Visual Artist | Lecturer | Writer
One’s life sometimes collides with moments in history, causing it to be altered dramatically by external change. Certainly this was so for Clarissa Thompson Sligh. When she was 15 years old she became the lead plaintiff in the 1955 school desegregation case in Virginia (Clarissa Thompson et. al. vs. Arlington County School Board). From that moment forward, her work as a student and as a professional – first in math/science working for NASA, later in business, and finally, in the arts – has taken into account change, transformation, and complication: themes that related to her experiences fostering social justice.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Sligh wove together the personal and the political in text-based installations, alternative photographs and artists’ books. She has combined photographs, drawings, text, personal stories and social justice issues to open up conversations on contestable themes. Stuart Hall writes in Different: A Historical Context. “…Reading the family album is represented by the complex, in many ways extraordinary, body of work by Clarissa Sligh… In returning to re-investigate and re-evaluate her family experiences, she chose to adopt the eye, the language, the texts and formal ‘naivety’ of childhood.”
According to Debra Singer, “Reading Dick and Jane With Me contains at least three levels of signification that run throughout the work, the typed text and sketch drawings, the hand-written words, and then the ‘loosely-rendered figure of a young girl’, as a ‘witness figure’.”
Sligh’s early work, in the 1980s, gained her recognition as an artist who unflinchingly explored ideas that often challenged traditional values. In 2004, she completed a limited edition artist book, Wrongly Bodied Two, during an artist residency fellowship at the Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale, New York. In the book’s narrative, Deborah’s transformation to Jake runs parallel to the story of William and Ellen Craft, two slaves that journeyed to freedom while Ellen passed as a white male. The texts and images contemplate the relationships between liberation, transformation, perception, authenticity, performance and truth. Of this work that began as “Jake in Transition”, Carla Williams wrote in Contact Sheet, “What the viewer ultimately discovers through Sligh’s work is that the photographs aren’t so much about the process of changing genders…but of coming to terms with difference. His and ours.”
In the visitor’s handout for the Second Woodmere Triennial of Contemporary Photography in 2006, curator W. Douglas Paschall writes:
Sometimes art tackles subjects we as a community or culture need to address, subjects that can find no comparable expression through any other means, subjects that might disturb us but that we have to understand more fully if we are to move forward …one series was chosen [of Clarissa Sligh’s work] for the depth of its inquiry and for the insightfulness of that inquiry’s pursuit and evocation. Jake in Transition treats a difficult subject, a controversial subject, a subject we all might benefit from comprehending better in all its dimensions. [Sligh] asks us to have compassion, simple human compassion, for an… epic journey to a personal freedom.”
Sligh’s work continues to illustrate the power of art to transform a life.
A recipient of awards and fellowships including the Leeway Foundation’s Art and Change Grant (2006), Anonymous Was a Woman (2001), Andrea Frank Foundation (2000), and National Endowment for the Arts (1988), Sligh has also received multiple grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She was the recipient of the Annual Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography in1995 for the use of photography with other media, and the Annual President’s Award from the National Women’s Caucus for Art in 1994.
Additional artists’ books include Voyage(r): A Tourist Map to Japan, Reading Dick and Jane With Me, and What's Happening With Momma?.
In 2001, Sligh’s installation of photographs and video, Jake In Transition From Female to Male first opened at Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, New York, and later traveled to the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point and Woodland Pattern, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The project continues to travel to universities throughout the United States. Her most recent work will show at the Holter Museum of Art in Helena, Montana as part of an exhibition entitled Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate opening January 25, 2008. Montana Human Rights Network initiated the project, and asked Sligh to respond to hate literature donated by a defecting member of a white supremacist group. The resulting piece transforms the pages of these books into a monument of peace and reconciliation in the form of over 700 hand-folded cranes. Hope is a hanging mobile strung between glass beads and measuring 5 feet in length.
Sligh was born in Washington, D.C., grew up in Arlington, Virginia, lived in Manhattan for 30 years and now resides in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. She has taught at New York University, the School of Visual Art and the University of Pennsylvania.