Complementary to the spirit of the text, I reviewed An Illuminated Feminist Seed Bank on a cold, wet spring day. The rain was incessant and heavy on the lilacs outside my sun porch windows. Everything was green. A brief visit to the compost bin beyond my back door caused my feet to squish deep into the spongy grass and clover. The earth, it seemed, could not absorb the rainwater fast enough. Indeed, the soon-to-be two inches that was falling was keeping laborers out of the fields, again, compounding the anxiety of local farmers already stressed by the Trump administration’s tariffs challenging the marketplace. It was a fitting day to think about issues surrounding the earth, and to contemplate artwork that strives to cultivate the garden as a radical undertaking—one that by its very nature, connects individuals “by building sustainable and ultimately healing art practices” (7) [Image 1].
Chicago artists and self-described eco-feminists Melissa H. Potter and Maggie Pluckett created their art collaborative, Seeds InService (SIS), to address the “effects of capitalism, colonization, militarism, and climate change on women and other marginalized groups, local agricultural heritages, and biodiversity” (7). Active since 2014, the main strategy of SIS is to create gardens that address these issues, while also focusing on exploring the viability of heirloom and symbolic plants in their papermaking practice—results of which, in turn, are used toward politically oriented artistic output. The book functions as a catalog for their projects, providing an overview of both the gardens and corresponding art events.
After an introduction featuring essays by Claire Pentecost and Tricia Van Eck, the full-color, 152-page book is divided into three main sections: Gardens, Events, and Research. Reminiscent of old seed catalogs or almanacs, as well as the groundbreaking Whole Earth Catalog (1968–98), the book is printed on what appears to be recycled matte paper, on demand by Lulu.com, and comes with a Creative Commons attribution noncommercial license, allowing readers to share and transform the text for artistic purposes. The “illumination”—a clear reference to the spiritual root of the work—is found in a generous peppering of imagery, either documentation of the gardens and events, or examples of resultant art projects. The photographs are clear and colorful, while the design (by Puckett) is elegant without asserting itself. The book as object is a pleasure [Image 2].
The gardens represented include the authors’ inaugural Jane Addams Hull-House Garden, Pre-Colonial Gardens, and Baba Yaga’s Post Roe v. Wade Transmenopause Garden, to name a few, which suggest the political nature of the work. Each section presents overview images of each individual garden, pictures of some of the included plants, and, like many gardening texts, descriptors with botanical and medicinal uses. Differing here is an inclusion of “other” or “artistic” uses, and later in the book, the authors report the findings of their papermaking explorations as well as instructions for future makers. Each garden is given an introduction, which often reads a bit more like a manifesto than an explanation. There is a presumption that those reading the text will already have a solid foundation in what is being discussed. For instance, that a reader will know who Jane Addams was and her import as a radical activist, or be familiar with the work of Marija Gumbutas, author of Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe (1974) and theorist on pre-Bronze age gynocentric societies. In order for the book to exist as an independent art work, the underlying, explanatory text would need to be more fully realized.
Echoing Gumbutas, whose work has been criticized for assuming earlier societies were woman-centered and therefore more holistic, Potter and Pluckett see gardens as feminine creation. As they rightly note, there is a need to reclaim a more holistic relationship with the earth (from one skewed toward industrialized disconnect); however, there is also a tendency to romanticize the notion that things were better when women were in control and making all the creative decisions. Indeed, I am a good audience for this philosophy as I comfortably support the concept that late-stage patriarchy has thrown our world dangerously out of balance. But how might the text play with an audience less convinced that we are on the wrong path?
If Potter and Pluckett want to reach out to fresh audiences, they might need to offer more context and background. The final page offers a bibliography and resources, but there is room for expansion of their motivations and research. Putting together an informational catalog is fraught with decision-making—what to include, what to leave out—but here some useful inclusions might be a more extensive bibliography and resource page; an overview of each of the sections; a map so that readers could see how the gardens are laid out; and a timeline of gardens, projects, and events. I was left unclear as to whether the gardens were temporary (lasting just a year) or ongoing, and whether they existed simultaneously, so a timeline of gardens and the associated activities would have been helpful and appreciated [Image 3].
It’s not a bad thing to leave a reader wanting more and, overall, I found An Illuminated Feminist Seed Bank a stimulating, experiential read, one that I highly recommend. On that very rainy spring day, it reminded me of the existence of magic in the everyday and of my forebears who revered rather than exploited the earth. As an avid if somewhat disorderly gardener as well as artist, myself, I found it inspiring to consider my own gardening practices, my seasonal rituals, as part of my artistic practice. I genuinely believe that exploring, exercising, and entertaining our artistic impulses within our everyday activities can make the difference in a well-lived life. The authors/artists, through their work and this text, remind us that whereas art and the environment are sacred spaces, they are also accessible to all. With more practiced reverence for both, we may begin to reclaim a battered planet.
After completing this review, I had the opportunity to visit with Potter and Puckett at the site of their 2019 garden at the Altgeld Sawyer Corner Farm in Logan Square, west of downtown Chicago. Inhabiting the perimeter of a large community garden, their current effort was full to bursting, exuding all the energy one would expect of plants soaking up a steaming Midwestern morning. The artist-gardeners pointed out the plants being cultivated particularly for their papermaking ventures, including wormwood and potato, which will be harvested in the autumn as part of Potter’s papermaking curriculum at Columbia College Chicago. They spoke of working with local school kids to tend the beds, and the benefits of introducing students at all levels to this sort of full-circle artmaking practice. It’s an opportunity to instill them with a wonder of natural creation, a healthy complement to a contemporary society steeped in the virtual. Fall events in the garden will include papermaking activities on site. The location is always open to the public.