced theoretical foundation that considers women's bodies through both the ocular and the spatial. Then, we analyze three of Joyce's art pieces through the conceptual frameworks of the embodied, the written, and the visual. Finally, we conclude with reflections and projections of Joyce's oral history. In the section immediately following, we discuss our feminist performance approach to oral history.

A Feminist Method for a Woman's Oral History

Different from standard modes of oral history, the feminist oral history process connects discourses and symbolic exchanges to textualize women's lives so that voices displaced from the patriarchal record can be heard.10 At its most basic understanding, an oral history is a documented conversation derived from memory. Not so simple, a feminist oral history acknowledges the missing history of the woman within the missing feminist history(ies). These oral histories employ a praxis that inscribes “the past into the present on the promise of an as yet unimagined, even unimaginable future.”11 By focusing specifically on women, feminist oral history aims, retroactively, to create space for voices and bodies that have previously been denied that space. When we look to the past, it becomes clear that “social history, autobiography, and personal memory confirm the common experience of everyday life reaching back through generations.”12 Our third wave feminist approach requires that we analyze those voices and bodies, but that the approach does so within current times and with current meanings.

Of course, no two feminist lives are alike and neither are the techniques used to tell a feminist life story. These variances in technique allow for multiple types of expressions; and these multiple types of expressions help with understanding how past feminisms had and continue to have effects on our contemporary feminist agendas. Beyond just a recognition of the variability of what the feminine is and how the feminine can be validated, feminists advance that the full range of women's lives be central to and not lost in theoretical and empirical research. Elizabeth Bell characterizes how feminist theory, research, and practice are patterned but not necessarily linear.13 Drawing a straight line from past to present and into the future is politically important to feminism at large, but not necessarily practical to feminism as lived. Recognizing feminist lives and teaching lived feminisms rest upon remembering those lives. That remembrance, recognizing, and teaching of feminist lives requires research and analysis that adapts to non-linearity.

The invocation of our feminist past cues us to the strategies that first and second wave feminists created to raise consciousness for and of women. “[C]onsciousness-raising, a rhetorical strategy utilized extensively by feminists in the 1970s to give voice to women's experiences, remains an important part of developing feminist awareness today.”14 Co-creating feminist awareness through consciousness-raising meetings within the actual homes of women was a fundamental operationalization of feminism. These meetings were used to empower women to strategize resistance to patriarchal society's explicit and implicit rules.15 The power of these consciousness-raising meetings is found in shared and varied tellings of seemingly ordinary women's stories instead of a singular, master narrative. For third wave feminists, our feminist consciousness is rooted in the varied theories of the flesh that have been passed down to us.16 

A third wave feminist approach acknowledges how important it is to remember that the relationships to these homes or spaces of consciousness varied according to race and class. For example, Amalia Mesa Bains notes how her Latina mother cleaned the homes of white women—her feminism, then, developed out of differently raced and classed sensibilities.17 Additionally, Dolores Huerta struggled to balance activism in the public sphere with childcare in the home.18 As a queer of color, Gloria Anzaldúa speaks of how painful home life was, thus forcing alternative conceptions of home.19 While the experiences are importantly varied across race, sexuality, and class, the home is still central to all of these theories of the flesh—and these stories of consciousness must continue to be told within our academic homes. To capture ranges of lessons within female experience and expression, third wave feminists negotiate among past understandings of feminism, benefits from past feminist accomplishment, and varying contemporary feminist subjectivities.20 Feminist oral history, then, does not necessarily articulate epic greatness for political comparison, but rather attends to an oft-muted critical survival within patriarchal contexts.

Both as survival tactic and process of consciousness, as a feminist artist, Joyce's historical narrative comes not only from her spoken words, but Joyce also speaks her story through her art. We merge the oral and visual to account for the complexity of Joyce's narrative and the perceived silence in her narrative where her voice is present in the visual. Susan N. G. Geiger argues the importance of varied and mixed method approaches to women's life histories as women often seek and sought non-traditional means to represent their worlds and selves.21 Through this multimodal approach to Joyce's history this research essay performatively functions as an oral history—even if that oral and visual collapse may seem to be a collapse of contradictory forms. Kim Golombisky asks, “How do we include women in communication research without resorting to exceptional women within masculine frameworks or to marginalizing women's research?”22 In response, we use these contradictory methodological forms to update Karylyn Kohrs Campbell's call for the invention of a platform so that women's theories of the flesh can be learned and taught.23 

We utilize feminist oral history as the framework with which we aim to interrupt the male-oriented dictum of history and language. We merge the oral and visual and advance this blended approach as our method specifically because of its adaptive depth toward feminine experience and life history.24 This shift allows women's corporeally-based realities and art forms, produced through feminist consciousness, to be interpreted with agentic power. In the next section, we detail our use of theories of the flesh as well as additional performance studies theories of body that guide our analysis.

