Judith Scott Defies Categorization

From the moment I walked into the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum to see the work of Judith Scott, I felt I had entered a sacred space. A reverence hung in the air, as though I had entered an ancient tomb delicately arrayed with sarcophaguses. Or perhaps I had stumbled into a time capsule filled with strange artifacts covered in cobwebs. What struck me most powerfully about Scott’s work was this archaic quality— its ability to transcend time and the limitations of an individual life.

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And that may be the best way to describe the work of Judith Scott: transcendent. Scott was born in 1943 in Cincinnati, Ohio. But unlike her twin sister, Joyce, Judith was born with the array of characteristics we recognize as Down syndrome. For the first seven years of her life, Scott–though unable to speak–lived comfortably at home with her parents and siblings. But when the time came to enter school, she was asked a number of questions to determine her competency. And when she didn’t respond, the deafness she had been born with was misdiagnosed as severe mental retardation. Scott’s parents made the difficult decision to admit her to the Columbus State Institution for the mentally retarded. There she would stay, separated from her family, for the next thirty-five years. In 1985, Joyce became her legal guardian, and Judith moved with her sister to California.

Up until that point in her life, Scott had never really tried her hand at visual art. She finally got that opportunity when her sister enrolled her in the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, which provides professional studio space for artists with disabilities. There, Scott’s talents flourished. She began by experimenting with drawing and painting, but when she had the chance to sit in on the class of a visiting fiber artist, her own creativity broke through in a cascade of strange and wonderful sculptural work.

Scott’s sculptures express a distinct style and technique. She would find an object around the studio, whatever was at hand, to use as her centerpiece. With amazing dexterity, she would then wrap the object in yarn, thread, and fabrics, in intricate patterns expressed through both color and weave. With free rein over her materials, Scott would sometimes take several months to finish one piece. Then suddenly she would clap her hands together and push it to the side, signaling its completion. She rarely showed an interest in her own works once they were finished, and throughout scores and scores of sculptures, she never repeated a design.

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After a short period of time, Scott’s singular artistic gift became apparent to all who watched her in action or viewed her completed sculptures But Scott’s explosive career as an artist was comparatively short–she died in 2005 at the age of sixty-one. During that brief time she produced over 200 pieces. Some of these have appeared at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Collection de l’Art Brut in Switzerland, The American Folk Art Museum in New York, and the Museum of Everything in London, among many others musuems. But the exhibit at the Sackler Center in Brooklyn is the first comprehensive exhibit of Scott’s work as fine art. Catherine J. Morris and her co-curator, Matthew Higgs, were meticulous in gathering sculptures for this exhibit. “Beginning with the first piece Scott made and ending with the work she was engaged in making at the time of her death,” Morris said, “our goal was to present the breadth of work the artist made during her career.”

Scott’s early sculptures appear simpler—a bundle of sticks wrapped in an array of multi-colored yarn. But as she explored her medium, Scott’s works became more ambitious and complex. Some pieces, with their whimsical colors and materials, evoke childhood–from dreamcatchers to jungle gym collages, while others resemble crossbows, spears, and strange weapons from an ancient time. Some shapes call to mind earth forms or boulders wrapped in eccentric packages, while others evoke a cartoonish or carnival-like atmosphere.

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These amazing structures transcend not only time and the limitations of age but also the many professional pigeonholes into which Scott’s art has been sequestered throughout the years. Because Scott had no formal training, the category known as “outsider art” has been invoked most often, even as her exceptional artistic ability has remained unquestioned. I asked curator Catherine Morris about the significance of bringing outsider art into an insider institution like the Brooklyn Museum. “One of the goals of our exhibition was to present Judith Scott’s work as being very much that of an insider,” Morris said. “She worked in a studio environment surrounded by other working artists, and her work has been shown and collected in the context of many contemporary practices. So by those measurements, Scott was very much an artist working within an active and engaged art community.”

I also asked Morris about the significance of including Scott’s work in the Center for Feminist Art. “It is not our intention to describe Judith Scott as a feminist artist,” said Morris, “but rather to describe her life experience, and her opportunity to become an artist, as being tied to the feminist and disability rights movements that fostered Creative Growth and, by extension, Scott’s ability to make art. I would also suggest that the feminist movement’s contributions to art history, including making what would formerly have been known as domestic crafts (working with yarn, fabric and other craft materials) into legitimate forms of art making, have had a significant impact on our ability to see what Scott made as important art that needs to be contextualized within the frame of contemporary practices.”

No matter how one might seek to categorize or cubbyhole Judith Scott and her work, the size and diversity of the crowd visiting this exhibit suggest that something within her creations speaks to people of all ages and backgrounds and conveys an inspirational energy and power across numerous communities. The title of the exhibit, Judith Scott—Bound and Unbound, perfectly captures the tension in Scott’s own life and work. Confined for years in a mental institution, misdiagnosed and misunderstood, Scott discovered in herself a spirit that turned constriction into an art form. Her cocoon-like sculptures changed people’s perception of Judith Scott’s life from misbegotten to beautiful and free.

“Judith Scott: Bound and Unbound” remains through March 29 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, at Prospect Park; 718-638-5000, brooklynmuseum.org.