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The Los Angeles Woman's Building, 1980s: Hand Papermaking as Feminist Pedagogy

Winter 2018
Winter 2018
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Melissa Hilliard Potter has exhibited at venues including White Columns and Bronx Museum of the Arts, both in New York City, as well as in film festivals internation-ally. She is a three-time Fulbright recipient to Serbia and Bosnia and Hercegovina. Through these programs, she built two papermaking studios at university art de-partments. Potter has co-curated exhibitions including "Social Paper," the first to consider hand papermaking in a socially engaged art context, and "Among Tender Roots," the first retrospective of multi-media work by Mexican artist Laura Ander-son Barbata. Her critical essays have been printed in BOMB, Art Papers, Flash Art, Metropolis M, and Hand Papermaking magazine, among others. <p class="bio"> Sukey Hughes studied at Pomona College, UC Santa Barbara, and Antioch Uni-versity Santa Barbara. In 1970 she began a papermaking apprenticeship in Japan, traveling the country's paper villages, culminating in her book Washi: The World of Japanese Paper. From 1980 on, she taught paper workshops in California and New Mexico. She began making paper art in 1986, with garments that resemble ancient leather. She also apprenticed in Greek/Russian icon painting. Presently she works in collage, mixed media, and jewelry, paints figures in oil, and writes. <p class="bio"> Patricia Reis is a writer and author of Motherlines (a memoir), Women's Voices (with Nancy Cater), The Dreaming Way, Daughters of Saturn, and Through the Goddess; and the creator/producer of the DVD, Arctic Refuge Sutra. She has a BA from the University of Wisconsin in English literature, and an MFA from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in sculpture. In 1986, she earned an MA from the Pacifica Graduate Institute in depth psychology and has a private psychotherapy practice. Reis has held positions as faculty, lecturer, and dissertation advisor, and has mentored and facilitated many artists and writers in bringing their work to fruition. She divides her time between Portland, Maine, and Nova Scotia. In response to oppressively male-dominated higher education, the art-ist Judy Chicago, graphic designer Sheila de Brettville, and critic Arlene Raven founded the Los Angeles Woman's Building in 1973. The first art school specifically for women, more than 30 women artists and educa-tors from across the country left their institutions to join them to develop a new feminist-centered pedagogy.1 At the center of their mission were the graphic arts, letterpress, and artist books. These media offered self-publishing opportunities to women whose voices traditionally had been excluded, and the tools to create those narratives free of dependencies on other institutions. Over the next five decades, these same women went on to promote the book and paper arts nationally, establishing degree programs at places such as Mills College, and founding book centers such as Minneapolis Center for Book Arts.

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Though hand papermaking was offered as part of Woman's Building  Extension Program, its role and impact remain unrecorded. When I  was asked to contribute to this edition of Hand Papermaking, it  was imme-diately clear my only hope to construct this history  would be through per-sonal interviews. I was fortunate enough to  locate two extraordinary art-ists and papermakers for this  interview: Sukey Hughes and Patricia Reis, both of whom taught in  the Extension Program in the early 1980s. As we worked together to  record this history (as well as the lives of these two remarkable  practitioners), it became clear to me that this is an urgent task.  As many book and paper programs and institutions face closure, we  must work quickly to record their intellectual and artistic impact  that changed the art world. Though poorly historicized, the  Woman's Building graphic-arts agenda sought to distribute a new  history, and ultimately define a new canon with women at the  center. And while hand paper-making lives at the fringes of this  history, it is integral to this mission. As a process-based craft  whose revival has been secured by artists like Hughes and Reis,  paper represents not only the very surface on which these new  narratives depend, but also a medium that challenges the macho  heroics of the art world through its "tender, yet strong" nature,  as described in this interview. This history is overdue, and  through this interview, Sukey Hughes and Patricia Reis contribute  to a thoughtful dialogue on the cen-tral role of hand papermaking  in the feminist revolution. melissa hilliard potter (mhp): Before I begin the interview, I  wanted to let you know that this has been a challenging and  exciting as-signment, partly because