Enfleshed, Embodied Theories

Theories of the flesh privilege experiences of the body as knowledge.25 Bodies marked at similar intersectional positionalities (e.g., the raced body, the gendered body, the sexed body, the classed body) often share encounters with discursive power that differ along specific intersecting positionalities. Through the sharing of individual experiences of women's bodies, these experientially-based theories do not necessarily unify but they do diversify and complexify understandings of societal power structures. D. Soyini Madison explains, “women, particularly those marginalized by race and social class, create and invent spaces where they depict and interpret their concrete and imagined experiences.”26 Similarly, Geiger advocates for feminist life histories as a means to develop “broader and deeper understanding of women's consciousness, historically and in the present.”27 We contemplate Joyce's art to help us understand how she has articulated a specialized knowledge of her corporeal self.

By theorizing through Joyce's body as found both in her words and her art, we forefront the female body's potential to interrupt the patriarchal symbolic order of the art world and even our everyday lives. When women enter physical and discursive spaces that are generally dominated by or crafted for men, women's bodies potentially cause new meanings. Insert “she” for “he” in a sentence and, often, the overall meaning is changed.28 Most importantly, though, changed meanings truly begin to matter when one becomes critically aware of one's own power to interpret outside of dominant interpretations. Rebecca Schneider helps us understand how women have successfully and proactively accomplished the creation of new meanings about themselves via their own interpretations of the text of the female body.29 By juxtaposing extreme binaries of the patriarchal symbolism of women, feminist performance artists create spaces where their art is not only understood beyond patriarchy, but also can be agentic for all to understand potentials beyond patriarchy. The spaces between these extreme binaries appeal to a third wave sensibility as they “create possibilities for self-determination, transcendence, and counter-imaginations that foster and rely on a sense of agency.”30 

The following three sections are analyses of Joyce's oral history through her words and her art. Our analysis is guided by feminist performance studies theories, which assist us in understanding and theorizing Joyce from a gendered, corporeal perspective. Schneider's conceptualization of binary terrors31 equips us to understand and theorize the contradictory manifestations of embodied gender as more than artistic irony and more as feminist artistic intent. Rather than comprehending our goal as simply to add lines to Joyce's story, we understand ourselves to explore how Joyce's words and art might be realigned with a third wave feminist agenda. In this next section, we consider Joyce's art piece The Coffin as a way to interpret women and women's bodies within space.

Femininity Off-site

The Coffin. Photograph by Roe Borunda (Roetography).

The Coffin. Photograph by Roe Borunda (Roetography).

Joyce recounts her conceptualization of The Coffin:

The funeral is the last ceremony, the last performance I could have. I am not usually a control freak—but in this—I sorta am. My fascination with funeral rituals has been since I was a young woman. It's a fascination that has just become a part of my living—dying [laugh]—you know, the whole thing. The Coffin is made of wood and painted in bright pink and red. I decorated the coffin with pink, red, and orange details. This is all in opposition to my own personal taste. It needed to be a statement. If it were painted dark, it would be too serious.

A benefit of her white, middle-class status, but definitely in defiance to her white, feminine sensibilities,32 Joyce decided to make her own coffin to be used for her own future corpse. She crafted a garish coffin festooned with clichés of womanhood. Completely handcrafted by Joyce, the woodwork on The Coffin is intricate with attachments of cherub angels, hearts, and laurels. She plans to use The Coffin as a display case for her body at her funeral and also as the vessel in which she will be cremated. Despite its sacred future, she keeps the receptacle under a sheet in her garage. Although it does not currently hold her body, The Coffin references her body as the last site where her body will perform Joyce.

Utilizing the spectacle of death, Joyce's art offers agency to the female body. Schneider argues that women artists use visibility to transform their feminine representation into feminine agency. Female artists who make their bodies into their artistic mediums create “explicit bodies,” which are “a means of addressing the ways such work aims to explicate bodies in social relation … peel[ing] back layers of signification that surround bodies.”33 The feminist art performance implicates and interrogates the silencing effects of a patriarchal symbolic order. Commenting on Schneider's explanation, M. Heather Carver adds, “Feminist performance artists are able to reenact social dramas and expose cultural assumptions.”34 Following this analysis, we understand Joyce's casket to represent a staging of social dramas and the cultural assumptions about Joyce's female body. Silence, a reoccurring theme in the art of feminist artists, is often symbolized as blindness. More than a marker of the inability of the woman's body to return the masculine gaze, blindness is “a marker of her historical relegation to the private sphere of consumption rather than the public sphere of consumption.”35 Blindness is the patriarchal gaze's response to that which it cannot name.

When female performance artists use the female body as medium, they take the patriarchal discourse that has embodied (done) femininity and re-embody (undo), reshape, and redefine how the female bodies will be read and heard. The process is both a sighting and a hearing of the previously dismissed feminine experience and expression. We find examples of female artists bringing the female body into view ranging from Ana Mendieta to Judy Chicago. With Joyce, Mendieta, and Chicago, the female body is symbolically present; each artist seeks to bring the female into vision through its displacement. Mendieta's Silueta series produces a political critique of citizenship by juxtaposing void with scenery.36 Chicago's The Dinner Party installation juxtaposes the vulgar with the formal to bring focus to women's work.37 Similar to the art that Joyce has created, these pieces identify the binaries and then place the binaries next to each other in ways that implode their patriarchal meanings, thus allowing for a feminist re-visioning of the symbols.

