An Interview With Maggie Puckett
Chicago-based Maggie Puckett is a practicing book artist, paper maker and occasional culinary artiste. A recent graduate of Columbia College’s Interdisciplinary Arts MFA program, Puckett’s works explore the intersection of sustainable Earth sciences and fiber arts. Her work recently came to the attention of The Book Art Blog when we stumbled upon her Anthropocene series, which among other feats features works that are documented biodegrading and getting licked. We had a few questions for Puckett about the importance of producing work that focuses on ecology, the sensuality of books, and the profound experience of licking them.
How did you come into the world of artist’s books? What brought you there?
I came to artist’s book by way of drawings and works on paper. Children’s books, medieval illuminated manuscripts, and early printmaking always enchanted me with beautiful drawings and paintings and I sought to emulate them in my early work. While an undergraduate at NYU, I took a class on artist’s books from Carson Fox, a prolific installation artist and printmaker. The medium was a way to place individual drawings in a portable context. Individual images could never express the complexities I wanted to explore. Artist’s books are a way to treat concepts more completely. They are a challenging medium for the art world in that they generally must be handled by the viewer; there is generally no “Hands Off” policy with artist’s books, and this appealed to my desire to create intimate experiences for the audience. Books can be experienced by sight, touch, smell, sound, and taste, creating a more thorough, sensual experience with an art object and the concepts contained therein.
What possessed you to want to make your first book? What was it like? Were you pleased with it?
Actually my first book was made in elementary or early middle school. It was called “Krahs,” which is shark backwards, and about a toothless shark that didn’t want to hurt any fish. I can’t remember how it ended, probably with a hungry shark on the verge of starvation. It was kind of a hideous marker-on-computer paper affair, and the cover was laminated with contact paper. I guess I took a hiatus for several years after that and picked up again at NYU. There my first books were small, wonky, loosely sewn, and filled with ink drawings of people and places around me, but I still treasure them. Bookbinding is definitely a skilled craft and practice is essential.
How did the idea for Anthropocene manifest?
The Anthropocene is the current geologic period wherein humans have a powerful effect on the global environment. The project Anthropocene grew out of a body of work examining ecology, the relationship between living organisms and their environments, through drawings and handmade books. Deeper research into issues of climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss, and energy helped me see this relationship from a variety of perspectives: historical, scientific, social, political, and ethical, allowing me to zoom out on the specific problems and see the bigger picture. Examining the urgency of the problems caused by anthropogenic activities (e.g. climate warming, extreme weather including droughts and cyclones, sea level rise, and their effects on food production and freshwater availability), my line of inquiry became more focused and the project’s areas of concentration crystallized as this body of work. With Anthropocene I want to impart to my audience the knowledge and perspective I’ve gained from research. The problems of climate change often seem too large to tackle and too horrifying to face, turning people away from facing the inevitable challenges ahead. In response, Anthropocene attempts to provide a simplified, aesthetically pleasing, and palatable structure of our planet’s history, present, and future. Comprised of projects that encourage the audience to look, touch, smell, and taste, the body of work provides an experiential introduction to the complexities of ecology.
How is Thaw doing? Will an updated documentation of the project be posted soon?
Thaw is entering its third winter. It is still outside, exposed to the elements of Chicago. Much of the organic material has experienced considerable biodegradation and the overall mass of the book is greatly diminished, probably weighing about 1/10 of its original dry weight. I do intend on updating documentation, but it is currently at a location to which I have limited access. Check my website at a later date for new images.
For the book Salty, you issued the subtitle “Lick This Book.” It was the first time I had heard of a lickable book. Where did you get the idea for the book and was it actually licked during the opening of Anthropocene? Were participants worried about licking a book that others had licked? Were you?
The idea came from a few different places. I wanted to experiment with making paper using seawater as an alternative water source for artists living in drought-stricken coastal areas. Fresh water is such a precious resource and papermaking uses a lot of water, so this was a way to balance my desire to make paper and conserve fresh water. Additionally, I wanted to make a book that could offer the experience of tasting sea water. I’m from Southern California and have spent a lot of time getting pummeled by waves. A little water always gets in the mouth and its taste is so strongly saline. I had never heard of a lickable book either, and it seemed like a great way to break some of the boundaries of how we can experience art. Only a handful of brave people have licked the book but the experience they recall is a profound one. Most cringe at the idea of licking where someone else may have licked, which is understandable. The salt paper is part of a concept of Dangerous Paper, which I created to challenge the perceived innocuous qualities of paper. The process of papermaking, and what can be done with paper, can be profoundly dangerous with serious implications for the environment and societies, yet in Western industrialized countries we tend to have a total disregard for the power of paper and waste it ubiquitously.
