Interview and visual essay by Lise McKean
Melissa Hilliard Potter is an interdisciplinary artist, curator, writer, and co-founder of the Papermaker’s Garden at Columbia College in Chicago, where she is an associate professor of Art and Art History. We began our conversation in the Papermaker’s Garden on a late afternoon in June, just after a sudden shower made the soil fragrant.
Lise: Since we’re starting out in the Papermaker’s Garden, let’s begin with hearing about what you are growing this year in your raised bed garden here in the Loop?
Mel: I’m focusing on a perennial bed dedicated to the idea of pleasure for women. Last year’s Papermaker Garden included the Roe v. Wade and Bosnian Magic beds. After much focus on women’s biology, I decided that the most feminist investigation I could do this year would be to investigate pleasure.
The plants I’ve selected are for pleasing the nose and eyes—and for psychotropic recreation. For example, I’m growing absinthe and burdock in my Plants of Pleasure bed. My partner in the Papermaker’s Garden, Maggie Puckett, has a bed for growing plants she discovered while investigating witches, some of whom were her ancestors. She calls it Witchcraft and Colonial Warfare.
Lise: I’m curious about the psychotropic plants—what brings them to your garden?
Mel: I’ve been doing research on women shamans because a lot of the psychotropic vision work in traditional societies is very male-centric. I’m interested in the intersection of psychotropic recreation, visionary quests and experiences, and consciousness-raising. I’m going to explore how these plants can be turned into psychotropic materials. I’m also looking at some of them for their calming and anti-anxiety effects. Some of these plants can be recreational as well.
Lise: Being around plants is intensely sensual, engaging our senses of touch, smell, taste, sight, and even hearing. Culture shapes the experience and use of plants, too. How do the plants in the Papermaker’s Garden mesh with your work as an artist?
Mel: All my work is about female culture. It ranges from contemporary feminist practice to female ethnobotanical and intangible heritage, which is made up of traditional craft practices. I explore how these are distinct languages and forms of communication and history-making. They parallel recorded history, but are completely different ways to interpret the world. I’m always on a quest to search for practices with the potential to reveal something that could be transformative. We’re unaware of them because they’re not included in dominant narratives.
The craft practices I explore range from bio-culinary traditions and handmade felt rugs to women’s tattoo cults and hand papermaking. These are tremendously under-recorded practices that reveal fascinating narratives.
Lise: Mention of tattoo cults appear here and there in ethnography. Tell me more about the one that interests you and how you came across it.
Mel: When I was in the Republic of Georgia I saw a pagan ritual taking place on the street that I identified as similar to a film I had done in South Serbia. My colleague Clifton Meador bought the book, Tattooed Mountain Women and Spoonboxes of Daghestan in preparation for our work in Georgia. I wrote to Robert Chenciner, one of the book’s authors, asking him whether the designs I saw in the pagan ritual were the same as those in the women’s tattoo cult in the same region. He wrote back a long email and so began our friendship.
Women use similar symbols from the “book of life” for her children, her parents, her illnesses. It’s an old tradition. There are still many tattoo practices. All the symbols come down to a few basic things. Don’t mess with my crops. Don’t mess with my family. Protect me from evil and the evil eye. A lot of the designs are plant based and burdock is one of them. Some ethnobotanical designs are used over and over. A traditional woman has repertoire of images. Through color and image she can tell a specific story, just as a rug can tell a story about its family.
Lise: These tattoo cults give women a way to record on their own bodies events in their lives that are important to them. Tattooed Mountain Women must be fascinating. Traveling back to your garden here in downtown Chicago, what happens to all the plants at the end of the growing season?
Mel: We’ve learned that a perennial garden is a year-round phenomenon. We let some of the plants go to seed because it’s good for pollinator bugs. Many of the crops are cut and cooked and made into paper to use for artwork. During the winter months, I work on making the paper at the Center for Book and Paper Arts.
Lise: How do you run the garden as a collaborative project?
Mel: We invite people as guest gardeners and community guests. The South Loop Alliance has a bed with us. We invite graduate students at Columbia. We help out each other with watering, weeding, and events here at the garden. Running a ten-bed garden would be impossible without a group of collaborators. My project with Maggie Puckett, Seeds InService is the garden’s other main project.
Lise: You describe yourself as an interdisciplinary artist. Did you start out that way?
Mel: I’m the director of the Interdisciplinary Arts MFA program at Columbia. Interdisciplinarity is naturally collaborative. My personal interdisciplinary practice is ethnographic. I don’t consider myself a botanical expert.
I started in print and paper because it’s a family legacy. My grandmother was a printer and painter. My aunt was a letter press printer. My mother is a quilter, knitter, and crafter. It started there. My high school yearbook said I wanted go into anthropology. Everything I’ve done since then goes into that direction.
Lise: As an anthropologist, I’ve known some who knew from childhood that’s what they wanted to do. Where did your interest come from at such a young age?