While it can be argued that these juxtapositions found in the binary terrors can be common across most art, even the presence of women artists is juxtaposition to the male-dominated culture of art production. Like the feminization of the private sphere, the private world of women's art is often categorized as the kitsch of commodity culture. Regularly construed as sentimental in emotion and useless in practice, women's art is mocked by high culture masculine art. Women's private handicraft art—doilies, samplers, cross-stitch—often gets cast as a reflection of unimportant frivolity. Within public spaces, kitsch often exists as the inexpensive mass-produced products of capitalist culture. Women participating in the Feminist Art Movement “defiantly elected to ignore the conventional distinction between ‘fine’ art and women's ‘domestic’ art.”38 Joyce's coffin is an example of the combination of fine art with domestic art that creates a binary terror. The coffin questions the artistic organization of subject–object of The Coffin by reorganizing the position of gendered bodies in charge of the means of production of the art and its symbolic meanings. The kitsch adornments on The Coffin reference the fiction of the gendered ritual site through the juxtaposition of the meaningful and meaningless.

On a social level, The Coffin represents the death of an era of feminized gender roles that prompted second wave feminism. As Betty Friedan explains, identity does not manifest though others for women. Rather, she must find her identity from “a more subtle facing of death: the death of self in passive conformity, in meaningless work.”39 This coffin carves out a space for both the death of the self and the death of the roles that have been performed by, as well as forced upon, women by gender discursivities. Contrastingly, The Coffin simultaneously nods to the meaningfulness imbued in all of these roles performed by women. In crafted wooden letters, the side of The Coffin reads “Mother, Wife, Friend,” something Joyce admits was the most “mundane epitaph” she could think of. While Joyce's words do not aim to make these social roles into spectacle, her art highlights how these roles have been less valued through dominant discourses but are revalued in the ritual space of the funeral. Symbolically, the coffin demonstrates how these words/roles can be read as kitsch within a masculine narrative.

Kroløkke and Sørensen explain that everyday language often “stereotypes and polarizes women and men.”40,The Coffin helps to dismantle the symbolic order of everyday language by creating a funeral for the restrictive categories to which women are assigned. Joyce's art brings meaning to the roles performed by women and takes them out of the languaged realm of social kitsch. The space created through the binary terror of the meaningful vessel with the meaningless kitsch allows the viewer to consider the art under a new lens—perhaps through a refracted feminine gaze. As Kroløkke and Sørensen remind us, “language is a battle for the ability to define and create a part of reality.”41 The new meanings created by Joyce for the language on the side of the casket can be seen as Joyce's personal materialization of the feminist struggle to rename and reclaim women's sites in public discourse.

The binary terrors offer visual and symbolic entry points for women to synthesize their multiple selves into something or someone that becomes actualized outside of, and in resistance to, a patriarchal symbolic ordering and languaging of women's experience. The Coffin acts as the end of one woman's ascription to the epitaphs “Mother, Wife, Friend” and the end of her silence negotiated by a socially constructed feminine life. From a third wave feminist perspective, Joyce offers “contradictions as a way to intervene and disrupt normative thinking, identities, and systemic practices.”42 Through this material synthesis of these symbolic roles “Mother, Wife, Friend,” Joyce invents a platform of agency to reject those roles.

Joyce's body is always located in her art and the site of her art's meanings. Joyce's creation of her coffin becomes an example that women can invent sites to mitigate the over-determination imposed upon their representation. These invented spaces hold keys to unlocking and tools for deconstructing patriarchal discursivities that force women into blindness and silence about their experiences. In the next section, we discuss the textual citing of Joyce's body as a disruption in a patriarchal symbolic order.

Citing Multiple Self Sources

Textualizing the blind spots of her own history, within the Honoring Death series, Joyce created a five-piece mixed-media framed collection that stories her love life. The coloring, size, and placement offer uniformity and continuity with framed pieces. The different installations are: Love Letters and Tears, What They Want, Reliquary Bags, Reliquary for Howard, and Memento.43 The Love Letters and Tears installation contains nine pastel-colored, miniature, silken-fabric stationery notes tucked into tiny envelopes. Joyce explains that she wrote the love letters with an ink that could fade; she says, “They're as permanent as I want them to be.” Love Letters and Tears are fabric letters to Joyce's past lovers in which she expresses what she could say through the secrecy of a letter and the solvency of death. The full content of the letters cannot be read; rather we only get a peek at the words that extend beyond the envelope. We find Love Letters and Tears to be juxtaposing a vulnerable exposé of her past with a teasing concealment of her past. She cites herself but refuses to draw direct lines between herself and one true Joyce.

Love Letters and Tears. Photograph by Roe Borunda (Roetography).

Love Letters and Tears. Photograph by Roe Borunda (Roetography).

