Pulp Feminism: Radical Social Histories in Hand Papermaking

Melissa Potter  |  Melissa Potter is an artist and Associate Professor and Director of the Book & Paper Program in the Interdisciplinary Arts Department of Columbia College Chicago. www.melpotter.com

For decades, I have been making art at the strange intersection of feminism and hand papermaking. Neither intersection did much for my career at the New Millennium in New York — earnest was out, hipster cynicism was in. Hand papermaking, stepchild of the stepchild (printmaking) of the art world, was only acceptable in the gallery context and even then, hardly ever considered for major exhibitions.

Often described as a “feminine” medium, hand papermaking indeed attracts many women practitioners. In fact, the art of hand papermaking shares the ethos of the early feminist art movement and socially engaged art with its emphasis on collaboration, hand labor, and process over product. And just like early feminist art, these characteristics are some of the reasons hand papermaking remains in art history’s margins.

Although a recent interest in feminism sparked important historical surveys, films and the cataloging of the publications of the Heresies Collective (to which Riot Grrls and artist book makers owe a huge debt), we are only beginning to consider much undocumented and unreviewed material. It is exciting, but daunting. And sad: as I learned at Rutgers University, early in my feminist career, neglected archives are often lost forever. This past spring, my experience co-curating Social Paper: Art in the Context of Socially Engaged Art recalled many of the same challenges.

I am a graduate program professor of hand papermaking at Columbia College Chicago’s Center for Book & Paper. As such, I began to contextualize the radical culture of hand papermaking in a course called History of Paper. I was also interested in connecting papermaking to Chicago’s socially engaged art scene, especially since Marilyn Sward, founder of the Center for Book & Paper, embraced the transformative nature of handcraft labor in a collaborative studio environment.

The Center flowed from the craft tradition of Chicago’s settlement houses; in particular, the Hull House bindery where Ellen Gates Starr explored the way hand labor could help workers overcome the alienation of mechanized labor.1 One initiative that especially exemplified this perspective was WomanCraft, a Chicago-based micro-industry program that offered transitional employment through an artisan-run hand papermaking business. Nancy Phillips, WomanCraft’s founding Director, studied with Marilyn Sward, and realized through this experience that hand papermaking was an excellent medium for the WomanCraft social enterprise. Despite WomanCraft’s more than thirteen years of success, Hand Papermaking Magazine considered the project’s impact in only one review.2 And Chicago artists and critics have generated no other significant discourse. I was genuinely surprised that WomanCraft, which fits so many of the criteria for socially engaged art, had never entered the social practice conversation.

The WomanCraft program operated from 1998 to 2011, and lived both its ideals and its contradictions. It served as an employment program for homeless women, a socially engaged art project, and a participant in such civil disobedience actions as the 1970 Miss America protest and Mierle Laderman’s Ukeles manifestos about “maintenance art.”  WomanCraft was founded on the principles that hand papermaking is relatively easy to learn yet challenging enough to keep its practitioners engaged and inspired, and could evolve into a successful business — which it did, employing six full-time artisans. The program also differentiated between “workers” and “artisans,” infusing project goals with creative potential. It accepted women on their terms, which included drug addiction, long-term poverty, and mental health issues.3

WomanCraft’s founders, trained as both artists and workers, were interested in the “dynamic tension” between materials and labor. The primary material they used for pulp was waste paper. The project leaders saw a connection between waste paper that could be reused for art and the homeless WomanCraft artisans who, despite being social outcasts, worked on their own terms regardless of their employment and personal challenges.

Brides-to-be, among WomanCraft’s clients, collaborated directly with its artisans on their wedding invitations. In fact, the program enjoyed considerable success as a forerunner of the eco-wedding movement. In 2009, it even won Chicago’s prestigious Greenworks Award. The project shared many of the tenets of early feminist social practice, especially the ideas that art, work and life are inextricably bound together and that labor and power can be redefined as a transformational endeavor. Coupled with human service goals, these ideas helped WomanCraft evolve over more than a decade during one of the stormiest economic crises in U.S. history.

As I began to dig into the Chicago art world for material about WomanCraft and similar projects, I quickly re-discovered my frustrations, from my early years in New York, over the lack of feminist discourse in Chicago. Although heavily invested in social practice discourse, Chicago. I came to understand, is not particularly invested in a feminist discourse. It isn’t for lack of feminist activity: In 1969, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union joined the national feminist movement through consciousness raising, street actions, and programs to promote equality. In 1970, the Chicago Women’s Graphics Collective became the artistic interface for the Union’s silk-screened political posters. Artemisia Gallery, a Chicago feminist art collaborative, was founded in 1973. Sister organizations include the A.I.R. Gallery in New York City, Chicago’s Sapphire and Crystals collective for African American women artists, and Chicago’s AfriCOBRA collective for African-American artists.

