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Jessica Peterson


Interview conducted by Mason Polk, Pitzer College '19



With various different formats of presenting art, what drew you to create this piece in the form of an artist's book? How do you think the format of an artist’s book best explores/examines race and identity?

My primary and exclusive art medium is artists’ books, so that’s why I chose to create Unbound in the book format. I actually think fine press artists’ books are not the best art form to discuss race. They are a very exclusive form, that is only known about in a pretty small and exclusive group. A handmade book, letterpress printed on handmade paper, is not a democratic multiple. Unbound will only ever be in the hands of a small group of collectors and patrons of special collection libraries. But the craft methods used, and the time and intensity in the way the book was made, honor the narrative in very special way, in a way in which the narrative has not been told before.

I like to make artists’ books about race because I don’t see a lot of other book artists doing so.

I’d like to see artists’ books get more exposure, because I do think they are an incredible, rich entry point into art. I had a hard time explaining what artist books were to the participants of Unbound. They did not understand how a book could be art, no matter how many examples I showed them. But the morning each participant received their copy of the book, and felt the pages, they understood on an intuitive level what an artists book was, and how it gave their words and ideas new value in such a preciously crafted format. Many of them expressed this to me.

How would you like your audience to interact with your work? 

To touch it, of course!

How are the central themes/messages of your work relevant to contemporary issues?

All I can say is that you have to know the past in order to understand the present. There are many narratives that have been neglected because they were not the narratives of the people in power. These narratives deserve to be told as much as possible, and in as many forms as possible.

What was your research process like? Did you obtain most of your information online, in books, newspapers, magazines or first-hand accounts?

I always start by googling a topic I am working on. This gives me insight into the most popular sources, and what the general, pop culture base of knowledge is on a given topic. These google searches usually provide deeper sources. I then researched in catalogs of local libraries, in this case, the Longwood University library (the Farmville university, in the town where the lock-out happened). There were many primary resources in Longwood’s library, and many scholarly publications about this history. I also visited Virginia State University. VSU holds the official archive on the Free School. Most of my information came from published accounts by other scholars. The first hand information came in the form of the stories that participants shared (included in the book).

For your personal accounts (by students such as Pride Carrington and James E. Holcomb) how did you go about finding the names of affected students? How did you decide who to reach out to? Were people receptive to your work? Were there many stories that you liked but weren’t able to include?

I started the project under the false assumption that all the victims of the school lock-out would want to be involved and share their story. But, many of the people who had been affected by the school lock out were not public about their involvement. 

Many of the people I approached had never publicly shared what they had been through. For example, one participant hadn’t told his grandkids. He finally told his granddaughter that year because he received an honorary high school diploma the same year she graduated from high school. The Moton Museum serves as kind of a community center for veterans of the lock-out… there are community breakfasts, and other events. It is very tight-knit community. I presented my ideas and the project to this community, via a Moton Museum-sponsored event. I asked everyone to be involved. The idea of a “book” scared many of the veterans, as they were concerned I would be personally benefiting from their stories. It was a challenge to introduce the idea of an “artists book” and to explain that there would only be 100 copies of the book made. Everyone who participated got a copy of the final edition. Proceeds from the sale of the remainder of the edition went to the Moton Museum and Longwood University. 

I really wanted to include everyone’s story, but the stories included were the only stories I got permission to use. By the end of my four month stay in Farmville, I totally understood why the community of veterans reacted they way they did to a white woman from outside of their community asking for their stories. I can say the people who participated and donated their stories were very pleased with results of the book. 

Tell us about your Free Schools survey process. Did you need to travel throughout or beyond Virginia to survey teachers? Furthermore, are there any responses to your question, ‘What was the most unusual incident you observed during the first three weeks of school?’ that you thought were particularly powerful but didn’t get to include?

The survey in Unbound was a survey prepared by the Free Schools Association and given to the teachers after their first months of teaching in the Free School in Farmville, in 1963. I found the surveys, the actual documents, in the VSU archives. I didn’t follow up with any teachers, my goal was really to honor the veterans of the Free Schools.

Did your first drafts of your idea for infrastructure include timelines, maps, quotes, original text, etc.? If you had various drafts, what purpose brought you from one to the next and how do you think each added component influenced the book?

I was asked to make Unbound because professors at Longwood U had seen my previous artist book Habitat, which included timelines, maps, quotes and original sources. Habitat honors the experience of Biloxi MS residents during Hurricane Katrina. Professors at Longwood said, we’d like an artist book like this (Habitat), but about the Free Schools. It was made to mark the 50th anniversary of the Free Schools. Timelines are great for artist books/accordion books, because they are such a great visual aid for marking time passage. There was always a timeline, in all the drafts. Unbound’s design was essentially decided in the first draft. What changed was some of the wording. I like to include the original sources in my work, because I am  not a scholar. I don’t want to add my bias to the story, so instead of reinterpreting sources in my own words, I like to just include the source material.

How did you select the newspaper passages? Why did you choose to highlight the black passages that you did? Why is the rest of the text in such an almost ineligible light text? Did you want the newspaper clips to be easily overlooked or difficult to read?

I wanted them to be there as primary sources, so that it would make the narrative hard to deny, or question. I wanted them to support the narrative rather than being the focal point.

What is your personal connection to this subject matter? Have you been personally or indirectly affected by the closing of schools in the Prince Edward County? Are you yourself from Virginia?

I was asked to be a resident artist at Longwood University and make an artist book edition that honored the Free Schools for the 50th anniversary. I had never been to Virginia before, and hadn’t heard about the Free Schools. I relocated from Alabama to Virginia, and lived in Farmville from January to May of the year the book was produced. I’m a white woman. I was raised in Rochester NY, where I went to public schools that were influenced by some of the same ideas/ideals that founded the Free Schools (basically, the schools I went to in the early 80’s were originally started to integrate the public school system in Rochester. My book Cause and Effect is about this. I deal with race in America in a lot of my work. Sometimes, I feel conflicted about being a white woman telling the stories of black people, but I don’t see these histories being told widely, and I think it is important to tell them as much and loudly as possible, until they become mainstream narratives.

Following the production of Unbound, how has your work, research and the affected community shifted your understanding of the Prince Edward County’s closing public schools?

This is a life-changing project for me, and shifted my perceptions and understandings of many, many things. It went way beyond the school closings. I better understood what it is like to be a victim of systematic racism. I understood how that system can ruin your self-worth in a way nothing else can. I was reminded about my privilege as a white woman. I carry all these lessons with me still.

Jessica Peterson