As Linda M. Park-Fuller explains, the “‘way’ of telling the untold is a part of the performer's truth.”44 In this case, Joyce's way of telling the untold reveals the how Joyce's truth is always intertwined with the viewer's curiosity around patriarchal taboos. Of the inception of Love Letters and Tears, Joyce points to the center letter and says:

This is the first one I crafted. My husband had died, and I realized that I had never sent him a love letter. These are all love letters to my old loves. These letters felt right at the time to be expressions to the most important people in my life. When I finished some of the letters, I thought, “I am so glad to get rid of you” [laughs]. It was very cathartic. The only letter I cried for was the letter to my dead husband. That's why I sprinkled fabric tears around that letter.

Wrapped in tradition, Joyce's letters symbolically echo the ritual trappings of patriarchal language. The idea of the letter is complex due to the history that precedes and follows letter-writing. History provides a distinct hierarchy for types of letters—a dichotomy intently organized around socially sanctioned gender performances. For example, Diane M. Blair notes that letters are often “characterized as a private form of communication,”45 and this characterization splinters across the discursively gendered public and private spheres of production. Jane Austen was only able to write her masterpieces under the private guise of letters. Eleanor Roosevelt inoffensively entered public discourse through correspondence to US citizens. Huerta wrote letters to César Chávez to discreetly critique him. Audre Lorde used letter writing to denounce the exploitation of the black body by white feminists. Anzaldúa asks, “How to approximate the intimacy and immediacy I want? What form? A letter, of course.”46 While men can write letters for the same purposes, they are often given charge to pen epistles deemed important in the symbolic order—business letters, contracts, and correspondence for war—which further norm the importance of male voice and embodiment.

Outside the masculine and feminine poles of letter-writing style, there is a myriad of meanings to be made through the textual citation of Joyce's body. Discursive interpretations of the work are made available to the letter-reader. For instance, considering that silk is a fine fabric used for special occasions and even used as lingerie, this piece becomes active via imaginative precedent. It is alive and interactive through implication. These love letters, inherently intimate and unique, transform as the readers imagine themselves as the lovers. Sonja K. Foss observes that since the artist's private life is on vivid display, the lives of the artist and viewer become related.47 The intimate pretext of the letter-writing format doubles over itself by involving the viewer in the scene, the lines that categorize seer and seen fade, requiring the seer to reciprocate the implication of being a lover exposed. As the artist, Joyce invents a platform for a vulnerable viewing context that becomes an unfamiliar vision of her embodyment. “A letter acts like a person, or substitutes the person writing, metonymically.”48 Joyce's body and voice are substituted and extended by her letters.

Joyce's nine letters help disrupt the either–or terms of the patriarchal gaze. With nine letters, she celebrates nine voices and nine differing inflections of subjectivity based on experience. Her surplus voices cite one Joyce but also cite several Joyces found through her relationships. When the patriarchal gaze is confronted with a multiplicity of extra, the caricatures of women upheld though the gaze stop making sense. Some letters seem “extra-marital,” some letters seem “lesbian,” and still other letters are “sappy” in contrast to Joyce's acerbic personality. Although often characterized as a fickle flaw, the multiplicity of femininity can be a strategic advantage when recognized and utilized.49 This strategic advantage can begin with the binary terror's interruption of the symbolic order and is found in the extreme juxtaposition that creates space for new or different meanings. This moment of interruption transforms material understanding and offers an entrée into discourse.

The entrée is an extra that is in between established patriarchal-serving categorization, and it allows for these new representations to be offered. This extra space is yet again seen and read as feminine and potentially outside the dominant symbolic order's recognition or approval. It is from these invented spaces of the binary terror that women's voices are available for citation. As such, this feminine excess is both powerful and empowering “at once physical and discursive, biological and political, material and social, ‘Real and unrepresentable,’ the pleasures of multiplicity are at once realizable and yet unspeakable.”50 A woman's pleasure at the space of the embodiment of contradiction is found in the moment of returning the gaze through these invented platforms that, in turn, destabilizes the privileged masculine gaze of the symbolic order.

Through an exhibition of the personal, Love Letters and Tears puts the feminized blind spot in the center of the stage. When the blind spot becomes the main focus, panic is caused in the habituated masculine gaze of the viewer. Oftentimes this reversal of gazes and blind-sightings is difficult to process without the crutch of patriarchal language. Schneider describes the reaction of the audience's exposure to a binary terror as a horror that depends “upon a literalization of the blind spot sighted.”51 The blind sighting or “seeing too much” is significant because it brings what has been at the vanishing point or blind spot of women's stories to the forefront of vision in and through a ricochet of gazes. Joyce's literalization and textualization of her theories of the flesh “creates this view not by comparing the female perspective to that of men but through presentation of an alternative vision on its own terms.”52 Joyce's letters offer the viewer a binary terror of a private act displayed in a public sphere. This disorder offers a citation of women's lives in public. This public citing impedes the gaze, and the confusion makes a new space for the citation of Joyce.

Although Love Letters and Tears is not aural, it is visually oral; and it tells its own multilayered story. Toying with blind spots, the letters reference the processes that occur during the recall and the re-tell of memories. Joyce coyly displaces her physical body from the frame of view, but it cannot be said that her body is absent. Beyond just a metonym, Joyce and her body are cited through the textualization of her experience via her own production. In that this work is citationally feminine, the masculine gaze's authority, in return, is confronted with a feminine voice. Joyce's voice acts to reimagine the letters specifically as woman's text. This body of text represents a disembodied physicality that becomes materialized through the letters. Hence, disembodiment substitutes for an embodiment that transforms the subject of the art into the agentic method by which feminine voice is seen and heard.

