Mine was a Crooked Path – Skowhegan Notes (2009)
Picturing Us Together
It Wasn't Little Rock
Making Artist's Books
The Site of Transition from Female to Male
In so Many Words
Reliving My Mother's Struggle
The Plaintiff Speaks
Witness to Dissent
Women of Color
Taking the Private Public
American Black Student
Mine was a crooked path – Skowhegan Notes
Mine was a crooked path. I arrived at the Skowhegan School’s campus in Maine after completing a BFA in painting in the 1970s. I was a terrible painter, yet they admitted me. I was a refugee from a life in the Civil Rights Movement, had a degree in mathematics that had landed me a job at NASA in the manned space flight program, and was a single parent who had traveled across Africa for a year with my young daughter in tow. Painting was my passion, but my family and friends saw it as a frivolous activity that would eventually pass.
At Skowhegan, however, there was an expectation that of course you are an artist. For the first time in my life there was no need to carry the mantle of a social movement. Mixing oil colors, dabbing paint and making squiggly marks on canvas in the outdoor space that I occupied was like breathing fresh air for the first time. Something was happening to me, but I had no words to describe what was taking place. Evenings, I literally sat at the feet of the visiting artists - Jacob Lawrence, Louise Nevelson, Philip Pearlstein, and Alice Neel - as they talked. When they came around the following day to talk with us students about our work, I clumsily and most inarticulately, sought words for what I was struggling to do. At that time I did not know that I was taking baby steps to connect to my own voice. Spending hours in the library with books and old periodicals that I had never seen, I searched for a new language that would not come until much later.
Leaving Skowhegan after nine weeks, to return home to the D.C. area, was extremely difficult. I had been changed, but prior to coming to Skowhegan I had already chosen another direction for my life. I entered graduate business school in Philadelphia. After my time in Maine, I was like a fish out of water among business students and struggled to submerge my need to make art. After completing the curriculum, I landed a job in New York City - a place where I would have been too intimidated to move to, with my daughter, without financial support in place.
After a number of years in the city, I met artists who created and performed political actions as part of their work. Being in their company ignited old hopes and dreams. Although it was unrecognizable, I slowly began to make small images again. It was a contradiction to my life and work in the financial industry, but the seeds planted inside me that summer at Skowhegan had not died. I knew to trust the process even though I did not understand or like the results. Today I accept that when you are open you will be changed. You may have trouble digesting it but your thoughts and actions will begin to reflect that new complexity.
Copyright © Clarissa Sligh, July 24, 2009
Modified from the original version in the Skowhegan Newsletter 2009, a publication of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, New York and Maine, pp. 11-12.