Round the Way Girl and Her Worldly Ways
Joyce J. Scott refers to her self as a “round the way girl.” Despite international recognition for her beautiful, fearlessly edgy art, she’s that girl down the street who maintains a deep affinity for her city. She’s lived in Baltimore, Maryland her entire life. When Freddie Grey was murdered, she was at her row house home down the street from the CVS that was set on fire.
She keeps in touch with her community by presenting performances and small exhibitions including a recent trunk show at the Touch of Gracye boutique. At these casual events Scott introduces people – many of whom never visit a museum or art gallery – to her art and sells her jewelry at prices they can afford.
This B’mo homegirl however is often on the road. Her work is shown in solo shows around the country and her travels take her through the American Southwest, Central America, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. In her travels, she observes the local artisans and gets ideas, media and techniques for her diverse work – sculptures, jewelry, prints, and collages in a mix of materials that include ceramics, cloth, metal and more recently, blown and cast glass.
Born in 1948, Scott grew up during the volatile 1960s. In 1970, she earned her BFA/Edu from the Maryland Institute College of Art. That same year she enrolled in the crafts MFA program at Mexico’s Institute Allende. Embracing the beauty and creative energy of the country, she was particularly drawn to the ancient structures built by the Aztecs and the political murals that influenced many artists in the United States. As in the States, political tensions were occurring in Mexico as Mexican students took to the streets demanding their civil rights. The protests resulted in massive arrests and many vanquished young people, now referred to as “the disappeared ones.”
Back in the United States, African American visual artists were developing a new aesthetic. David Hammons was expressing the beauty of black hair by going into barber shops and sweeping it up to make sculpture. Subversively, he rented a billboard on which he drew a large picture of Reverend Jessie Jackson with blue eyes and blond hair with the caption: “How You Like Me Now?” Senga Nengudi metaphorically took off her clothes to examine and explore her body using body stockings and found objects and developed performances that demanded we “black” people look at our gender relationships — African American men and women. Beyte Saar was creating intimate assemblages that turned the ever-smiling pancake-making Aunt Jemina into a machine gun toting revolutionary in her “The Liberation of Aunt Jemina.”
During this period Joyce Scott also began making politically-informed works and her oeuvre includes statements about rape, violence and social injustice.
Family is another theme in her work and in many of her performances, lectures and visual works, Scott incorporates family stories. In an early work, Parental Guidance (1976), she reflects on the relationship she had with her mother, the quilt artist, Elizabeth Talford Scott. In this work Scott stitched in objects characteristic of Mother Scott’s style as an homage to her. In discussing her mother’s work, Scott notes that for illiterate women, quilting was a kind of diary; every stitch was a word.
To appreciate the creative foundation of Scott’s work is to know her mother. Elizabeth Talford Scott grew up in South Carolina, one of 14 children. As a child she worked with her siblings and sharecropper parents in the cotton fields. When it was time for quilting a family member would pull down the quilting frame loom that was hoisted up to the ceiling of their one room house. The making of a new quit sometimes meant sewing that new quilt on top of an old quilt and as for warmth, newspapers were gathered and stuffed in between the layers of fabric. In such ways, young Elizabeth learned to make do.
When she was 18, Elizabeth married her first husband, Talford, Later she lived with Charlie Scott, Jr., Scott’s father, and worked as a nanny, caring for white children. She was also an artist.
Traditional quilting involves stitching through two or three layers of fabric and can include patchwork sewing. But Elizabeth T. Scott’s creative process did not consider traditional methods of quilting. Not confined to the standard rectangle, triangle, and square forms, her appliques and patchwork were embellished freely with beads, buttons, shells, and various found objects.
One quilt in particular, Grandfather’s Cabin/Noah’s Ark (1993–1996), now in the collection of the Delaware Museum of Art, reflects upon a plantation in South Carolina. It speaks of how her grandfather, who had been enslaved, built his own house and it tells the story of the king snake who resided under the house with his family as well. Art such as this, like oral history, provides historical information about American culture; but more than that, as art it provides a glimpse of technical and creative skills that have been lost with time.
To juxtapose Elizabeth T. Scott’s quilt with that of Joyce Scott’s narrative 1983 quilt, Three Generations, becomes a conversation between mother and daughter. Here Joyce introduces us to her family of basket makers, quilters, clay sculpting, wood carving, metal workers, musicians, chefs, and storytellers. Within the central panel, Scott places her mother handing her the silver needle as her grandparents watch the exchange of knowledge. Scott jokes that this quilt is about her mother “needling” her. In 2000, the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Kickin It With The Old Masters exhibition and catalog covered 30 years of work by Elizabeth and Joyce Scott.
In 1976 at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine, Scott met an American Indian artist who showed her the peyote stitch, a bead technique that enables beaders to create free-form designs without a loom. The peyote stitch is a process that allows for improvisation and a blending of colors or as Scott would say, it is like Pointillism.