While such discursive interpretations are made available to the viewer, the irony of the piece is its presentation and pretense of being complete. Calling it “Femmage,” Miriam Schapiro explains this complete incompleteness as “women's artistic process of collecting and joining seemingly disparate elements into a functional whole.”53 Thus, while these letters simultaneously contradict each other, it is through this contradiction that it is whole. Alexandra Álvarez, Susan Hoyle, and María Josefina Valeri claim a person's letters, although separate entities, should be “considered a single text, because the letters constitute a unit.”54 Joyce's art claims completion as the letters exist for past lovers, nine lovers, as a final expression of love. The letters document a history of the lovers, perhaps sexual lovers, and refuse to allow these theories of the flesh to be obscured fully from public record.

Aside from a life as the lover in these letters Joyce fulfilled roles as teacher, sister, artist, mother, political activist, and wife. Reading her artwork through a third wave feminist lens, her contradictory positionalities created a space for agency and self determination by “transcending expected behavior and adherence to ideas, and exploring alternatives through counter-imaginations and creativity.”55 By blending all these roles into one, Love Letters and Tears becomes a claim to Joyce's wholeness. Yet, it is a wholeness rich with complexity. Joyce's art refuses to present a one-dimensional gendered role and this multilayered identity is what makes Joyce's art reflective of herself as well as other feminists. In our final analysis we consider visibility as a feminist act further.

In the Lines of Sight

Joyce stands at Twelve Obituary Photograph Options,56 and scans the photos with her index finger. She explains:

I've always been puzzled by people putting their high school graduation photo or their homecoming queen picture in the local newspaper when they die. So, I had thought, I don't have any idea what my children are going to do when I die. My goal was to give them options to choose from self-selected photos for my obituary photo. The first picture is from when I was sixteen and the last picture is a contemporary one. They could choose which one they want to represent me. I'm just giving them the option of choosing which woman they want to represent me.

Of course, they still haven't made a decision and they probably won't until they have to do it. And I'm not going to tell them which one to use. I won't add any more photos unless I get some new ones. I've gone through all my photos and these are the ones that I want them to choose from. When I look back I think, ‘What are some of those haircuts I had?’ When you look, you can see that I have ended up down here. That I went through all of this. I can't believe that some of those are me. Some of them don't look like me at all.

Twelve Obituary Photograph Options. Photograph by Roe Borunda (Roetography).

Twelve Obituary Photograph Options. Photograph by Roe Borunda (Roetography).

Twelve Obituary Photograph Options displays Joyce photographed at different times in her life. As a part of Honoring Death, one of the photos will accompany her written obituary at her funeral. These photos embody different versions of Joyce and function as a final formal sighting of her visual identity. Her relationship to the photos ranges from intimate (e.g., “That photo is my senior picture”) to the oblique (e.g., “I don't know who took that photo or when it was taken”). Without vanity, she has offered multiple images of herself. More than once we have witnessed Joyce inquire of onlookers, “Which one do you like best?” Acting through the future, Joyce presents the viewer with a different view on gendered discourses of visuality. Working as a conceptual art piece, this arrangement of potential obituary photos reconstitutes the symbolic order by rearranging the order of operations of her funeral. The photo that is chosen will become the image by which Joyce is communally remembered. Interestingly, it is an art piece that continues to evolve. If she gets a new photo that she likes, she will add it to the twelve, but she has not decided which one of the other twelve she would remove.

Interrupting societal expectations, her obituary photos become the space where she invents her gender identity. Joyce's interruptive act of framing the field of vision for the gaze is a performative act to access the future sighting of Joyce via past sightings. Crossing the boundaries of real and imagined, symbolic and material, Joyce causes viewers to do a double-take while she becomes the art she created. We see the gaze literally confronted by the sight of a woman's self-created image that enters symbolic social reality in an anachronistic fashion. While Joyce utilizes the extra temporal space before her obituary will be written, she presents her image to be both produced by her and purchased by her. Twelve Obituary Photograph Options works to expose “who bears the rights to explicate the socio-historical significances of that body and that frame.”57 By assuming authorship over her final sighting, she rearranges her image and controls its presentation. Thus, Joyce's performative embodiment of the feminized object of the gaze becomes the space where she engages her gendered role politically and resists it.

Joyce's obituary photos offer her theory of the flesh in the masculine public sphere. The art piece avoids the masculine languaging of her experience, her body, and her political message. It is from this fluid merging of orality and visuality that we can begin to hear women's words and perceive their meanings. Hence, the collage of obituary photos performs an interruption and inserts a theory of the flesh that interprets silenced (objectified) space as heard (agentic) reality. The discursive construction of femininity implicates, while simultaneously devolves, women from the historical scene, granting varying degrees of vivid-then-gossamer realities as dominant patriarchal discourses evolve to benefit men. By containing and performing both commodity and consumer, woman is made to collapse into herself and thereby consume her own image as presented and performed in the symbolic order.