Mel: My grandmother, aunt, and I aunt studied a lot of pre-Christian goddess cults. Women scholars were starting to write female-centered ethnography. My grandmother and I went to Crete and drew at goddess sites. She called her journal, “Melissa, the Minoans, and Me.”
Lise: How did you find your way to merging art and ethnography? Were you doing that in art school, or did it come later?
Mel: I have to credit Columbia primarily. After finishing grad school, I spent 12 years in New York City leading a traditional art life showing in alternative galleries and collaborative spaces. When Columbia hired me in the Interdisciplinary program, I was given free rein to explore curatorially, artistically, and critically the interdisciplinary space. It’s a distinctive program. It’s no accident that my strongest work comes out of my time here when I was institutionally supported to do these off the grid things like tattoo cults and paper cultures. I’ve been here now for 10 years.
Lise: From the wide world of peoples and cultures, where did your interest in Bosnia and Serbia come from? Is that your ethnic background?
Mel: My grandmother and I sponsored a Bosnian refugee in the 1990s. She was in Croatia as a refugee. Her village was ethnically cleansed and then the Serbian militia turned it into a rape camp. I was reunited with her in 2015. By then I had spent 20 years exploring the arts, culture, and ethnography of the larger Balkan region. I didn’t work in Bosnia until recently.
Lise: That’s an intense commitment.
Mel: It was obsessively captivating to me. I used to go two or three times a year. I’ve been there 35 times, staying up to six months at a time.
Lise: I haven’t yet had a chance to see your film, Like Other Girls Do. Congratulations on all the attention it’s been getting since it came out in 2015. You’ve told me it grew out of your interest in the custom of sworn virgins in Montenegro and Albania.
Mel: The film is a collaboration with the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade. It’s 30 minutes and explores another female-centric traditional cultural practice. When there are no boys born in a family, a girl is raised as a boy to inherit the father’s property. I interviewed Stana Cerovic, the self-proclaimed last sworn virgin of Montenegro. I was exploring Stana’s legacy. She died in October 2016. The film also includes my interviews with five women in the Balkans under the age of 40, and their thoughts about personal identity and gender expression.
I’m working on a second part of the project about how to create a legacy in an environment that doesn’t record us. Stana isn’t in her family tree, even though she made the sacrifice to be a boy. In all likelihood, she was not buried as a man even though she wanted to (I am waiting for confirmation from my ethnographer colleagues in the region). I find it heart breaking that they’re not only forgotten, but if they’re remembered, it’s falsified. There’s no reward for the sacrifice.
Lise: What does the role of virginity play in this tradition?
Mel: They’re called sworn virgins because they take an oath of virginity. They don’t marry. They usually live with their families or alone. They can’t have a heteronormative relationship.
Lise: How does the film contextualize this tradition within contemporary culture?
Mel: Like Other Girls Do is about Stana’s village and about death. The story shows her visit to the cemetery where her family members are buried and explores the issue of how she will be remembered. I asked a graffiti artist to make a tag for Stana. The film ends with her making Stana’s tag on the streets of Belgrade. I wanted the women I interviewed to connect with Stana in a two-way conversation.
Lise: Did they make the connection? What happened between the women?
Mel: I think they reflected on Stana’s story. They asked themselves about their own willingness to engage in traditional Balkan society and the sacrifices they’re already making. I included the queer narrative—and the way society restricts full development of an identity. This was true for Stana and the five women. The queer activist was the most liberated in some ways. To live as a queer-identified person in the Balkans is a radical act of self-assertion.
Lise: The film has been widely screened. What are some highlights of its travels over the past couple years?
Mel: It’s had a nice life. Last year it was shown in Paris at Cineffable, the world’s largest feminist film festival. It’s also traveled to around the U.S. and the Balkans and to Denmark, India, China and Slovenia. It’s been featured in some exhibitions too, including Becoming Male, a show featuring artists like Adrian Piper and Eleanor Antin at Albright College.
Making a film is a huge project. I loved every minute. My collaborator was Saša Sreckovic at the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade. My editor, Jelena Jovcic is my better half. Editors don’t get the credit they deserve. Composer Aleksandra Dokic created the music for the film.
Lise: We’ve talked about your work as an interdisciplinary artist in terms of ethnography and ethnobotany, paper making and film making. What else are you working on?
Mel: I pray it’s not going to be another film. I’m going do something on my grandmother and Zejna, the Bosnian woman refugee. I recently obtained my grandmother’s O.S.S. file. The O.S.S. was the US office of intelligence during World War II. She was an O.S.S. operative. I’m curious to see where that goes. I met with Zejna twice. I started a four-part narrative, with my grandmother, Zejna, myself, and a fictional version of Zejna’s daughter. It will be a study of women and war and how women experience war in a gendered and particular way.
Lise: Am I hearing that you have another film on your hands?
Mel: Do you want to take me and shoot me right now! I’ve been doing some prints of my grandmother and Zejna and writing annotations. I’m building a visual archive. It probably has to be a film. It could be a book. I like working in film, but it’s a hard medium. I’m not wealthy enough to play in it. If you don’t have money, you have to wait for it.