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Seeds InService: Germinating the Feminist Roots of Hand Papermaking in Chicago

Winter 2018
Winter 2018
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Neysa Page-Lieberman is a contemporary art curator, lecturer, writer, and educator with a focus on feminism, African diaspora, social practice, and public art. She is executive director of the Department of Exhibitions and Performance at Columbia College Chicago and chief curator of the Wabash Arts Corridor. She has lectured at the Art Institute of Chicago, and produced over 200 exhibitions, recently "Revolu-tion at Point Zero: Feminist Social Practice and Street Level," a street art festival featuring murals, projections, installations, and performance. She holds a masters in art history from Indiana University specializing in contemporary African diaspo-ra. Page-Lieberman co-authored "Feminist Social Practice Manifesto," published in ASAP/Journal and is working on a public art commission in Philadelphia in collabo-ration with The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and a series of international mural exchanges with Sister Cities International, most recently in Casablanca, Morocco. Artists Melissa Hilliard Potter and Maggie Puckett formed Seeds InSer-vice: A Papermaking Institute (SIS) in 2013 to support and connect radical, global, feminist practices and to prevent the erasure of the legacies of the women who preceded them. An ecofeminist, socially engaged art practice, SIS addresses heirloom-seed management, thematic gardening, and hand-papermaking arts activism. Potter and Puckett aim to reveal the oppres-sions of women and nature under patriarchal capitalism prevalent across the globe, as well as the ever-strengthening movement of resistance. Their collaborative, public works include Food, Sex and Death, a multi-course meal on the site where the meal and art were harvested, and centered on the theme of local histories of sexual violence and survival; Las Mujeres Za-patistas: Seeds of Resistance, a garden growing Mayan maize and dedicated to Zapatista women of Chiapas, Mexico; and their current Lucy Flower Self-Reliance Garden.1 In all of their work with SIS, Potter and Puckett focus on propagating rare seeds to make and utilize paper which reveals untold narratives of women's labor and histories.

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Melissa Hilliard Potter, a multi-media feminist artist, writer,  curator, and associate professor at Columbia College Chicago, and  Maggie Puckett, an ecofeminist, socially engaged artist working at  the intersection of art, craft, science, and activism met when  Puckett was a student of Potter's at the Center for Book and Paper  Arts (CBPA) at Columbia College. CBPA was founded in 1994 by  Marilyn Sward and Barbara Lazarus Metz, to support the hand paper- making and book arts community of Chicago.2 The Center became a  world-renowned papermaking and bookbinding program in the historic  Ludington Building on Columbia's campus in the South Loop  neighborhood. The formation of SIS was in part to amplify Sward's  legacy and prevent the erasure of her feminist advocacy for book  and paper arts. SIS's first project coincided with the development  of the Pa-permaker's Garden (PMG), a former campus-based public  art garden, founded by students and faculty of the CBPA. The PMG  was instrumental in the launch of Columbia's Wa-bash Arts  Corridor, a public-art project that has since become recognized  internationally as a hotbed of street art, perfor-mance, and  installation. At the PMG, SIS took curatorial and production  ownership during a four-year residency, inviting guest artists,  curators, and growers to plant beds each sea-son. In the heart of  the ever-expanding arts corridor, SIS's very public presence as  the first interdisciplinary papermak-ing garden of its kind,  sustained the art community. When PMG was razed in 2017 for Columbia's new stu-dent center,  Potter and Puckett imagined an expanded prac-tice and envisioned a  new model to transform and transplant work from one permanent site  to multiple sites. The first host site is Compound Yellow (CY),  founded by Laura Schaf-fer, about eight miles west of the South  Loop in Oak Park, in former The Suburban, run by Michelle Grabner,  the influen-tial artist, curator, and educator. The move was  inspired by several, interwoven factors. As Puckett and Potter  investigat-ed how papermaking gardens figure into an artistic,  activist practice, they were drawn to the mission of the Self- Reliance School (SRS), a collaboration led by Temporary Services  and based at CY.3 Potter, Puckett, and Schaffer recognized the  natural synergy between SRS's goals and SIS's pedagogical and  artistic experiments to solve problems in creative disci-plines.  