However, Joyce's refusal to accept the status quo in relation to the obituary process is the method by which she rejects a commodity image of women, using these photos to provide a sighting of her existence as she performs it. In the same visual breath she acknowledges the structure of the gaze and manipulates it to present a vivid subversive image. Each of the photos speaks differently about Joyce. Some speak of her ingénue-beauty, others her harridan-wisdom. Some look like an example of a specific era, others are timeless. At one art showing in Oakland, Joyce stood behind two men commenting on the photos. Joyce egged on their comments as they disputed whether the images were all of the same woman. As the men walked away, they still had no idea the photos were indeed all the same woman and that Joyce herself was the photo subject. Joyce says, “They were convinced that only two photos were the same woman and that the other ten photos were different women.” These sorts of contradictions, as Renegar and Sowards explain, “emerge when individuals actively participate in how they present and represent themselves.”58 However, this emergence is not accidental when it is sourced from feminist intent. For example, in intentionally creating her own obituary process of twelve faces, Joyce's photos confront the gaze as it looks for one true Joyce. Out of the confusion over authenticity comes a binary terror—can the Joyce standing next to Twelve Obituary Photograph Options be the same Joyce(s) embodied in the obituary photos?

As death is a time for reflection of one's own mortality, the obituary photos gaze back at the viewer. This reflexive sighting positions the obituary photos in a way that ricochets the gaze onto the viewer. The gaze is forced to be re-appropriated to language created in and by Joyce's action. This language is that of the viewers. Joyce's art nods to the co-constructed nature of identity by involving the audience in the process of creating meaning. Hence, the confrontation of the gaze reflexively affects the exchange of gazes to expose the silence of the social construction and performance of gender. Schneider exemplifies this exchange by describing the ricochet: “A woman viewing the woman's face hit by the gaze is hit in return by the manifestation of her own mimetic representation.”59 The exchange is doubled by the context of the obituary, which inherently teases out a reflexive moment in the reader. This exchange, when seen as a hit, becomes a violent ricochet of Joyce's performance of the binary terror and reflection of the gaze. Her action removes her body—and thereby theory of the flesh—from the blind spot by defying the gaze's authority to name. Joyce manipulates the gaze and comments through embodied text on the performativity of these feminine restraints because she chose the photos that convey her commodification and thereby her femininity.

Effectively, Joyce's art piece empties the made-for-consumption trope of gender that had been historically produced for her image through the site of her body. Joyce's iteration and reiterations of her own commodification are always already linked to the historical discourse of its context. That historical discourse holds one true image for one true narrative of the feminine body. Read with a third wave feminist inflection, we understand Joyce to multiply herself out visually. A range of Joyces is presented and, perhaps, none of them look like the woman to be in the coffin or standing by the photos. Joyce uses this fractured definition of herself and the ritual of obituary to expose numerous gendered embodiments. By authoring and admitting to these multiplicities, she recaptures agency and therefore disrupts the unifying quality of the patriarchal masculine gaze's power.


Joyce insists that, despite all her accomplishments, her “primary role has always been as a teacher.”60 In Honoring Death, Joyce provides a lesson of her life as a feminist. Lillian Faderman characterizes Joyce's pedagogical tenor when she notes, “Joyce believed that what she could do best for her feminist art students was to make sure they had certain skills that were indispensible if they wished to find their place as artists.”61 Like her classrooms, within her artwork Joyce offers lessons for indispensible skills. Observing her art provides a telling that is both formally and informally theoretical and both formally and informally practical. Through a feminist oral history that is a performance studies analysis of Joyce's art, we are able to discern ways to embrace binary terrors that disrupt patriarchal symbolic orders. We offer Joyce's oral history to contribute to feminist scholarship that makes “a promise to ourselves to remember, to name, and to claim.”62 Via the embodied, the written, and the visual, Joyce has taught the importance of feminist art and a feminist life.

The knowledges that are generated by women through their bodies become specialized against generalized androcentric knowledge.63 Madison asserts that our job as critical scholars is to immerse ourselves in the symbolic and material systems of culture in order to understand and critique power by “nam[ing] and analyz[ing] what is intuitively felt.”64 Scholars can relate these told experiences to contexts beyond the specialized so as to make these knowledges available to a wider audience. In relation to our own oral history project about Joyce, Madison inspires us to continue the reciprocal idea of sharing these knowledges through an epistemological approach that is knowledge-making and theory-generating so that we might encourage a space for someone like Joyce to have her critical voice heard, compared and even disputed.65 

Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai call for the gathering and transcribing of women's words with techniques that first acknowledge the blind spots of history that often have silenced women of the past. They describe the process of interviewing a woman whose story is ironically new, though it exists in the past.66 Joyce's oral history is one form for recovering more stories about women from the past, who teach us to blur the lines of feminist past, present, and future to draw a feminist aesthetic of now. As second wave feminism moved to third wave feminism, the lessons learned needed to be passed on. This research essay is one effort to capture those lessons, to learn them within our own contemporary context, and perhaps to offer them to the next wave and to those thereafter.