there is literally nothing  written about hand papermaking at the Woman's Building except for  a brief men-tion online in Otis College of Art's timeline of the  Woman's Build-ing. We are constructing a narrative on a few  points: your recol-lections and work at the Woman's Building; your  influence on the  book and paper programs and community centers  founded by Woman's Building instructors; and also the history of  hand paper-making, which remains poorly integrated into mainstream  craft and fine-art discourse. You were both in Los Angeles during the '80s. It was an excit-ing  moment for women's empowerment, but it was also an exciting moment  in the history of that city. Can you tell me more about your  experiences and what you were exploring at the time? Patricia, do  you want to go first? patricia reis (pr): I started the MFA program at UCLA in 1978. Be- fore that, I was on the central coast of California, where I met  John Babcock, an amazing papermaker still working today. He was  living at the time in Santa Maria, close to where I was living. I  saw what he was doing with paper, and I was intrigued. I bought a  beater from him! I ordered linters from Twinrocker—they had just  started, and were making papers mostly for printmakers.  Papermaking as far as I understood was really to prepare a ground  for printmaking. I wasn't a printmaker, but oh my god, I loved  paper! I liked the fibers, and Twinrocker offered materials to  make your own paper.  I lived on Venice Beach. Judy Chicago had her studio in Santa  Monica, and was working on The Dinner Party. I never volunteered  to work in her studio, because I had a lot going on in my MFA pro- gram, but there were lots of things happening during that time:  women's bookstores, for instance—my friend started Sisterhood  bookstore, a landmark. Institutions in general were really  conserva-tive, and male dominated, interested in product, and even  though Judy Chicago graduated from UCLA, her name was never men- tioned (laughs). I was doing work at that time making body casts with handmade  paper. This was before people were doing that a lot. So I was  work-ing with my body, and Judy Chicago published her book Through  the Flower about her experience at UCLA. She was persona non  grata, not someone they were proud of. She wasn't a dutiful  daughter! mhp: Did you both see that she was just named one of the most in- fluential people in Time magazine's 100 List this year? Things  have turned around big time. Sukey, I want to talk about your work at the Zen Center in LA.  sukey hughes (sh): I was going back and forth to Japan over a  five-year period of living there and trying to figure out how to  bring pa-permaking back. There were all kinds of problems! I was  experi-menting—in my parents' home, trying to work with elm bark.  I was a student at the Zen Center of Los Angeles in 1980–81. In  fact, I was doing an intensive study, which was extreme and  fantastic. We were meditating six to eight hours a day, and on  retreats, more. The Zen Center asked if I would do a workshop, and  later the Woman's Building asked me to teach.  Western and Eastern papermaking are very different. Patricia took  the Western path, I took the Eastern. In my early workshops, I was  fumbling around. I had to devise ways to make small moulds that  had foldable (or flexible) screens. Nothing was available in the  States. And I came upon sushi rolling mats! Some of my students  were the ones who came up with the best ideas that are still being  used: one was familiar with the material Pellon, which could be  put on top of the sushi roll to smooth out hills and valleys. Another student of mine early on tried to figure out a mucilage  substitute. She was a cook, so she said, "Let's try okra!" It  turns out it's related to hollyhock root, which is used in Japan.  I taught all up and down California mostly. My students also  became teachers, and it tickles me pink to see all these paper  classes on Instagram! mhp: Sukey, your work in Japan was a pioneering revival in the US  work-shop movement for Japanese papermaking. This is a perfect  segue into the next question: I would love to hear how you were  invited to the Woman's Building, and why you think they were  interested in hand papermaking as a course topic? sh: I don't remember how it came about; word was spreading about  my workshops. I think I was contacted by Susan King, who is a  fantastic de-signer. It was only a weekend workshop, and was a  long time ago. I don't remember too many details, but I do  remember there were some extreme-ly dedicated young women. Some of  them used paper for printmaking… paper was a ground, but they  wanted a good ground. pr: I think Susan King invited me, too! I don't know how we met  exactly, but Woman's Building had a lot of events. I taught there  for a whole year on and off. The reason it was so important to me  is because those were the years I was at UCLA. I can't emphasize  enough how different those two places were! Even though I was only  40, I was thought to be a menopaus-al woman working with my body.  