Thursday, October 30, 2014

Interview: Melissa Potter

Melissa Potter is an outspoken feminist and multimedia artist whose award-winning work investigates womens’ rites of passage from marriage to motherhood through a unique combination of social practice, printmedia, papermaking, sculpture and film. Melissa has exhibited at venues including the Bronx Museum of the Arts, White Columns, the VideoDumbo Festival, and Galerija Zvono in Belgrade, Serbia. She is founder of the NY-based feminist art collective, Art364B, and her critical writing has appeared in numerous publications including BOMB, Art Papers, AfterImage, and Flash Art. She has also become an advocate for open adoption, and generously shared with us her experiences with artmaking, travel, gender roles, and new parenthood. 

CR: For starters, tell us a little bit about your son. 

Melissa: Landon Aranzamendez Potter, age 5.5 months. His temperament is extroverted and affectionate. His giggle fits are popular with pretty much everyone. He’s really a delightful baby and is usually described by his admirers as mellow.

CR: What has your process been like for returning to a studio practice as a new parent? Any surprises or strategies for work-life balance you'd share with other artists?

Melissa: Actually, I didn’t put my practice on hold during our adoption process. Landon’s birth mother chose us two weeks before she was due, and he was born weeks before my one-year sabbatical at Columbia College Chicago. The timing was exquisite.

I also have a partner with whom I share 50% of all domestic and financial responsibilities, and so I was able to keep work and art plans pretty much in place. He took the initial leave for the first three months of Landon’s life.  The leave was unpaid (another issue altogether), but I was the summer chair of my department, which helped us make ends meet.

working with Maggie Puckett in the Papermaker's Garden
Maggie Puckett, Melissa & Landon in the Papermaker's Garden
I went to Taiwan for a week when Landon was about six weeks old, and my parents came to help out, as have other dear friends and family members (they are all out East where we used to live.) In the spring, I’ll be doing a three-month Fulbright in Sarajevo. It will be an interesting challenge bringing Landon for some of that time. My husband’s job doesn’t allow him to join me for more than a couple of weeks, so we are cobbling it together with friends and my former student, Jillian Bruschera, founder of The Mobile Mill, who is coming to help with art production.

My friends in less privileged countries taught me it is possible to raise a family in a one-bedroom apartment. We try to keep life as simple and inexpensive as possible. I spent a lot of my career making art in faraway places, but I now realize how important it is to invest in the community where you live full time, too. My former student, Maggie Puckett, and I spent the summer working on our Seeds In Service project in the Papermaker’s Garden, and Landon came along a lot of days. It was one of the best experiences of my life.

CR:  You have experienced some dissonance between parents and non-parents in the art community. How have your own perspectives shifted now that you’re raising a child? What conversations or alternative structures do you think could be useful in bridging that gap?

Melissa: I was in the “no kids” tribe for half my life, and then I was a switch hitter. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, but there has been some puzzlement and even an indirect question or two about what will happen to my career (which I don’t think would be asked of my male colleagues).  I made it through 12 years in NYC on less than 30K a year in a basement apartment with a broken toilet; I'm pretty sure I can do this! We define ourselves by our life choices, and I think artists are particularly this way. Basically, I think the binary distinctions between “kids” vs. “no-kids”;  “mother” vs. “childless” are distinctions of power, privilege, and social control that negatively impact women's financial and social well-being.

We have a long way to go to help women make choices instead of compromises. Something as simple as Walter Mondale’s plan for universal childcare would have created a world we couldn’t even imagine today. Non-biological parenting gave me a lot of choices with my career in our broken social system, and for that I’m really grateful. I’m equally grateful that even though the academic system is not particularly family-friendly, my former colleague worked hard to create provisions in the tenure document to accommodate family choices and responsibilities. But there is still so much more work to do so that a woman dropping out of the workplace isn’t a practical default. We need the ERA ratified!

CR: Until Landon’s adoption is finalized in November you’ve understandably decided not to write or make work about parenthood. How do you think parenthood will impact your creative work?

Melissa: Adoptions are very stressful legally. In domestic adoptions, the time from
banners from the project Feminist Felt,
with women in the Republic of Georgia
placement to legal finalization is six months. Unknown birth fathers can be located through public announcements and databases by certain states. There are endless meetings, updates, police reports, DCFS visits, and a million other fairly invasive investigations into adoptive parents’ lives, homes, employment and families. I can’t wait for the process to be done so that I don’t feel the need to censor myself. It’s probably paranoid, but the process can trigger that fear.

As an artist whose work revolves around questions of gender, I realize that open adoption is one of the biggest gender experiments possible. Adoption forces us to reconsider everything we know about the nuclear family and conventional motherhood, from patriarchal naming conventions, to the role of two families - adoptive and biological - in a child’s life. We are also a society obsessed with self-actualization, and I think adoption challenges these notions as well. We are at an exciting moment in parenting history. There are new movements to raise compassionate children, boys in particular. Gender norms are being called into question through news and writing outlets like The Good Men Project. Victim blaming and shaming is being replaced by calls for personal responsibility through organizations like White Ribbon Campaign, a coalition of men working to end violence against women.

I’m sure there will be many challenges when culture takes its hold, but as a feminist I have to believe that we can change the system with our individual choices. I believe in the axiom, “the personal is political.” The personal is also the source for a lot of my work, most recently through my blog, Gender Assignment, where I write about my life and engage others in conversation about gender roles and rituals. I can’t wait to start writing about the adoption experience in this context.

I feel like this process has made me a much more experimental and flexible person even in this short time. As well, it has really helped me renew my commitment to questioning the status quo. In regard to my art practice, I am reminded and humbled by the fact that one of the things Landon’s birth mother liked is that I am a professor of art, and that I travel a lot. It is great to be recognized for what I can bring to the table through my art career, especially since the process of adoption tends to favor more traditional lifestyles. Landon’s birth family is a whole new and active part of our community - a challenge, but a really great one. I think about them all the time and we are in contact regularly. It’s a big job, but it is satisfying and artistically inspiring in ways that I still don’t quite have language for.

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