The legacy continued through the decades with organizations like the WomanMade Gallery; yet, there has never been a major museum survey of this work, even after “The Year of Feminism” buzz around the 2007 WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution exhibition. Although Suzanne Lacy, one of the most important feminist performance artists, came to Chicago to create Full Circle for the groundbreaking exhibition Culture in Action, feminism was not broadly contextualized as a major precursor to socially engaged art. This is puzzling, especially considering art historian Jenni Sorkin’s thoughts in her WACK! catalog essay:

“At no other time during the 20th Century were the terms of engagement so differentiated from traditional definitions of artistic success. In its diversity of pockets, groups and open circuits, feminist collectivity carried with it a poignant declaration of resistance, allowing the fleeting aura of collective vision to linger, ultimately exceeding individual contributions.”4

So where do we find a feminist-inspired, socially engaged hand papermaking project in Chicago? The WomanCraft project operated contemporaneously with other hand papermaking micro-industry initiatives that embraced the same feminist and social practice goals and values. In a response to exclusionary practices of the art world, feminists’ art sought to redefine artistic practice through a radical rethinking of collective vision and art objects.

Consciousness raising, a methodology that came to epitomize the movement, inspired legions of feminist artists and collectives and remains a primary tactic in socially engaged art.5 A number of the socially engaged projects in the Social Paper exhibition reveal interesting parallels to WomanCraft and share the idea of collective action as an artistic process. Trisha Martin and Loreto Apilado’s program, The Great Woman Project, helps underemployed women in a rural region of the Philippines create handmade paper for sale to profit their community. Martin worked with the project artisans to design handmade paper products for both local and international markets. For the Social Paper exhibition, she built a traditional Filipino roadside stand for her artisans to sell their works. Proceeds were wired back to the community.

Kiff Slemmons designs and creates high-end jewelry with a group of women artisans in Oaxaca, Mexico using handmade paper produced at an atelier. It, too, offers income-generating opportunities through artistic expression. Eileen Foti’s documentary, A Ripple in the Water: Healing Through Art, features the visionary Kim Berman and her Artists Proof Studio, a South African print and paper collaborative for people touched by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Feminist and activist tenets are also evident in the work of featured artist Laura Anderson Barbata’s A Homecoming for Julia. The work recounts Barbata’s journey to bring dignity to a Mexican national through the repatriation of her body. Julia Pastrana was exhibited internationally as “the ugliest woman in the world,” due to hypertrichosis. She died in Norway, where her remains continued to be displayed. Ultimately, they and the remains of her dead infant were dismembered and stored in a basement.

Columbia College Chicago graduate students attending Language + Labor, an interactive hand papermaking workshop held in conjunction with the Social Paper exhibition, also explored Pastrana’s legacy, especially the ways in which language can shape and transform cultural biases. The workshop’s works were installed in Columbia College Chicago’s Papermaker’s Garden.

While recognizing that the current rise in social practice discourse helps us identify and record important cultural contributors like WomanCraft, the failure to acknowledge the feminist art movement in socially engaged art discourse belies a desire to maintain the status quo. Today, scholarship and archival material on women are in crisis not only due to their long-term neglect, but also to the drastic defunding of the arts. In the late 1990s, as a graduate MFA student at Rutgers University, I collaborated with Laura Cottingham, a feminist art critic and historian, while she was curating her exhibition, Not For Sale: Feminism and Art in the USA during the 1970s.

It was a formidable challenge. It’s not just contextualizing the work to suggest it is the primary movement defining contemporary art, and also a preservation project. I had the great privilege of watching some of the most compelling video projects in graduate school, which I can regrettably no longer source. Some of the films have been digitized, but Cottingham reminded us we were seeing a fraction of this work. It is still languishing — moldy, neglected, locked in a barn in upstate New York.

Looking back, I realize Cottingham was a huge, even perhaps primary reason the interest in feminism peaked in 2007 with the WACK! exhibition. The Social Paper exhibition is a modest beginning to what we hope is an investment in the radical history of the hand papermaking movement before it is too late to properly record it.

Social practice under the rubric of feminism offers a new context for works once relegated to the categories of “activism,” “social work,” and “art therapy,” which the status quo interprets as “not art.” Such practices provide powerful alternatives to our evolving art landscape and a society that now more than ever needs to rethink its values and approaches to culture.

Through its feminist and socially engaged incarnations, hand papermaking challenges the paradigm of art as commerce and power, and offers a new vision of individual experience, a space for collective memory and alternatives to prevailing histories. The Social Paper exhibition offers us the opportunity to claim new histories as our own and carve out a rightful place in the socially engaged art movement. As the feminist movement reminds us, we only have half the story.


1 Art at Hull House, 1889-1901: Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. Mary Ann Stankiewicz. Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring – Summer 1989): 37. Print.

2 Martinson, K. “Womancraft Papers.” Hand Papermaking. 15 (2000): 8-12. Print.

3 Phillips, Nancy. Personally conducted interview at Heartland Alliance, Chicago, IL. April 24, 2014.

4 Jenni Sorkin. Butler, Cornelia H, and Lisa G. Mark. Wack!: Art and the Feminist Revolution. Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007: 471. Print.

5 Guillen, Melinda. Now, Not Now and Now: Toward a Feminist Social Envisioning of Social Practice. A Thesis Presented to the faculty of the USC Roski School of Fine Arts University of Southern California, May 2011: 20. Print.