You describe yourself as an interdisciplinary artist, investigating the intersection of art and science. With a background in studio art and interdisciplinary studies, what is your background in science? How does science inform your artistic practice and why do you feel it is important?
Interdisciplinary art is a successful method for revealing larger truths. Using art as a vehicle for science, sociology, history, politics, and economics, artists can better connect the seemingly disparate dots that form the complex tapestry of existence and become activists and educators seeking to affect social change. While I have no formal scientific training, it forms the basis of many of the concepts explored in Anthropocene.
The Earth is a complex set of systems interacting to produce the conditions that sustain life. The Gaia hypothesis, proposed by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in the 1970s, is an ecological hypothesis proposing that the biosphere and the physical components of the Earth are closely integrated to form a complex interacting system that maintains the climatic and biogeochemical conditions on Earth that make possible and sustain life. Anthropocene projects explore the Earth’s systems, introducing my audience to key concepts that play crucial roles in understanding the mechanisms of climate change.
As humans evolved they learned to exercise vast influence over the Earth’s systems. The Neolithic Revolution (8,000–5000 BC) was the transition of hunter/gatherer communities to agricultural ones, witnessing the domestication of animals and the establishment of early cities. This marks the beginning of a major revolution in the Earth’s history in which humans began deliberately exercising control over their environment, initializing fundamental changes. As civilizations evolved, humans harnessed further control over the Earth’s systems using its natural resources as material for tools, clothing, shelter, energy, and eventually political power and profit. While our current empire may appear unstoppable, since the Industrial Revolution it has relied on dirty energy and environmentally unsound behaviors to leverage the amount of capital and influence that makes them the superpowers that they are. The ecological repercussions of this ideology are at the core of Anthropocene projects.
In 2011, you graduated with an MFA in Interdisciplinary Studies from Columbia College. I had the pleasure of interning there over the Summer and getting to see their facilities. Can you briefly describe your impressions of the program? How did it help you to develop as an artist?
The Interdisciplinary Book and Paper Arts program provides students with excellent studios for papermaking, bookbinding, and printmaking, and an incredibly talented, experienced, and committed faculty who work one-on-one with students to nurture and grow their artistic practices. The three-year program definitely transformed my trajectory as an artist, arming me with the skills, critical thinking, and community needed to continue my success as a professional artist.
Which other book artists as well as other artists have influenced you the most in your practice?
The most influential artists have actually not been book artists but interdisciplinary environmental artists working to affect social and environmental change with their work. Some favorites are Natalie Jeremijenko, Mark Dion, Mel Chin, Andrea Zittel, Jason deCaires Taylor, Betty Beaumont, Hans Haake, Alan Sonfist, Agnes Denes, and Helen and Newton Harrison.
What are you working on now? What projects can we look forward to seeing in the future?
I am currently working on a few different projects.
One is an artist’s book that’s a cross-section of my homeland of Southern California. As if a strip of the region was sliced out and made into a book, the project will use various kinds of handmade paper to span the different habitats from the ocean deep to the shore, from coastal marshlands to the arid scrublands, from the top of the mountains to the dry desert floor, in total representing 6,000 meters elevation and 400,000 meters from sea to desert.
Another book in the works explores the political ramifications of empires seeking to exercise direct or indirect political control over regions of the planet that are rich with natural resources, specifically oil and the Middle East. Comparing Lebanon’s Hezbollah to the Western imperialist powers that oppose them, the project compares the violence enacted by both groups while contrasting their context and goals. The book undermines the politically motivated and hypocritical Western definition of terrorism, one that conveniently omits its own actions from that list. The pages are handmade paper processed from a cotton t-shirt from Lebanon once emblazoned with the Hezbollah flag. The flag graphic, removed from the shirt before pulping the cotton, will form the cover of the book.
You can read more about the works of Maggie Puckett by viewing her website.