They also sought to draw from Potter's fifteen years of experience  in Serbia and Bosnia, working in collaboration with ethnobotanists  Vlada and Branca Stevanovic and graph´ -ic artist Biljana V ´ukovic,  to develop hand-papermaking stu-dios at the University of  Belgrade and the Academy of Fine  Arts, Sarajevo.4 The resulting current exhibition at Compound Yellow, titled Lucy  Flower Self-Reliance Garden, pays tribute to its namesake Lucy Flower (1837–1921), the education reformer and children's rights activist who founded Chicago's first open-enrollment school for girls.5 The garden explores femi-nist theories of women's labor, women's empowerment, and self-reliance towards a more sustainable system. Featuring easy-to-grow foods like lettuces and herbs, medicinal plants such as calendula and clary sage, and plants for pleasure like wormwood, the garden is as much about training visitors to grow what they need to thrive as it is a radical site of experi-mentation for Potter and Puckett to expand and adapt to new growing spaces and environments. A highlight of their ex-hibition is the release of the illuminated Feminist Seed Bank book, the first of its kind—part archive, part manifesto, part scholarly evaluation. With introductory essays by Claire Pen-tecost and Tricia Van Eck, the book is a comprehensive Seeds InService catalogue. Formatted as book art, the rich illustra-tions are created through painting, hand papermaking, and photography to explore socially engaged, hand craft in unpre-dictable landscapes and shifting cultures.  Alongside their work with Seeds InService, Potter and Puckett are individually in demand for pedagogical training and socially engaged garden consulting. Potter spent time at Haystack this summer, testing ethnobotanical applications of the garden-as-lab by sourcing local materials for handmade paper pulp to be used as artistic material. Through what Pot-ter has termed "feminist ethnobotany," she leads artists to explore plants for their edible, medicinal, and craft proper-ties. Results range from paper and dye samples, artist books, gardening, drawing, writing, and record-keeping. Puckett has been the long-standing artist-in-residence since 2015 at Altgeld Sawyer Corner Farm in Chicago, a community  garden dedicated to teaching, learning, and growing veg-etables for the local community whose access to nutrient-rich food is limited. The space also supports growing fibers and dyes for artmaking, and Puckett has experimented with and distributed rare and heirloom seeds related to women's health, conflict zones, and immigration. Potter and Puck-ett's independent projects mirror some of the same feminist themes and goals prevalent in their SIS work. They resist  the patriarchal system designed to divide and sustain inequi-ty and competition, and rather create opportunities to unite  individuals, cultures, and communities. The work cel-ebrates and enacts the feminist social-practice strategies of  honoring the collaborative process, drawing on empathy for empowerment, and enacting the radical artistic potential of feminist art.6 ___________  notes 1. "The Lucy Flower Self-Reliance Garden Launch," from the Compound Yellow website, (accessed June 28, 2018). 2. "Center for Book and Paper Arts, Visiting Artists Collection, 2005–2017" from the Explore Chicago Collections website, http://explore (accessed June 28, 2018). 3. Temporary Services, "Self-Reliance School" from the Temporary Services website, (accessed June 28, 2018). 4. BJ Allen, "Melissa Potter Returns from Expansive Fulbright Work In Sarajevo," from the Columbia College Chicago's Art and Art History News website, (accessed June 28, 2018). 5. Dora Wells, "The Lucy Flower Technical High School," The School Review, vol. 22, no. 9 (1914): 611–619. 6. Neysa Page-Lieberman and Melissa Hillard Potter, "Feminist Social Practice: A Manifesto," ASAP/Journal, The Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present, John Hopkins University Press, vol. 3.2 (2018), ed. Jonathan P. Eburne; 333–348.