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Sowing the Seeds of Revolution

A Conversation with MAKER Grant recipients, Melissa Potter and Maggie Puckett
In 2013, the Chicago Artists Coalition and OtherPeoplesPixels created the MAKER Grant, which provides two unrestricted cash awards given to Chicago-based contemporary visual artists who demonstrate a commitment to a sustainable artistic practice and career development. This year, Melissa Potter and Maggie Puckett of Seeds InService are the recipient of the $1,000 award.
 
Seeds InService is an ecofeminist art project that combines feminist and ecological concerns. Papermaking plants grow in gardens curated each year around specific ecological and feminist themes. Fibers grown from these plants become raw material for art works, collaborations, research and workshops. SIS collaborates with Chicago’s urban farms and cultural institutions, including UIC Heritage Garden, Altgeld Sawyer Corner Farm, {she crew}, Comfort Station, and Read/Write Library.
 
In this interview, Melissa and Maggie discuss their ongoing projects, the driving force behind their practice, and why collaboration is so vital.
 
What projects are you working on now?
 
Melissa: This year, we have ten beds in the Papermaker’s Garden, and Seeds InService will probably be managing six. We have Zapatista War Gardens, Bosnian Magic, Women’s Health, and Mushrooms Overall. It’ll be a great, but crazy summer for us.
 
 
Maggie: One of our garden’s this year is the Women’s Health Garden, which we’re trying to think of a new name for, maybe Post Roe v. Wade. These are plants that have been historically used for women’s health, not just for abortions but for regulating menses, increasing or decreasing milk flow, and they also have lots of different uses for flus and coughs. We put together a collection we can grow in Chicago, and some that are super fun, like Queen Anne’s Pocket Melon that Victorian women put in their pockets and used instead of deodorant. We also have Rue that burns when you touch; the oil gives you little stings.
 
One of the other beds is the Zapatista bed, and the Zapatistas are a group of indigenous people in Mexico who have an incredible organization that was traditionally more militaristic but now they have more nonviolent ways to have indigenous autonomy. They grow a lot of corn, and I was able to get some corn from them. We are going to grow these and in order to make sure that these seeds we saved from them are true to type, we have this way to isolate and manage their promiscuity because the way corn reproduces is by the wind and the pollen from the tassels could blow into the other corn. One way to do that is to put these bags over the tassels when they’re growing, and I thought this would be a good opportunity for artwork, so this is a stencil I did of a Zapatista girl.
 
Melissa: Maggie and I play around a lot with the metaphors that the papers make too. Plants have different reproduction strategies, which sometimes resemble human strategies, but other times are really bizarre. Corn has male and female parts, and with these, the silk actually goes down to the kernel, which is the ovary, and it’s the tassel that delivers the pollen. Maggie made these sheets called gender paper. A lot of our stuff ends up being other things; with this, I’m sure it’ll turn into something else.
 
There’s also this issue about seed diversity. Seeds are radical; they’re not cute, and they’re not toys. Seed experts call them babies in boxes with lunch. They have this whole really important life cycle, but they also carry all of this important conversation around diversity; they’re metaphoric for conversations around diversity and protection of things on the basis of something other than monetary value. I think something like the Zapatista garden really covers that territory.
 
Maggie: We have another thematic bed called War Gardens: Seeds of Displacement. We have seeds from Syria – a plant tomato from Syria and Iraq – and then we have some sorghum from South Sudan.
 
Melissa: I think there’s an interesting question about whether access to heirloom seeds is a right. The seeds are often food themselves, but they grow food as well. Preservation of specie diversification is extremely important environmentally and culturally. When you start talking about them culturally, you start to get into some interesting questions about what human rights are to land and food, and of course with the water wars.
 
Maggie and I workshop what we’re interested in. We look at the conversations we’re interested in having, where they overlap, and workshop that stuff together like in Food, Sex & Death, which is a series of work stemming from research on the history of the women who worked as sex workers in the location of the Papermaker's Garden at the turn of the 20th Century until the mid-80s. We threw this thematic party last year that investigated the local histories there, but also the ways in which they’re related to contemporary issues in agriculture. Rosario E. was a migrant worker who was one of the first to go on record to talk about the 80 percent sexual abuse in that’s taking place in agriculture. One of the overriding ethos of the project is ecofeminism; we’re also interested in looking at the ways location and the garden itself has a lot to say about industrial and nonindustrial societies.
 
