On Outsider Art and the Margins of the Mainstream - Judith Scott: A Heart Concealed
By Marcus Davies
While the work of Henry Darger represents the posthumous discovery and acclaim that often marks the close of the outsider biography, Judith Scott (1943-2005) is the rare example whose recognition came not only in her own lifetime, but also during a period of intense creativity and stylistic maturity. Working from the studio of Creative Growth Art Center, a program in Oakland, California offering artistic training and support to people with disabilities, Judith Scott was an artist of exceptional and unprecedented talent. For the past 18 years her fiber art, typically large-scale, abstract massses of carefully bound yarn, have gained widespread attention among enthusiasts of idiosyncratic art. However, despite her popularity, Scott remained indifferent to the effects and implications of her fame. With no discernible investment in the reactions to her work, Scott continued to create in the service of her own private, undisclosed motivations. As Scott was born deaf and with Down’s Syndrome, and possessed little verbal ability it was impossible for others to inquire directly about the nature of her art. Given the circumstances, we are left to piece together loose inferences from careful observations of her work and her life, a project attempted with great care and compassion in John MacGregor’s Metamorphosis: The Fiber Art of Judith Scott.
Having watched Scott work at length within the art therapy environment of Creative Growth, MacGregor writes about her remarkable imperviousness to the influence of both her facilitators and the other artists working around her. Engaging in a process of her own invention in which she began with a seemingly arbitrary object selected from the studio, or (consent having no bearing on Scott’s process) from the personal belongings of the staff, she then methodically enclosed the object within a binding of carefully knotted lengths of yarn applied over the course of days or weeks, resulting in organic, cocoon-like forms that offer little indication of what they contain. Whatever lies at their hearts has been thoroughly concealed, protected by layer upon layer of impenetrable knotwork that literally and symbolically denies the viewer access to the innermost soul of the finished piece.
Given the severity of her disability it is unlikely, as MacGregor posits early in his study, that Scott was capable of conceptualizing the “meaning or function” of art, let alone the “understand[ing] that the objects she created were perceived by others as works of art” (MacGregor 1999:2). In light of these restrictions, how do we gain insight into Scott’s engagement with her art work? We cannot ask her and she cannot tell us, but the intensity of her methods, the originality of her approach to her materials and the startling beauty of her objects compels us to venture indelicate queries as to ‘what’, and ‘why’, despite our knowing that the answers can never be more than educated and impassioned conjecture. Nevertheless, MacGregor makes a valid attempt to contextualize Scott’s work through biographical analysis, reasonably citing the social and emotional isolation experienced during the first three decades of her life as a deeply resonant, driving force behind her work.
Born into an era of unapologetic institutionalization, Scott spent thirty-five years living in group homes throughout Ohio. Receiving little contact from her family during this time, it is likely that a compounded sense of loss and abandonment had a profound effect on Scott’s development, despite her inability to articulate such feelings. Fortunately, in an attempt at reconciliation, her twin sister, Joyce, brought Scott to live with her in California and eventually enrolled her as a full-time participant in Creative Growth’s programs.
During the first years of her engagement with Creative Growth Scott worked primarily on paper, producing a series of drawings and paintings in which she set about covering the surface with monochrome scribblings. Although these early works are unremarkable on their own, they reveal a “sudden and spontaneous eruption of creativity after long years of inaction and silence” (MacGregor 1999:6). They also indicate a growing preoccupation with the act of covering and concealing, a theme linking these early works to her late sculptural pieces. This connection, MacGregor argues, is evidence that there is some kind of artistic process revealed in her developing approach to her materials. Moving from the patterned scribbles of her two-dimensional work to her first experiments with the repetitive wrapping of yarn around sticks and scraps of wood, her process “suggest[s the discovery of] an image or object of deep significance to her,” symbolically embodied in and communicated through her art (MacGregor 1999:60). What she was attempting to communicate, however, if this is indeed what she was doing, is forever open to interpretation.
While her sculptures are essentially “non-representational” and bear no orientation as to how they are meant to be viewed, MacGregor posits that “it is worth considering the possibility that rudimentary depictions of the human body occasionally emerge” (MacGregor 1999:81). Indeed, many of Scott’s objects resemble figures, often joined in pairs that are closely bound to one another. The artist was known to refer to her creations as ‘Baba’, cradling them in her arms and becoming upset if they were touched by others while she was working on them (MacGregor 1999: 40 and 79). Perhaps then there is a connection between her work and her relationship with her twin sister? Is it possible that her possessiveness over the objects that she created indicates an intuitive, maternal inclination? Whatever may be inferred from these observations, it is apparent that Scott enjoyed some form of conscious investment in what she was doing. Strange, then, was her attitude towards her finished pieces. While highly protective and possessive of her work while incomplete, she tended to demonstrate “little interest in [their] fate” when finished (Macgregor 1999:40). This, too, appears to be an important aspect of her process, and is perhaps the most difficult to understand. Whereas this abandonment seems to parallel Scott’s past experiences with her family, it is also possible that she simply lost interest in the object at hand as she was compelled to begin the cycle anew.
Despite the questions that they raise, Scott’s objects remain “curiously incomplete but convincing works of art,” incomplete in that we must be the ones to invest them with our own projected values, yet convincing nonetheless because of their aesthetic power and the overwhelming belief of their maker that they were so necessary to her well-being as to devote the last eighteen years of her life to their existence (MacGregor 1999:88). And while Scott may have been indifferent to the rewards of her devotion, her work has become highly sought-after over the course of the last decade, ushered onto the market by the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in New York City. Most recently, several museums have embraced Scott’s work in their permanent collections, including the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, which received two pieces donated by MacGregor, and the Oakland Museum of California through a joint gift from the Folk Art Society of America and Creative Growth in 2004.