I even had a professor threaten to take away my teaching  assistantship, which I was living on, because I wouldn't bend to  what he wanted me to do for my work! But then the invite for the  Woman's Building came, and I was paid for that, so I knew I would  be okay. mhp: From my research on the Extension Program and the Graphic  Center, it looked to me like Woman's Building emphasized craft in  their new femi-nist pedagogy. Do you have any more thoughts on  "why paper?" sh: I have a thought: papermaking is a craft. In Japan, it is  almost all domi-nated by women. Some men make wonderful artistic  things with paper, and they get a lot of credit, but the craft is  non-threatening. If the Woman's Building went about it this way,  it was very clever. I don't know if they did it intentionally, but  everything was male-dominated, so craft was another approach to  art. pr: I agree with Sukey. There was also a great renaissance of  craft media at that time, in California and in general. Women's  traditional craft was big—I'm thinking of Neda Al-Hilali, who made  macramé sculpture, and Mag-dalena Abakanowicz—they were both fiber  artists. Paper falls into these technologies as a fiber, which was  elevated into an art form, into sculpture. That was a big movement  in that direction fueled and energized by women. sh: Men were less threatened by that. When Patricia mentioned the  revival of craft, they were blossoming in Japan! My teacher who  was in his seven-ties knew craftsmen who were National Treasures  who revived the folk-art movement from the 1920s in Japan. I think  of Martha Longenecker, founder of the Mingei Museum (Mingei means  folk art in Japanese), who promoted a lot of the history of crafts  in Japan. pr: I think also there was tension. Is this craft, art? Can it be  shown in mu-seums, or is it a feminized art, and lesser than? mhp: I am fascinated with this idea that there was a parallel  internationally between the crafts revival in the US and in Japan  with women propelling both movements.  sh: There were famous National Treasure printmakers who would go  di-rectly to the papermaker to make paper to their specifications.  Paper was essential to the art. pr: Twinrocker originally started making paper for printmaking,  but then they realized there were people whose art was  papermaking, so they then supplied us with fiber, to put in the  beater along with rose petals and twigs! I ended up making plaster  casts of my body, then rubber moulds from which I cast paper. I  could get dimensionality.  mhp: Do you think there is a relationship between papermaking and  wom-en, or papermaking and women's empowerment? As an artist I  have al-ways wondered if there is something about the process that  is inherently anti-hierarchical, and attracts women. pr: When I was making paper at UCLA I also worked in the ceramics  stu-dio, which was alongside glass. The atmosphere was very macho.  Paper is in some sense fragile. I like that it is light, not like  raku clay in my body casts, which was cumbersome! Paper is  beautiful, tender, and lends itself to more subtle work. It also  has a certain strength—by the time you beat the fibers and they  meld together into pulp and dries, it's hard, but still fragile. sh: I love what Patricia said: paper is tender. When I first saw  papermaking, it was on TV in Japan. I was really struck as it  combined muscular, hard labor—wading into the river to walk on the  fiber, hand beating—that is what I always did—and then the end  result was delicate. It was much more artful. The woman's touch,  and sense of delicacy could come into shape then. We were talking  about fibers being the domain of women histori-cally. Patricia, it  sounds like the men you went to school with were deeply  threatened. There is a wonderful book called Knowing Woman: a  Feminine Psychology by the author Irene Claremont, and I never  forget she wrote in there, to this effect: Men want women to be  creative, because that makes them interesting. But they don't want  them to create, because that would be competition. pr: There definitely was that back in the day! I'm not sure how it  is today with the renewed interest in Judy Chicago's The Dinner  Party, the intense embroideries and those ceramics for plates. sh: Again, a woman's domain. mhp: I can say for sure the prejudices in academia against craft  and female labor are still very real, and particularly as they  relate to collaboration. I love what you both said: the  combination of the fragile medium of paper that requires intense  physical labor. I often joke with my print colleagues that they  should spend a day with me in the paper studio to see what hard  labor is really like! sh: When I was making paper in Japan, it was winter and we had to  keep the material alive. When I would come to my teacher's house,  there would often be a sheet of ice over the vat. I plunged my  hands into that vat. His daughter—my age—would not do that! They  would bring out a boiling ba-sin of water I would dip my hands  into to warm up. The thought I have is this: I think I have a prejudice to-wards  big institutions and schools. They tend to be intellectu-ally  dominated and the working conditions are often sterile. I was  brought up in Japan where there was wood everywhere, and plants.  