Visual artist, writer and photographer Clarissa Sligh describes her work as a kind of editing process. “I used my family snapshots as a tool to reframe the narrative,” she says of some of her early pieces. Sligh will offer the talk “I See You Mean: Making Art to Transform and Reframe the Narrative” on Friday, April 7, as part of UNC Asheville’s Arts Fest, a three-day event including lectures, exhibits, readings and much more.
“At that time, when I’d look at the photographs, the pictures that I saw seemed to have no relationship to what I remembered,” says Sligh. “In working with family snapshots over a period of years, I began to see much more clearly how it’s a construction. It’s much more informal these days, but there’s still a great deal of constructing the picture to look a certain way. ‘Turn around and smile, face the camera,’ that sort of thing. That has always interested me — it’s not just that the photograph itself is a construction, but the way we think about family is a construction, the way we think about community is often a construction. I’ve been interested in those ideas and creating work that asks questions about it.”
Though Sligh was introduced to art as a young person, as she explained on the National Endowment for the Arts’ Art Works blog, she pursued a career in science and business, and was even employed by NASA. “While working in the business world of New York City, I met artists who created and performed political actions as part of their work,” she told the NEA. “This resonated with me and ignited old hopes and dreams around making art.”
This year’s Arts Fest is centered on the theme “Arts for Social Change” and features, along with Sligh, singer-songwriter and peace activist David LaMotte and found-materials artist and lecturer David Hess. LaMotte will perform a concert on the UNCA quad on Friday night, following a reception for Hess, whose work will be on display in Gun Show: An Art Exhibit. (The contract for Hess’ exhibition, due to its perhaps-triggering title, contains the statement, “This show is an art exhibit and is not a gun show, or gun sale or trade event. Weapons may not be carried onto the UNC Asheville campus by anyone other than law enforcement personnel.”)
Hess’ installation is his response to recent gun violence in the U.S. “The artist created approximately 100 rifles out of industrial materials and everyday household items,” says the website for the UNCA festival. “The pieces are placed on canvas tarps on the ground where viewers are encouraged to ‘try on’ the guns, causing a wide range of reactions, from humorous to somber.”
Sligh also created a project in response to violence. Transforming Hate, a work in progress, started in 2007 when the artist was sent a number of white supremacist books. Sligh’s partner, who had folded origami paper cranes in honor of a friend who died of cancer, sat with Sligh as she opened that box of disturbing books. “I later told her that because I didn’t want to destroy the books, just as a destructive act, I’d like to fold cranes,” Sligh remembers. “She said, ‘I’ll teach you.’” And that’s how the project began.
The origami birds are rooted in Japanese culture. Sligh was alive during the bombing of Hiroshima and describes feeling “communally complicit in the act.” She eventually went to Japan, where she visited the Children’s Peace Monument, which commemorates Sadako Sasaki and the thousands of child victims of the atomic bomb. Sadako attempted to create a thousand origami cranes because tradition says anyone who does so will be granted a wish — hers would have been to survive the cancer she contracted from radiation. Sadako did not survive, but paper cranes have since come to symbolize the desire for peace.
While Sligh says the freshness of how she originally approached Transforming Hate is stronger than anything she could come up with now, a decade later, “I am in the process of making an exhibition that will be in Washington state,” she says. “I’m going to fold some more cranes from some of the white supremacist books to install in front of groups of 16- by 20-[inch] photographs of men of color. … In light of all the things that are going on today, it [will] read differently that it did 10 years ago.”
Sligh doesn’t necessarily see a connection between the symbolism of the cranes in Japan and the history of being black in American. “I was trying to distance myself from what was being written about in the white supremacist books,” she says. But having lived “through the history of the civil rights movement is what kept me going.”
In fact, Sligh not only witnessed the civil rights era but made history during that time when, in 1955, she was the lead plaintiff in Clarissa Thompson et. al. v. Arlington County School Board, a school desegregation case. “From that moment forward, her work as a student and as a professional … takes into account change, transformation and complication,” says her biography.
Among Sligh’s art books and installations are It Wasn’t Little Rock (dealing with desegregation in schools), Wrongly Bodied: Documenting Transition from Female to Male (the story of a white man transitioning to female paired with that of a 19th-century black slave women who escapes by passing as a white man) and Reading Dick & Jane with Me (“created to interrupt the authority of old elementary school textbooks [that] presented a white, upper-middle-class suburban family as normal life for most Americans,” according to the book’s description).
In 2013, Sligh mounted an exhibition with material from Reading Dick & Jane with Me at UNCA and gave the talk “Power, Privilege, Visibility.” That was her introduction to the university. In 2015, she served as a co-juror for the university’s 48th annual juried student exhibition, and this year she was invited to be part of Arts Fest.
But Sligh’s introduction to Asheville dates to the mid-’90s when she was leading workshops at the Penland School of Crafts. “I’d been teaching photography; I was teaching alternative methods,” she says. “It was primarily to get students to connect their artwork to their own experiences. We did a lot of collage work.”
Those classes were structured to fit into the two-week timeframe, and with older groups, such as college students, Sligh says she’d come to know what to expect. But a couple of years ago, Sligh worked with a group of students at Eliada (a local organization that provides therapeutic residential and day treatment for children and families in crisis). “We told them they were going to make books, and of course they were not interested,” she says with a laugh. “But it was quite magical. … The English teacher would set it up so they’d do writing when I was not there. [Each week, for six to eight weeks] they’d make some kind of book, like a folding book or sewn book. They had a product they could hold onto. They ended up excited about it.”
She adds — and this is coming from an artist who has experienced so much, processed so deeply and shared even more through her creations — “I think that was one of my most surprising experiences. I learned a lot from those kids.”
Hopefully, such experiences, especially for young people, will not be curtailed, but proposed funding cuts to art programs — including the dismantling of the National Endowment for the Arts. “I’m of course going to be with all of the people who are going to try to keep it here,” says Sligh, who received an NEA fellowship in 1988. “The politicians just want to muzzle everyone who wants to speak out about what’s going on. It’s not the first time they tried to do away with the NEA.”
She continues, “We have to fight to keep the NEA. It’s really important. The panels are panels of artists, and it’s one of the ways we can support and encourage each other.