Joyce's mosaic tile benches. Photograph by Roe Borunda (Roetography).

Joyce's mosaic tile benches. Photograph by Roe Borunda (Roetography).

On a parched spring day in Fresno, Jennifer and Shane finish interviewing Joyce and move toward closure on what has become an intimate project. Walking down the six-block pedestrian Fulton Mall, an area of local controversy and public art, Joyce explains the fifty-year history and the designed beauty of the space. Jennifer runs her hands over mosaic tile benches that line the walk as Joyce docents the art they are seeing. Joyce created and installed these multicolored bench art sculptures with an artist friend of hers, Jean Ray Laury. Each bench is colorfully different from the next, virtually untouched by vandalism or graffiti after five decades. The city government is planning to strip out the art and bulldoze the walkway. City officials have voted to convert the walk-friendly Fulton Mall into a car-friendly Fulton Street; they believe this action will help revitalize and re-energize Fresno's drab and desolate downtown. This action is yet another reminder that, like art, all things are ephemeral.

A trio of Latina women are chatting in Spanish on one of the benches as Joyce, Jennifer, and Shane pass. Jennifer tells Joyce that she wants to inform the women that Joyce made the seats on which they are sitting. Joyce blushes a bit and flashes her eyes at Jennifer, letting her know that she better not dare do that. That is not the kind of attention Joyce generally likes. Shane asks Joyce if she is absolutely sure that she has finished with the Honoring Death series. She nods before she verbally confirms, “I think so. As death gets closer, I am less and less interested in chronicling it.” She laughs at the irony, as do Jennifer and Shane. They follow Joyce to her parked car—laughter and stories are now past. Jennifer notices that she might have given Joyce too many hugs today, as upon the last one Joyce politely pulls back. Both Jennifer and Shane stand watching the road as Joyce drives away.


