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I have a compulsion to save ephemera that compromises my ability to participate in minimalist trends. Ticket stubs, event flyers, blown-out birthday candles, particularly charming glass receptacles from long-finished sparkling beverages—none meant to be saved past their tiny window of intended purpose. Even if I only acknowledge it subconsciously, my decision to dub certain objects as mementos gives me a sense of agency over my story, like the way we write in a diary with a performative air, knowing it may eventually be read by others. Will my carefully selected trinkets—the private archive of dusty junk I hold deeply—reveal my legacy? This is precisely what ends up being the case for many women whose histories are often comprised of archival materials they’ve curated for themselves, honoring themselves and their life’s work, society having long-prioritized eulogizing patriarchal accomplishments. These loose archives—the soft evidence of self-worth and care—are beautiful and instructive, but do not carry with them the forcefulness of the large, dimensional, officially recognized monuments that take up civic space.
What becomes historicized and the ways in which we archive legacies of the past can shape a powerful narrative for future generations, yet many of our systems for collective archiving largely omit the histories and stories of women and racial minorities, even as these groups comprise more than half of the global population. In Los Angeles, only 3% of the more than 1,100 Historic-Cultural Monuments (HCMs) were lived in or designed by women, according to the Los Angeles Conservancy.1 Only 10% of historically protected sites are associated with BIPOC, LGBTQ, and women combined.2 Los Angeles in particular has always taken pride in its subcultures and diverse inhabitants, yet many who have had power over the molding of its public memory weren’t actual proponents of diversity. Women’s roles in shaping Los Angeles’ history have been overlooked and undervalued. How do we preserve women’s legacies within the honored history of Los Angeles—in a way that extends beyond the relics of their interior lives—if their contributions are demolished into oblivion, while the shrines of men remain standing? There’s something grand in the way physical monuments take up space, and women’s histories haven’t benefitted enough from this imposing sense of forever.
One woman’s site that currently has a fighting chance at achieving the ever-coveted HCM status from the city of L.A. is the former art studio of Sister Corita Kent. A self-taught silkscreener, Kent (dubbed the “Pop Art Nun”) focused on mining for joy in the everyday by appropriating and combining the visual markers of her spirituality with the language of consumer culture. She was a working artist, in habit, reimagining Wonder Bread as the Eucharist.
Kent redefined what a religious life could be, maintaining pursuits as an artist, educator, and advocate for social justice. Throughout the height of her career in the 1960s, she used the Immaculate Heart College printmaking space, located at 5518 Franklin Avenue (now an unassuming dry cleaner), as her classroom and studio. During this time she also sought dispensation from her vows, pursuing life as a secular artist. It was at the Franklin Building that Kent made some of her most iconic serigraphs, cementing her place in the Pop Art movement and later leading to major commissions from the Boston Gas Company and the U.S. Postal Service. In their urgent call-to-action3 arguing for the approval of historic status, the Corita Art Center team describes the vast impact of the studio on the creative community. Over the years, Kent hosted leading artists, such as John Cage, Charles and Ray Eames, Buckminster Fuller, and Saul Bass, at the Immaculate Heart campus, and influenced an entire generation of young creators.
On December 17th, 2020, the L.A. Cultural Heritage Commission voted in favor of recommending historic designation for the center—a huge step in garnering historic status. The nomination was forwarded to the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee for review, and while there’s still plenty of bureaucracy that awaits, the granting of HCM status for this site would be momentous in this city’s progress toward memorializing the sacred spaces of its influential women. Kent was named Woman of the Year by the Los Angeles Times in 1966 and as Nellie Scott, director of the Corita Art Center, said in a recent interview with Los Angeles Magazine, “this building… could be L.A.’s opportunity to honor one of the more notable figures” whose work “contribute[s] to the identity of Los Angeles.”4 It would also be an opportunity to broaden the limited collective imagination of the city toward a fuller picture of what has happened, and thus, what could happen here.
Two men whose legacies have benefited greatly from HCM status in Los Angeles are architects Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright, their historically-designated structures scattered across the city like confetti. From the Neutra VDL Studio and Residences along the Silver Lake Reservoir to Wright’s Hollyhock House, located within Barnsdall Art Park on Hollywood Boulevard, their buildings are revered and regularly toured by the public. Meanwhile, even the women who have received recognition for their architectural contributions via HCM status do not find themselves prominently placed within the historical record of architecture in this city—a reflection of how primed we are to receive certain male mythologies; these self-framed narratives holding space long after their death.
