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
Making Artists' Books
By Clarissa T. Sligh, 2002
I admit to being a bookish creative visual artist. Although photographically based prints and site-specific installations form the core of my work, bookmaking adds depth and informs everything I do. Perhaps it is because combining image and text is an important part of my creative process. It could also be related to my habit of jotting down notes on scraps of paper, index cards, yellow legal pads, and in composition and sketchbooks in order to keep track of my thoughts. But I also love and cherish books.
My first book was completed in 1987. At that time I was using my family album and the voice and perspective of "the child" to critique the construction of family snapshots. The emergence of a memory of a younger sister being born at home set into motion the making of What's Happening With Momma? It seemed like a simple idea, but while building and combining text with photographs, I found myself groping for the physical form it would take.
Making book dummies led me to realize that the container had to be a small safe space. But my biggest challenge was to create a structure that would also provide a way for the viewer to interact with the book in order to "read" it. How could I evoke with photographs, mark making and text something of the way that the Baptist preacher and the gospel and rhythm and blues singers and musicians used repetitive, rhythmic fragments to elicit the audience response necessary for the satisfactory completion of their work. Here too "the reader" needed to interact with the art.
After agonizing over it for months, I visited Keith Smith's home in Rochester, New York. There I saw a videotaping of a book artist, Susan Share, perform her book in order for it to be seen by the viewer. I knew immediately that her process of "unfolding" was exactly what my piece was about. That night, a multiple accordion structure came to me in a dream. Waking up, I drew it in my sketchbook on the table beside my bed. The next morning I saw that it was the solution to the problem for which I had been searching.
Initially the book was made using a Van Dyke Brown alternative photographic process. Negatives were pieced together and contact printed for the house shaped accordion structure. The interior accordion pieces, printed separately on a different paper, were cut, folded and adhered to the interior of the house structure with adhesive. Using these methods, I was able to make a very small and ephemeral edition. The following year, Women's Studio Workshop in Rosendale, New York, awarded me an artist residency fellowship. While there I made a different version of What's Happening With Momma?. Ann Kalmbach guided me in strengthening the structure and in printing an edition of 150 books with silk screen inks and letterpress.
My next book, Reading Dick and Jane With Me, 1989, was made in an edition of 1,000 on the one color offset press at Visual Studies Workshop. Using a memory of learning to read from elementary school textbooks called "Dick and Jane Readers," I combined photographs and "the voice" of my brothers and sisters and other neighborhood kids to engage in a dialogue that would interrupt "the voice and authority" of the school textbooks. Used during the 1940s and 1950s as the standard reading textbook for American elementary schools, the stories portrayed the life of a white upper middle class suburban family and were touted as representative of the average American family. As a young student I believed that they represented reality and that my own family was an aberration from the norm. Reading Dick and Jane With Me was to be a site of resistance in which who we had been could talk back. The book's dimensions of 8 1/2 by 7 inches are reminiscent of the earlier elementary school textbook.
Reading Dick and Jane With Me is part of a body of work made from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. As with much of that memory-based work, I was neither nostalgic nor longing for the past. My exposure to the marginal New York world of radicalized feminist artists, political activist artists, and underground film in the mid-1970s made me realize that art could be drawn from the material of one's own life even if it was unfashionable. Their raw and often crude experimental transformations inspired me aesthetically and spiritually to dare to believe that I could do something similar with my work.
In 1991, I made a pair of one of a kind books, called Martin and Malcolm, at Pyramid Atlantic in Maryland. They were small elements in "The Witness Project," a site-specific installation at the Washington Project for the Arts. The installation explored perceptions of the Civil Rights, Women's and anti-Vietnam war movements of the 1960s and 1970s. I had grown up in the Washington, D.C. area and wanted to draw on the local history of which my family had been a part. My mother had been involved the "modern" Civil Rights Movement since the early 1950s. When she could not attend a meeting, I was sent to listen to the reports. Although I was only 8 or 9 years of age, she expected me to repeat back to her what I had heard. What resulted at the WPA was an installation of overwhelming textual and visual data relating to the civil protests and violent responses. Within that context the books were to provide a quiet space.
Paper pulp was molded into a double house shaped frames. One book was to evoke the spirit of Martin Luther King and the other the spirit of Malcolm X (also known as El Hadjj Malik El Shabazz). The books are similar in structure, but have different mixtures and color intensities of paper pulp. Text, relating similarities and connections in the lives of these two black men, who were from different economic and regional backgrounds, is printed on rice paper that is adhered through chine collé to the center of each book. Among the most abstract works I have made, the books are metaphorical housings for the spirits of Martin and Malcolm.
Pages from Collaborative Sketchbooks, 1999, was made with an artist friend, Nancy Chalker Tennant. In the summer of 1993 Nancy and I, who lived miles apart, decided to do a collaborative drawing project. We both had very busy lives and saw it as one way to affirm our connection to each other as artists. After selecting standard spiral bound 30 page sketchbooks, we decided that each of us would make one drawing each day for a month - one day for each of the 30 pages in the sketchbook. At the end of the month, we exchanged books through the mail. Accepting the "visual premise" of an already worked on surface, each of us was to improvise and make a new drawing on each page. It took at least two months for us to complete a set of drawings after which we began a new set of drawings in a fresh book. The drawing came to an end during the winter of 1994.
Six years later, in the summer of 1999, we reviewed our collaborative sketchbooks together to select our favorite composite drawings. "There were some drawings we each could not remember having done, while others brought back memories from those times in our lives. Parts of several drawings we each claimed must have been done by the other. One, who was sure she could tell who had done what, was wrong numerous times. Her response was a testament to the way we had somehow extended the boundaries of each other's work." Seeking a way to further transform the drawings, we distorted them with a photocopier machine and created an edition of 4 spiral bound books, of which we each have two.
In 1996, I began working on Hiroshima, Hopes and Dreams, 1997, as a way of visually exploring the loss of my husband Aaron to a four-month bout with lung cancer in 1985. Using the context of our 1984 trip to Japan, I visualized it as a sparse, minimal bookwork with a few phrases. However, as I juxtaposed images and text, the project took on a life of its own. Each book dummy seemed over simplified and incomplete. As I expanded a phrase or page, the project became more emotionally complex, technically difficult and materially costly than I desired. After working around the clock for several months, Hiroshima was completed as a stab bound seven-signature work housed in a black box and wrapped in a black cloth. The package was just about the size and weight of the box in which Aaron's cremated remains had been returned to me.
Making Hiroshima was an important rite of passage for me. A highly personal book about mourning, it provided the seeds needed to resolve issues related to other projects in progress at that time. In 1998 I began Voyage(r): Tourist Map to Japan, 2000, during an artist residency at Nexus Press in Atlanta. It too was based on the Japan trip. But now I could explore the experience of interacting with the people and the place. More importantly, the time and space gave me the opportunity to research the historical circumstances around the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan and reflect on what Hiroshima meant to me as an American. With the support of the people at Nexus Press, the resulting book was a 144 page multi-layered visual feast of drawings, photographs and text encased in a cloth pouch.
In my current work in progress, Wrongly Bodied, gender and identity constructions are explored through the framing of self-portraits, while photographing Deb who undergoes a sex change to become Jake, a "normal" white Texan man. Diary fragments, photographs, drawings, as well as excerpts from legal and medical documents used to legitimize Jake's transformed status are used to help understand and perhaps resolve being at odds in my role as the interpreter of Jake's process.
Original publication at now defunct website: "Making Artists Books,"WorldBookDealers.com, London, 2002.