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Earthworkers | Melissa Hilliard Potter

Melissa Hilliard Potter is a feminist interdisciplinary artist, writer, and curator whose work has been exhibited in venues internationally.  Her awards include three Fulbright Scholar grants for her work in the Balkans. Her hand papermaking project with Maggie Puckett, An Illuminated Feminist Seed Bank publication, now lives in an art collection in the Global Seed Vault mountain in Svalbard, Norway.

A little backstory: How did you begin working with/in response to natural environments, or what are your primal experiences with the natural world?

My grandmother retired to a house on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and our family spent summers there. She had an organic garden, and grew a lot of what she ate, combined with fishing, crabbing and oyster raking. She was an environmentalist, and in retrospect, I can’t believe what she pulled off on her own with seven acres of land. We created a wildflower journal together. We found wildflowers on her property, pressed them in a plant press (which my parents recently found in my childhood home’s attic), and recorded their location, species and origins. I have the book we used, which interestingly enough I found on her bedside bookshelf when she died in 2009.  Sadly, the wildflower journal is gone, but I remember it well. I do believe we return back to our early influences. And so here I am, working with plants, often cataloging them in exactly the same way for my thematic hand papermaking projects.

A love: Share one of your favorite creative pieces and the natural environment it responds to.

That is such a hard question, because I am in love with so many of the early ecofeminist artists! One does stand out supreme in my mind, however. It’s Agnes Denes’ 1982 work, Wheatfield - A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan a 2-acre wheat field planted on a landfill in lower Manhattan, two blocks from Wall Street and the World Trade Center. This is an extraordinary project on so many levels. The project clearly asserts that wheat is the true wealth, not the buildings or the property which gained exponential value over the following decades to the point of extreme decadence. I was in New York in the late 90s and early 2000s: no one could have predicted the level of greed and oppression downtown New York became at that time, and after the World Trade Center bombing and now the pandemic, the city as it was simply cannot exist any longer. Denes also planted a time capsule near the location to be opened in 2979. We know now, of course, that due to climate crisis that land will be underwater. I think in the 80s people had a sense of the impending crisis, but not with the level of scientific proof we have today. And of course, this work is deeply feminist. The wealth she proposed is horizontal in the land. The World Trade Center was often described as the largest penis in the world.

I am enjoying a lot of projects these days, I have had wonderful opportunities to explore various media. My favorite at the moment is a short film I recently completed shot and edited by Jelena Jovcic called Marilyn’s Paper. It features the late Marilyn Sward’s work in a discarded portfolio I found after her death and my experience trying to understand her inspiration. I call these papers a material autobiography. The film deals with the basic feminist issue of lost legacy and the frustration with the lack of archival information I can never recover about the work. I consider my conversation with her work a kind of ephemeral collaboration to let the materiality of the paper speak to me so I can pass her legacy to the next generation. I think her work and the work of papermakers is so timely. I am particularly interested in how the process is a record of a biome. Marilyn and I both used the paper we make—whether from plants in South Africa or the Chicago Lurie Garden—to create artworks. She made paper in circles like the cross section of a tree. I am currently spinning mine for weaving.

The photo at the top of this page (the headshot) is from the film—me holding her paper over my head.


A lesson: What advice do you have for someone who wants to co-create with the natural world?

This is actually a really fascinating question for me right now: both of my primary public garden spaces were recently sold for construction, one now the Student Center at Columbia College Chicago where I teach. I think I was very idealistic about being an itinerant worker in community spaces, and I have paid the price, as I currently have no location. I started looking at my city apartment as a micro-climate, a biome of its own. Growth can be tiny or huge. When I lost my gardens, I moved to fermentation and microgreens with a lamp on my refrigerator. The ideas are the same: a collaboration with living things dependent on your commitment for survival. After the loss of my spaces and experience living in the middle of a devastated neighborhood post-civil unrest, I believe more than ever we have to fight for city public spaces, community gardens, and projects that question the idea of land ownership. We need more community gardens and farms not only to grow food, but also to support communication and collaboration as basic human needs. I would say my biggest advice now is to fight for these spaces. Public space is a human right, and the foundation of good health both mental and physical. Sadly, today, you literally get what you pay for. I am proud to say my students at Columbia have a very rich discussion on environmental racism, which is the end result of land ownership. I worry the pandemic has only furthered this problem.

Visit Melissa Hilliard Potter's Website

Image Info: 1: Plant Protection Archive; 2: Bosnian Magic Garden; 3: Pulp and Pastry, Bosnia; 4: 3AP: Melissa Potter & Maggie Puckett: An Illuminated Feminist Seed Bank

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