Clarissa Sligh: Living A Life, the Personal and the PoliticalJune 6, 2019
Left to right, Self Portrait with cranes from Hope Project, and the artist at WSW in 1988
Clarissa doesn’t think of herself as an activist or crusader, as I have come to see her, she thinks of herself a storyteller. “In my work, I’m trying to have a voice that’s absent from the conversation – to get my voice into the mix.
In preparation for this piece I spent time talking with Clarissa Sligh over coffee, looking at projects in progress, and reading her published writing. Hers has been a remarkable creative life, full of long-simmering ideas,autobiographical writing, and powerful visual narrative — all focused on identity, social justice, history and change.
Clarissa’s first visual storytelling project was simple. “I had no competition to be the keeper of our family photo album. Snapshots were tucked in drawers all over the house. I collected and spent weeks arranging them to compose a story about my family.”
When They Played House, 1985
Even at the very beginning, Clarissa’s work was about her identity and photography. She requested a camera for her 12th birthday–her school had a darkroom, and for Clarissa it was a magical place. Using photography and math for a high school science project, she won a scholarship to the Hampton Institute where she focused on math and science. She graduated, got a job at NASA, got married, had a child, and got divorced.
Within a few years, she got up the courage to quit her job and travel. “My daughter and I took a long trip across Africa,” she said. “There, we found very sociable people, even people who had very little, were extremely hospitable. I had never seen the world through the eyes of a majority black culture, and I came to see what it meant for me to grow up in a culture where people consider you inferior because you are black. I returned with a different perspective. I came home understanding that the life of working all the time wasn’t a life. I vowed to find a richer life, with art making a part of it.”
Clarissa worked part-time jobs while studying painting at Howard University. spent a summer at the Skowhegan School, where she met Jacob Lawrence. “I knew I wasn’t a great painter,” she admitted, “but he was very encouraging. He told me to follow my heart. I think I have been trying to do so ever since. It was there, at Skowhegan, that I began to see myself as an artist.”
The desire to make art stayed with her, but she still needed to work in order to raise her daughter. She went to the Wharton School at Penn, earned an M.B.A, moved to New York to work at Mobil Oil, then Goldman Sachs. She did fine at work, but the idea of making art gnawed at her. Eventually, she returned to creative work by drawing daily self-portraits.
Sligh’s prints Skookie and Waiting for Daddy
Going back to the family album, she began “reframing the past.” “The pictures of my family were one thing,” she notes, “the experience of living in my family was another. I was reminded that the bonds of affection, shown formally in family photos, had been laced with barbs of conflict and violence. I began reconstructing the images with text. Once there were too many words for a print, I began moving toward making books.”
Clarissa’s first book project began in 1987 at the Lower East Side Print Shop with Vandyke Brown prints of text and family pictures printed on shaped paper, cut to represent a simplified house. Using this concept, she applied for and was awarded a WSW Artist’s Book Residency to produce her artist’s book What’s Happening With Momma. “I had a lot to learn about the stages of the development and production process,” she notes. “Ann Kalmbach and Tatana Kellner, executive director and artistic director at the time, supported me through everything including the testing, silkscreen and letterpress processes.”
With unfettered time to work and knowledgeable support, Clarissa produced an edition of 150 original artist books of What’s Happening With Momma. This accordion book tells a story from her childhood with words printed on folded steps that tumble down from images of home. It became part of Coast to Coast: A Women of Color National Artists’ Book Project, an exhibition that she co-curated and organized. This project was a milestone.
By 1987, Clarissa had left her day job and was both succeeding and struggling as an emerging artist. She worked on other projects and had other residencies, but returned to WSW in 2004 to produce Wrongly Bodied Two. This book came about when Clarissa met Jake, who persuaded Clarissa to document his transition from female to male. Clarissa paired Jake’s story with that of Ellen Craft, a 19th century black slave woman who escaped slavery by passing as a white male slave owner. Clarissa grew up with blacks who changed identities by passing. She understood the cultural resistance Jake experienced as he openly transitioned to male. Clarissa was grateful to return to WSW for production of this book, she notes, “At the time, (WSW was) one of a few places open to artistic work on the subject of transgender issues.”
In 2007, another groundbreaking opportunity came when the Holter Art Museum and the Montana Human Rights Network asked her to participate in the exhibition, Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate. For this exhibition, the museum invited artists to alter or incorporate portions of white supremacist literature that had been donated to the institution by a defecting hate-group leader. After she agreed to participate, a box of white supremacist books arrived. “It felt frightening,” she remembers, “The words were full of hate. I wondered what I could do with them. I remembered the Japanese legend that whoever folds 1,000 paper cranes so pleases the Gods that they will be granted a wish. I thought about making paper cranes, which are symbols of peace. Not knowing how, I was ready to skip that idea when (my partner) Kim taught me how to fold and convinced me I could do it.”
Clarissa Sligh’s piece Hope at the Holter Art Musem
Hope, the resulting piece for exhibition, became a crown with streamers, made of nearly a thousand paper cranes folded from the book pages. Transforming Hate: An Artist’s Book, her exploration of the experience of working with white supremacist books, was published in 2016.
History, social justice, and transformation are themes of Clarissa’s work, for sure. Confronting social injustice came early to Clarissa Sligh. While in high school, she became lead plaintiff in a Virginia school desegregation suit, Clarissa Thompson vs. the Board of Education. Looking back on that experience led to the essay, The Plaintiff Speaks (2004) and an artist book, It Wasn’t Little Rock (2004 and 2005). In another artist book, Reading Dick & Jane with Me (1989), Clarissa created a narrative about learning to read as a black child with second-hand school books about upper class white children.
Reading Dick and Jane With Me, cover and detail
Her most recent work is My Mother, Walt Whitman and Me. “Leaves of Grass was a beautiful book that my mother fished out of the trash and brought home,” she says. “Remembering that book took me back to the young me that was more in tune with the natural world that I am becoming reacquainted with now.”
To me, it’s not surprising that nature now figures into Clarissa’s work. At her home in Asheville, NC the yard she and her partner Kim have created is a lush, all-season display of beauty, with tulips, rhododendron, figs, and roses tumbling over the front fence.
Installation from Clarissa Sligh’s Who We Was
“I have gardens. I listen to birds singing. I grow things and photograph what grows,” she says. “Writing is the basis for all of my work, and I write in the morning. Then I walk or work outside or in my studio. In the evenings, I walk again. These simple acts are currently part of my life and my voice.”
“Making art demands that I learn who I am and what I know and becomes a way to heal scars and learn new truths. The process is not predictable, and I never know how long it will take or if it will happen at all. Most of the time, I do not really understand the gesture, or the meanings, until long after it has been done.”
Carol Lawrence has, after retiring from a career in the nonprofit sector, returned to her first loves, craft and writing. Current projects showcase photographs and prints in boxes and books. At the moment, she is experimenting with hand-typed text, mica inserts, palladium and photogravure printing, and sewing. “The typewriter vs. the sewing machine” is the subject of new work in memoir. You can see her work at carollawrencecreative.com.