In our application to CAC, Maggie came up with this slow art thing, and our process is ridiculously slow. To compare the nonindustrial with the industrial is an absurd story because after three months of work you can only get like seven pieces of paper. In that story is what the project really embodies, which is where are these places where we’re willing to explore and give up. What are we willing to change and how far are we willing to go? A lot of times our projects are different in their themes but they come back together with these overriding interests, ecofeminism, and alternatives to prevailing histories and ideas about how a society can be run.
 
How did this project begin?
 
 
Maggie: Maybe it was when we were collaborating in Caracas. Sheroanawë Hakihiiwë, a Venezuelan Yanomami community member, got to come to Chicago, and we got to go there. Mel and I got to do paper making outside and collaborate with these artists to make a book about the artwork, the Yanomami, and one of their creation myths.
 
Melissa: One of our graduate students founded the garden and pitched it to the school in an empty lot. We were talking about what we were going to do with these ten beds on this long car ride to see a show of a former graduate student, and by the time the ride ended, we decided on Seeds InService: A Papermaking Institute.
 
Maggie: It also aligned with our interests. Melissa recognized that as ecofeminist, she had more feminist and I had more eco.
 
Melissa: One of the things that bums me out in socially engaged art today is that everyone talks a good game about collaboration, but very few people are willing to provide the space that creates equal partnership. This is where the magic happens, when two people can provide the space to give air to their own interests and put in enough elbow grease to make two peoples’ work ten peoples’ work.
 
You mentioned that the work delivers a small output after a large input. Can you explain why this work is so important?
 
Maggie: A lot of it is about knowing where our art materials come from. When we buy linters to make paper from, you don’t know where the cotton came from. Ninety-eight percent of the cotton in this country is full of pesticides. If you’re going to be around that all the time, getting dirty and in the muck of all this papermaking, you want to make sure it’s not toxic. Knowing where it comes from, knowing whose labor it was, knowing if it was grown organically and really knowing where your art materials come from is important. A lot of these topics are so naturally connected to growing.
 
Melissa: I think that’s really the role of art to ask questions. I realized if I could learn something through my process that’s when I feel like you transform from being an artist to someone who’s really interacting with the world and trying to make change or have a conversation. This project has been explosive in that regard.  Seeds are little revolutions; it’s serious. A lot of the papermaking revolution has been sweet, but there’s nothing sweet about this. This is really important stuff of where we’re going as a society.
 
One of the things the project also embodies is the legacy of Marilyn Sward who founded this place. Chicago actually has a distinguished and interesting history of hand papermaking that dips into micro industry and socially engaged art before it was codified as an idea. WomanCraft is a very important project run out of the Heritage Alliance where they were having low income and homeless women making paper and trying to create businesses. Marilyn Sward came from that legacy, and she founded Paper Press, which became Columbia College’s Center for Book and Paper. There’s also in the same way that we’re farming these untold histories and these ideas that maybe counteract some of the social erasures of all different types of people in different societies.
 
 
Maggie: It does take a lot of time, but it’s much more meaningful and sustainable in the end.
 
Melissa: Our primary interest isn’t in the distribution of art materials. This project really follows more in what we’d describe as the research-based socially engaged art movement, which means we’re really dependent on places like CAC to provide us visibility and outlets because it’s not every day that this stuff would be included in a show.
 
How will the MAKER Grant affect or influence your artwork?
 
Melissa:The MAKER Grant is really about being invited to the Chicago community. We of course have supporters but now more people know about us than ever before, and that’s invaluable because that’s where the conversation will begin.
 
One of the ideas Maggie and I had was that we really want to make a catalogue; we’ve talked about making a POD publication that could be distributed, and so we can really put our materials into more peoples’ hands, which is also a place we can see really using this grant.
 
What advice would you give to an artist who wants to apply for grants but doesn’t know where to start?
 
Maggie: Do a lot of writing, that helps.
 
Melissa: I think it’s really important to be responsive to your environment. Maggie and I have been finalists for a lot of grants, and we did something this time, which was to make it less about enormous issues but to tell a story about a local history that’s pertinent. One of the big decisions we made during this grant application was to really talk about the details of Marilyn Sward and the Chicago-specific feminist legacy. I think those are the things people feel engaged with instead of talked at. Grants are tough, and they’re so tough that I think artists need to figure out ways to never take no for an answer in terms of making your practice work. I always tell my students that a pencil and paper will do it until you get the help you need.
Published by Jennifer DePoorter on Tue, 05/10/2016 - 2:38pm
Updated on Wed, 05/25/2016 - 4:27pm