Joyce Aiken, The Coffin, 1972, sculpture, artist's private collection; Honoring Death: An Artist's Last Performance, 2001–2012, art exhibition, artist's private collection.
We will be referring to Joyce Aiken as Joyce (instead of Aiken) throughout the rest of the essay. To call her Aiken textually distances our writing from her. Since surnames are traditionally used to trace patriliniage, we have decided to forego the use of Joyce's last name. Calling her Joyce is a feminist-inspired stylistic decision that aims to include her as an active participant in this history instead of a removed subject of analysis.
Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, eds., The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History, and Impact (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994).
Ibid., 21.
Established in 1911 as Fresno Normal School, the name of California State University, Fresno has changed over the years. For example, at the inception of the US Feminist Art Movement, the university was called Fresno State College. Today, the university is informally and popularly referred to as Fresno State. Throughout this essay we will refer to the university as Fresno State.
For example, one key moment in her activist feminist history was the creation of the Coalition of Women's Arts Organizations, a lobby advocating the interests of US women artists, the first woman-focused lobby in our nation's history. Started by Joyce along with her friend Ellouise Schoettler, the lobby's most notable achievement was to convince US Congress, during the Jimmy Carter administration, to implement gender-blind review of art-focused grant proposals submitted to the National Endowment for the Arts. Joyce explains, “Under the new rules judges were no longer permitted to know the name and thus the probable gender of the applying artist.” In humble tones, Joyce comments on her national achievements, “We were just trying to get some laws changed.”
Joyce Aiken, “Foreword.” in A Studio of Their Own: The Legacy of the Fresno Feminist Experiment, ed. Laura Meyer (Fresno: Press at California State University, 2009), vi.
Charlotte Kroløkke and Anne Scott Sørensen, Gender Communication Theories & Analyses: From Silence to Performance (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006).
Valerie R. Renegar and Stacey K. Sowards, “Contradiction as Agency: Self-Determination, Transcendence, and Counter-Imagination in Third Wave Feminism,” Hypatia 24, no. 2 (2009): 2.
See Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai, eds., Women's Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History (New York: Routledge, 1991); Susan N. G. Geiger, “Women's Life Histories: Method and Content,” Signs 11, no. 2 (1986): 334–51.
Della Pollock, “Memory, Remembering, and Histories of Change: A Performance Praxis,” in The Sage Handbook of Performance Studies, ed. D. Soyini Madison and Judith Hamera (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006), 88.
Sally Alexander, “‘Do Grandmas Have Husbands?’: Generational Memory and Twentieth-Century Women's Lives,” Oral History Review 36, no. 2 (2009): 160
Elizabeth Bell, “Operationalizing Feminism: Two Challenges for Feminist Research,” Women & Language 33, no. 1 (2010): 97–102.
Stacey K. Sowards and Valerie R. Renegar, “The Rhetorical Functions of Consciousness-Raising in Third Wave Feminism,” Communication Studies 55, no. 4 (2004): 535.
Mary Catherine Bateson, Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way (New York: HarperCollins, 1994).
Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds., This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, 3rd ed. (Berkeley, CA: Third Woman Press, 2002).
bell hooks and Amalia Mesa-Bains, Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism (Boston: South End Press, 2006).
Stacey Sowards, “Rhetorical Agency as Haciendo Caras and Differential Consciousness through Lens of Gender, Race, Ethnicity, and Class: An Examination of Dolores Huerta's Rhetoric,” Communication Theory 20, no. 2 (2010): 223–47.
Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 4th ed. (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2012).
See Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010); Renegar and Sowards, “Contradiction as Agency.”
Geiger, “Women's Life Histories.”
Kim Golombisky, “Gendering the Interview: Feminist Reflections on Gender as Performance in Research,” Women's Studies in Communication 29, no. 2 (2006): 188.
Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, “Inventing Women: From Amaterasu to Virginia Woolf,” Women's Studies in Communication 21, no. 2 (1998): 112–26.
Geiger, “Women's Life Histories.”
Moraga and Anzaldúa, This Bridge Called My Back.
D. Soyini Madison, “‘That Was My Occupation’: Oral Narrative, Performance, and Black Feminist Thought,” Text and Performance Quarterly 13, no. 3 (1993): 215.
Geiger, “Women's Life Histories,” 335.
Elizabeth Bell, “Performance Studies as Women's Work: Historical Sights/Sites/Citations from the Margin,” Text and Performance Quarterly 13, no. 4 (1993): 363.
Rebecca Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance (New York: Routledge, 1997).
Renegar and Sowards, “Contradiction as Agency,” 6.
Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance.
Elizabeth Bell and Kim Golombisky, “Voices and Silences in Our Classrooms: Strategies for Mapping Trails Among Sex/Gender, Race and Class,” Women's Studies in Communication 27, no. 3 (2004): 294–29.
Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance, 2.
M. Heather Carver, “Staging the Self: Feminist Performance Art and Autobiographical Performance,” Text and Performance Quarterly 18, no. 4 (1998): 397.
Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance, 51.
Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance.
Sonja K. Foss “Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party: Empowerment of Women's Voice in Visual Art,” in Women Communicating: Studies of Women's Talk, ed. Barbara Bate and Anita Taylor (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1988), 9–26.
Kay Turner, Beautiful Necessity: The Art of Meaning and Women's Altars (London: Thames & Hudson, 1999), 73.
Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Norton, 1997), 461.
Kroløkke and Sørensen, Gender Communication Theories & Analyses, 73.
Ibid., 69.
Renegar and Sowards, “Contradiction as Agency,” 9.
Joyce Aiken, Love Letters and Tears, 2000, mixed media, artist's private collection; What They Want, 2001, mixed media, artist's private collection; Reliquary Bags, 2001, mixed media, artist's private collection; Reliquary for Howard, 2001, mixed media, artist's private collection; Memento, 2001, mixed media, artist's private collection.
Linda M. Park-Fuller, “Performing Absence: The Staged Personal Narrative as Testimony,” Text and Performance Quarterly 20, no. 1 (2000): 26.
Diane M. Blair, “‘I Want You to Write Me’: Eleanor Roosevelt's Use of Personal Letters as a Rhetorical Resource,” Western Journal of Communication 72, no. 4 (2008): 427.
See Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1929); Blair, “‘I Want You to Write Me’”; Stacey Sowards, “Rhetorical Functions of Letter Writing: Dialogic Collaboration, Affirmation, and Catharsis in Dolores Huerta's Letters,” Communication Quarterly 60, no. 2 (2012): 295–315; Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, 2nd ed. (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2007); Moraga and Anzaldúa, This Bridge Called My Back, 165, respectively.
Foss, “Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party,” 23.
Alexandra Álvarez, Susan Hoyle, and María Josefina Valeri, “Voices in a Love Story: Mérida Letters from the Eighteenth Century,” Text & Talk 30, no. 4 (2010): 359.
Sowards, “Rhetorical Agency as Haciendo Caras.”
Elizabeth Bell, “Toward a Pleasure-Centered Economy: Wondering a Feminist Aesthetics of Performance,” Text and Performance Quarterly 15, no. 2 (1995): 108.
Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance, 85.
Foss, “Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party,” 19.
Turner, Beautiful Necessity, 98.
Álvarez, Hoyle, and Valeri, “Voices in a Love Story,” 359.
Renegar and Sowards, “Contradiction as Agency,” 14.
Joyce Aiken, Twelve Obituary Photograph Options, 2001, mixed media, artist's private collection.
Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance, 42.
Renegar and Sowards, “Contradiction as Agency,” 11.
Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance, 91.
Laura Meyer, ed., A Studio of Their Own: The Legacy of the Fresno Feminist Experiment (Fresno: Press at California State University, 2009), 18.
Lillian Faderman, “Joyce Aiken: Thirty Years of Feminist Art and Pedagogical Fresno,” in Entering the Picture: Judy Chicago, the Fresno Feminist Art Program, and the Collective Visions of Women Artists, ed. Jill Fields (New York: Routledge, 2012), 151.
Bell, “Operationalizing Feminism,” 101.
Geiger, “Women's Life Histories,” 338.
D. Soyini Madision, ed., “Introduction to Critical Ethnography,” in Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2012), 15.
Ibid., 36.
Gluck and Patai, Women's Words.