Despite the achievements of female architects, most are left out of the canon. Helen Liu Fong was a meaningful figure in L.A.’s Googie movement; yet hers isn’t a household name. Fong’s Googie structures, which she described as a “Jetson kind of aesthetic”5 are all over Los Angeles, but few know of the Chinese-American architect responsible for them. Many of her buildings have made their way into Hollywood portrayals of the city—emblems of L.A.’s laid-back yet modern vibe. The iconic Pann’s Restaurant, which Fong designed, is a prominent setting on HBO’s Insecure. Fong also designed Johnie’s Coffee Shop Restaurant, which is featured in the Coen brothers’ cult classic The Big Lebowski (1998). Both protected from demolition, these buildings serve as iconic fixtures of L.A.’s pop culture, though the woman behind them has been eclipsed by the Hollywood narratives that have been ascribed to the landmarks over time. The Coen film also featured the Lautner House—a memorable inclusion that seemed to have increased the hype around architect John Lautner, whose fame came by way of proximity to his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright. Meanwhile, the Johnie’s Coffee Shop cameo didn’t do the same for Fong’s legacy, as is so often the case with female architects whose contributions are recognized while their names and stories remain obscure.
One exalted member included in the 3% of female spaces that have received HCM status is the Woman’s Building. Located at 1727 N. Spring Street in an industrial corridor on the northern edge of Chinatown, the building long housed the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW). When artist Judy Chicago, art historian Arlene Raven, and graphic designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville founded the FSW as the first independent school for women artists in 1973, it was more centrally located in the former Chouinard Art Institute on Grand View Street, just off of MacArthur Park. When the Chouinard building was sold in 1975, the group moved its operations to Spring Street. The FSW disbanded in 1981, though the Woman’s Building stayed in operation as a feminist hub before shuttering in 1991 due to financial struggles.
A 1914 Beaux Arts structure originally occupied by Standard Oil, the Woman’s Building was declared an HCM in 2018; a protected status that will allow it to live in perpetuity as a brick-and-mortar touchpoint for reflecting on a vital subculture of Los Angeles artists and feminists. Founded as an act of protest against the patriarchal nature of arts education in its 1970s and ’80s heyday, the building attracted a notable coterie of women and queer artists. It served as an experimental space where women from around the world could explore feminist theory, sexuality, gender dynamics, race, and class—a place where marginalized artists could thrive. “We soon came to realize that it was an opportunity to be empowered,” says artist Cheri Gaulke, once a regular at the Woman’s Building. It was a place “that we could learn skills that we’d never learned before and… we could just create our place in the world.”6
A present-day equivalent inspired by and working to preserve this ethos is the Feminist Center for Creative Work (FCCW)—formerly the Women’s Center for Creative Work—a network of Los Angeles-based intersectional feminists and artists who have been producing exhibitions, workshops, publications, and events since 2013. FCCW’s lease expired in March alongside the onset of the pandemic, and in part due to the experience of working from home, the group pivoted, expanding their online programming and production of ephemera (such as publishing projects). Whether or not they return to a physical space, it’s perhaps inevitable that the FCCW will preserve its legacy in part through the ephemera drummed up from its publishing vertical and digital collateral (not unlike Corita Kent’s papers and artwork, which will remain preserved in museums, archives, and collections regardless of what happens to her studio). Similarly, the ephemera of the Woman’s Building and its artists was protected long before the physical structure itself. Still, ephemera alone makes it difficult to be canonized in a city that so relies on glorified monuments (e.g. the Hollywood Sign, Griffith Observatory, The LAX Theme Building) to remember itself. Especially due to their proximity to Hollywood, these architectural icons are regurgitated in films and commercials, further reinforcing their lasting significance. Ephemera on its own isn’t enough to build a legacy, and neither is the act of leaving a building untouched without also acknowledging the significance of the woman who designed it. Without these public-facing markers, we must turn to the archive to find evidence of constructed futures that could have been.
When confederate monuments were forcibly taken down in the heat of last year’s summer of protests, we were made to acknowledge the impact that the physical structures had on the psyches of the Black individuals who had to walk past them every day. What would a future with more physical commemorations of women—ones that have a presence in civic spaces—look like? How might these physical markers permeate a greater historical consciousness of women’s history? What if we could collectively build from women’s ideas, instead of starting each generation anew? The archive is an essential tool, but the nature of the archive is that it must be sought after by an interested party. Public memorials, on the other hand, are integrated into every denizen’s physical experience of a city.
If Corita Kent’s studio can remain intact alongside her artwork—offering a rare pairing of both ephemera and architecture—it might allow for the memory of her life’s work to enter the public consciousness in a manner more firmly rooted within the fabric of Los Angeles culture. This is the very privilege that has kept the narratives of influential men, like Neutra and Lloyd Wright, relevant to new generations. While Kent’s potential historic status is a step forward, I can’t help but wonder what other significant female contributions have gone unrecognized or under-archived. Until public historic sites reflect the diversity of our populous, we are left to do the important work of upturning past histories to uncover notable women who have collected their own hidden archives of tchotchkes, letters, and artwork.
Neyat Yohannes is a writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Criterion’s The Current, Mubi Notebook, Bright Wall/Dark Room, KQED Arts, cléo journal, and Chicago Review of Books, among other publications. She sometimes tweets at @rhymeswithcat.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 24.