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A Presence of the Past: My work as a storyteller in the artist book medium (2010)

Reading Dick and Jane With Me (2009)

It Wasn’t Little Rock (2009)

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

Nuclear Food

Women's Studio Workshop Collaboration

Coast to Coast

Malcolm X (EHM)

Collaborative Sketchbook

Conversations at the Table

Reading Dick and Jane with Me – Notes for VSW Press

Reading Dick and Jane With Me was part of a series called “Reframing the Past,” in which constructions of the snapshot and the family album were explored. Fragments of pictures from my family album were used with the language of the child to give voice to stories that lay below the posed, smiling faces.

As a young person I was the keeper of our family’s album and I thought of it as creating evidence that even though we were a black working class family that was always scraping to make ends meet, we were not criminals or the media portrayals of pariahs on the welfare system. I was not conscious that my family album was modeled on the construction of the ideal white family, which was itself a myth. However, this myth had been the model of “normality” for me from the moment I entered public school and it began with my relationship with the Dick and Jane readers.

Although I knew how to read before first grade, I eagerly embraced the Dick and Jane readers and wanted to learn about the beautifully created life in its pages. Before long, however, the simple, repetitive sentences became boring and I began to look for stories about children from my type of neighborhood and the book Little Black Sambo was not it. Searching the classroom bookshelves, the only other title I found with the word black was about someone’s beloved horse.

I love to read and while working with my early family snapshots and written texts, the memory of the Dick and Jane readers began to appear as part of my understanding of who I am. I also began to become aware that although we were children, we were not without power and intelligence and did not automatically accept what we were taught as true. As a result, Reading Dick and Jane With Me was created as a site of resistance in which to interrupt “the authority” of the old elementary school readers. Fragments of family snapshots of children from my old neighborhood stand in for working class school age students and “talk back.” As a young student I believed that Dick and Jane’s white upper middle class suburban family of the 1940s and 1950s represented the norm and that my family life was an aberration. The Dick and Jane model was the construction to which we were to aspire. Reading Dick and Jane With Me continued my work of reframing my identity and its relationship to the historical and power relations in which representations of race, class, and gender are rooted.

The book’s size, 8 1/2 x 7 inches, approximates the size of a reader and is a book that a child would be comfortable holding. The brown/tan color tones of the text and paper were used to invoke the feeling of old photographs. At that time, I was using the kallitype or Van Dyke brown print photographic process with my other work.

When I arrived at VSW for the residency, Joan’s words to me were to “keep it simple.” This was good advice for me. It forced me to make decisions quickly in order to fit into the production schedule which included me learning the pre-press processes of shooting and stripping the films and making the metal plates. While there, I also made large size negatives of some of the images that I later used to make cyanotype prints.

Copyright © Clarissa Sligh, 2009
“Notes on Reading Dick and Jane With Me,” Artists’ Books: Visual Studies Workshop Press 1971-2008, edited by Joan Lyons, Visual Studies Workshop Press, 2009, Rochester, NY.