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
“A Presence of the Past: My work as a storyteller in the artist book medium,”
Memory and the act of remembering play a major role in my artwork. I speak from the intersection of many narratives: my life, family, community, and nation as well as that of a human being on our planet. Within each frame of reference, I am both insider and outsider. Much like a book, I am the form and its' contents. Each fragment of a memory or a dream is an opportunity to open a door, to explore, to deconstruct, to re-combine, to transform and to inspire. Where it takes me is not always comfortable, but if I can hang out with the memory and the experiences that the memories bring, the story that I have to tell will come. It is like listening to a single instrument and gradually becoming aware of the other instruments in the orchestra.
For long stretches of time, I gave up on my dream of making art. When I decided to reclaim that part of my life in the 1980s, I knew I had to find a way to work from the inside out. But there was much I did not want to reveal about my life. At that time, I was living in New York City, where I saw the work of many artists who could articulate their vision. I had come from a small black community in Virginia. My reality seemed different. How could I show visually something of the way that the Baptist preacher, the gospel and rhythm and blues singers and musicians of my youth used repetitive, rhythmic fragments to elicit the audience response necessary for the satisfactory completion of their work? How could I create a space in which the viewers could respond openly to my work with their own feelings and emotions, an intimate space that could be held close or pushed away at the viewer's leisure?
To begin making visual images again, I gave myself an assignment to make one self-portrait a day for a year. The daily drawing was to express my experience of that day as well as to create discipline in this endeavor. At that time I was working on Wall Street and it was a huge challenge to shift from the mindset of numbers to the task of drawing. But I felt like I would wither and die if I did not learn to express my interior ideas in a visual form.
At the end of nine months, when some artists saw the images and immediately understood what I had done, I was surprised. Those rough and crude drawings had been done for my eyes only. All the things that had happened in my life seemed invisible. It was the enthusiastic response-of those artists-that enabled me to deepen my search for my own voice. I asked myself, "What do you know about?" "Who are you?" Buried within me was an accumulation of all the unanswered questions I had ever asked.
I began my new work with family snapshots and fragments of stories I remembered about my life before I left home. It took shape as a series of constructed photographic images and texts. Sometimes the pictures suggested the words. Sometimes the words came first. Eventually I had no pictures, only words. That's when I turned to the book form.
Today when I begin a project there is usually an idea in mind, but the real narrative unfolds in the process of putting it together. An inner voice takes over and asks, "And then what happened?" or "That's not what happened!" or "What makes you think that?" Some answers come from within, some come from other sources as a new story begins to take shape.
Historical research is often an important part of my process. I love uncovering fragments of stories from other times. I use them to reconstruct and question history as it comes to me rather than perpetuate what I have always been told. I believe that the artist is a shaman, a spiritual medium, a way show-er and a poet, who draws on intuition, personal experiences, and things inherited from ancestral communal memories. How could it be otherwise? My narratives may be partially fabricated in the telling, but it is truth I speak. When I was growing up truth was found in books. But I knew my story was missing.
In 2004 when I decided to make an artist's book to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, I drew on my memory of my mother's determination to have her children go to the best public schools where we lived. Designated "for whites only," I remember riding my school bus past those well built structures. My mother could not have imagined the many social changes that would take place in Arlington from 1954 to 2004, when she entered my siblings and me in the local school desegregation court case.
I wanted the narratives for It Wasn't Little Rock to show the evolution of an aspect of that change. Since my mother was no longer alive in 2004, I pieced together the stories she had told me about her life while I was growing up. From an earlier installation called the "Witness Project," I had videotapes of my sisters and brother and my daughter telling their stories about how they experienced the desegregated schools. It was like bringing out the family album. Each person told the story of each picture differently. Their voices, added to my interpretation of the events, and interwoven with excerpts from news clippings and legal documents, gave the narrative much more complexity and depth.
Another group of narratives, Wrongly Bodied and Wrongly Bodied Two, came out of my documentary project of photographing Deb transitioning to Jake. In the beginning, I thought of the project as gathering evidence in the form of photographs. However, nothing could have prepared me for the complexity or intensity of the act. Even after reading the literature that was available in the mid-1990s, it was difficult for me to wrap my head around "gender dysphoria." Jake, however, really wanted me to understand how he came to his decision to undergo numerous surgical and chemical changes to his body. I videotaped our conversations.
Why tell Jake's story? Since I am not transgender, can I be trusted to do that? In order to understand a desire for a change of identity of this magnitude, I associated Jake's desire with another change of identity that comes out of the black community. The history of light skin blacks "passing" for white in this country and all the related debates around transgression and authenticity helped me to understand Jake's anxiety and the importance of his story. While I was a witness to Jake's transition process, Wrongly Bodied is not simply Jake's story. It is also my story. When you are close to a person as they question their identity, you have to question your identity, too. I began to think about the fact that I would never be able to change my brown skin and "pass" for anything other than what I have been – a black woman.
This has presented many opportunities for a very rich life. Living in New York City, often felt lonely and isolating. It was from that place that I organized and co-hosted a gathering: It Is Time To End Our Isolation: Women of African Descent in the Visual Arts. Out of that exciting and electrifying experience came the idea to create Coast to Coast: A Women of Color National Artist's Book Project. It was for that project, in 1987, that I completed my first artist's book, What's Happening With Momma? During a Women's Studio Workshop residency the next year, Ann Kalmbach guided me in creating a silk-screen and letterpress edition of the book.
The year after that, I created Reading Dick and Jane With Me. Despite having made these two books, I didn't think of myself as an artists' bookmaker. Photographic prints and text-based installations formed the core of my work. As part of my process, I work in a much larger format and explore a combination and permutation of ideas before translating a story into the book medium. But with artists' books I can combine my love of books and my desire to tell stories that are still missing from mainstream books.
My world of today is very different from the world of my parents or the world of my childhood or even the world of much of my adulthood. Ultimately, my work comes out of a strong desire to embrace who and what I am in this place and time and to commemorate and celebrate the presence of the past.
Endnotes: This essay was written for the 40th anniversary of Women's Studio Workshop, Rosendale, New York. I want to thank everyone who has helped me with my projects: you know who you are. However, I want to include a few names of those who were crucial in helping get projects off the ground. They include: Deborah Willis and Julia Hotten, both of whom worked at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library in 1987; Faith Ringgold and Margaret Gallegoes who co-founded with me the Coast to Coast: A Women of Color National Artist's Book Project; Susan Crowe, director of the Lower Eastside Printshop in 1987, who convinced me that I could make What's Happening With Momma? a reality; all the women I have worked with at Women's Studio Workshop; Philip Brookman, of the Washington Projects for the Arts in 1991, and Kimberly Purser, reader of this essay with me.
Clarissa Sligh, Copyright 2010
For the exhibition catalogue, Hand, Voice & Vision: Artists' Books from Women's Studio Workshop, Women's Studio Workshop, 2010, Rosendale, New York.