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Art as Activism in Republic of Georgia

August 12, 2013

By Megan Kirby

When Melissa Potter, director of the Book & Paper Program, boarded the plane for the Republic of Georgia, she'd packed more than the standard travel essentials. With the help of her colleagues, she lugged four suitcases stuffed with wool. 

In the winter and spring of 2013, Potter made two trips to the Kakheti region of Georgia along with Miriam Schaer, Lecturer, and Clifton Meador, Interdisciplinary Arts department chair. Funded by a grant from the Open Society Foundation, they led felting workshops and crafted artists' books with women of the region. In addition to highlighting indigenous craft and local arts traditions, the project gave an outlet to the women of a particularly gender-oppressed rural culture. 

When Potter found a call for grants, she immediately wanted to do something with the native craft of felting. Schaer finalized the project’s inspiration when she suggested they make felt books—a clear link between their own interdisciplinary background and the traditional art form. 

The project, titled Crafting Women’s Stories: Lives in Georgian Felt, let local women transform their personal experiences into art.  Potter and her peers found the give-and-take relationships with workshop participants particularly rewarding. "It serves us as artists, it serves [Columbia], and it also serves them," she says. 

The process of felting (using water and friction to turn wool to felt) is well known in Georgia, but the workshops brought an interdisciplinary edge to the familiar craft. Instead of making traditional toys or decorations, the women created artists’ books—each page a sheet of handmade felt. The contents focused on issues largely silenced in Georgian communities, from gay rights to female empowerment.   

The Book & Paper group worked with both the Women's Fund in Georgia and gender equality programs with the Peace Corps to sharpen the workshop’s feminist focus. Potter found the local approach refreshingly engaged: "Because they're between the first and second wave [of feminism], they have none of the cynicism of the American feminist movement," she says. "The vibe is very activated and fresh." 

In June, Potter and Schaer had a pleasant surprise—they had enough remaining grant money to fund a return trip to Georgia. For Phase II of the project, they led more workshops, this time making felt masks and banners. Both crafts were used as empowerment tools: The banners were used in the first International Woman’s Day March, and the masks (a twist on traditional folk art) symbolized the power and protection of anonymity for women in a society where, Potter says, 90% of whom are subjected to domestic abuse.  

Potter and her colleagues shared their research in two places. The first was a blog, feltreports.tumblr.com, updated throughout their trip with photos and travel journals. The second was a print-on-demand catalog of photos and essays designed by Clifton Meador commemorating the workshops—particularly invaluable because the original artwork remained with the creators.

Potter admits that she would have loved to collect some of the felt art in an exhibition, but in the end, she thinks it stayed in the right hands: the local women. "They were made for them," she says. 

For Potter, the project keeps growing. Back in the United States, she and Schaer are already planning felt workshops at Baird Center in South Orange, New Jersey and North Central College in Naperville. She also plans to collaborate with ethnographer Robert Chenciner (who helped research traditional Georgian craft throughout the program) on a book examining the history of felt masks and rugs in the context of the workshops and modern activism.  

Now finished with her traveling, Potter has time to reflect on the different ways workshops allowed the team to connect with women worldwide. "It's very interesting to me to see how an artistic project can become ethnographic, can become activism, can become an extended family," she says.