And there is something about the male mentality that is unable to  get into things that have heart, or are tender. Women are always  in danger of being put down for bringing humanity, warmth, and  tenderness to what we do, and we get marginalized for it. I think  I am more of a feminist than I thought! mhp: Sukey, I love to hear that! pr: Paper is alive. There was so much plastic at UCLA. Paper is  from a living source. mhp: What do you think the Woman's Building accom-plished? pr: It was very empowering. The Woman's Building created a  sanctuary and refuge, a safe space. You were not going to be  dissed or humiliated. Your efforts were honored. And I give credit  to Arlene Raven, Sheila de Brettville, and Judy Chi-cago. They cut  the swath and made this possible. To have a space that was safe to  explore and share work was invaluable. sh: I love to hear that; I didn't know the building as well, but I  kind of remember this was a time when women were very wounded. I  was wounded. At the Zen Center, we were trying so hard to achieve  our highest selves. I think of Ruth Bader Ginsburg who quoted  nineteenth-century feminist Sarah Grimke: "—I ask no favors for my  sex, all I ask of my broth-ers is they take their feet from off  our necks!"3 pr: The Woman's Building, its place in history and what it of- fered in each of our lives…you never know the context for it until  you get some distance. So, thinking of this in the past, as a  small piece of my life, I think: how great, how really for-tunate,  to have had that experience. mhp: What a beautiful way to end. I want to hear what both of you  are doing now. sh: I am doing a lot of art, all different kinds: figurative, oil  painting—I'm on Instagram under @hughessukey! I am doing collage.  I still have a stash of papers I've made, and I'm making jewelry  to make money. Also, I am revising a  historical novel. I believe  I lived the life described which takes place about 1748 in Dutch  South Africa. There were as many slaves as European whites. It's  about a nursemaid who falls in love with a black slave. He is  involved in the abolition movement. There is some violence in the  end. I find as I revise that book, I have a lot of feminist  thoughts. The nurse-maid was a slave, too. pr: I finished another revision of my novel. It's a fictional  story of my ancestors who ran a farm in Iowa. After the Woman's  Building and UCLA, I spent my divorce settlement on my education  and went to Pacifica Graduate Institute so I could make money.  Then I moved to Maine, and work now as a psychotherapist. All the  time I was at UCLA writing was such a huge call for me. I didn't  know what I had to say, I didn't know where my voice was—that  usual thing women struggle with. Writing has been my main thing  now. I have made handmade-paper books, my art is not encumbered  with money, never was! sh: Your memoir Motherlines is stunning! mhp: Sukey, you may have seen in an email Patricia did the  illustrations for UCLA anthropologist Marija Gimbutas's book, The  Language of the Goddess. That book has been on my shelf since age  eighteen, and I used to make paper works about the goddess from  that book! sh: I have also done an artist book on the goddess using my  linocut prints! It is in a box in my studio somewhere, I did show  it in Durango. It's old, I have to make another one! It's  interesting we've all made goddess books. mhp: So many connections. I thank you both for being a part of  this important history project, and for your dedication to  feminist education through papermaking. ___________  notes 1. Woman's Building, directed by Susan Mogul (Los Angeles:  Otis College of Art and Design, 2010), video commissioned for the  exhibition, "Doin' It in Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman's  Building (1973–1991)," October 1–December 3, 2011, Ben Maltz  Gallery, Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles; https:// (accessed on July 11, 2018). 2. Kathleen Walkup, "Books in a New Language," in Doin' it in  Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman's Building: A Guide to the  Exhibition, ed. Meg Linton, Sue Maberry, and Elizabeth Pulsinelli  (Los Angeles: Otis College of Art and Design, 2012), 295–6. 3. Larry Ceplair, ed., The Public Years of Sarah and Angelina  Grimké: Selected Writings, 1835–1839 (New York: Columbia  University Press, 1989), 208.