Armed with the peyote stitch Scott began tackling the stereotypes of black physiognomy and sexualization in soft sculpture. With deliberate technical skill, executed with sensitivity and incisiveness, Scott stitches beads lavishly together so that they sparkle from the light while making color choices that blend sensually to entice the viewer to come near. On closer view, we discover undercurrents of something awful, challenging and frightening.
Beyond the discomfort is the recognition that cannot deny issues of race, gun violence and sexual exploitation. We are forced to struggle with the issues of various people in systems of perpetual oppression.
Many artists have portrayed the Mammy figure but few have dissected, exposed, and ripped apart, the encasement of the Mammy façade to find the human being that lives beneath. Nanny Now Nigger Later (1986) and No Mommy Me I (1991) are examples of works from Scott’s Mammy series. The stereotype of the Mammy requires stripping away the layers of false perceptions of who and what is a black woman. As the daughter of a woman who worked as a nanny, Scott separates the woman from the job, to expose the human being underneath.
Nanny Now Nigger Later is the first of Scott’s soft sculptures to tackle the Mammy. In this piece she dismembers the relationship between the black care-taker to the white child from the child’s perspective. Scott wants us to look through the eyes of the child and take that emotional journey from being loved by this woman and loving this nanny to learning to recoil from her love, pull away from her and regard her as an object in order to reject her humanity and see her as a nigger. In the third and final work in the series, Out to Dry, the baby is dismantled bead by bead.
In No Mommy Me I, developed several years later, Scott turns away from the white child to have us look through the eyes of the woman’s children, and by extension, the woman herself. Here she forces us to empathize with this black woman who, out of the need to feed her children, must sacrifice their care in order to care for other children. We are forced to acknowledge that her children might feel abandoned or afraid, but worse, they feel that they are in second place for care from their own mother.
Approaching the subject of the African American male, Scott strives to deconstruct predetermined concepts of the black male that stem from the physiognomy of black men. Focusing her attention on the sexualization of the black male, Scott directs our attention to the male phallus which became the Penis series.
In works such Cuddly Black Dick III (1996) Scott attacks the perpetuation of the myth of the black man as an aggressive sex animal and the personification of violence. In this series, Scott makes the viewer aware of the racial biase that shapes national perceptions of the African American male. Within Cuddly Black Dick III, Scott offers two perspectives in the construct of the man as a big black dick. On the one had we are forced to recognize our collusion in the perception of the black man as overly sexual. On the other hand, we are witnessing the white woman’s fantasy, the allusion of the black man as the great black dildo, the dick that will leave her breathless and ravaged.
Even as a jeweler Scott’s intent remains consistent; her jewelry like her sculptures are beautiful and dangerous. In fact, it is fair to say that she challenges the owner to be fearless. “I make jewelry to be worn, and if it tells about scary, icky subjects, then so much the better for the person who has the cojones to wear it in public,” she explains, referring to pieces such as Lynching Necklace.
In 1991, Scott, along with fifteen other international artists, was commissioned by the Spoleto Festival for the Arts to create artworks about the history of the South for sites throughout Charleston, South Carolina. Scott selected the ruined steps and columns of the former Charleston Museum.
Originally a Confederate veterans’ reunion hall, the Charleston Museum burned down in 1981. Using the structure as a metaphor for the hidden history of the south, she hung long strands of beaded branches turning the classical pillars into weeping willows and centrally placed a lone figure hanging over simulated flames flowing like blood down the stairs.
What Scott has done throughout her career is to take a diaristic approach to her work which is at once personal and global – global in the sense that she presents human experiences that transcends national borders. It is this aspect of Scott’s work that connects her to the next generation of postmodernist artist of color. Within her work as well as in her process we can make the visual connection as presented in an argument posed by Fred Wilson, an artist who deconstructs how museums discuss culture and interprets art. He argues that oppression and denial are two aspects of colonialism of knowledge (i.e., coloniality). He believes that in order to eliminate the power of this colonialty, artists have been undoing the rhetoric of modernity. He continues to show that in order to decolonialize the system as it currently exists, artists and art historians of color must consequently be aware of the consciousness of being colonialized.
In some of her beaded works Scott has expanded her discussion to look at rape, particularly as it is taking place in countries such as the Congo, Sudan and Somalia. She shows how rape is about power — the power of destruction, the power to dehumanize, the power to threaten, to destroy families and communities. She dares us to look at how women’s bodies are literally ripped apart, often their bodies cut and placed upon sticks to frighten people into submission.
More recently Scott has been working with glass blowers and cutters in Murano, Italy pressing her images into the glass or attaching her beaded sculptures to the glass.
Scott has said about her work that her influences are generally cultural. “For me,” she told Craft in America, “it is important to imbue the work with something that resonates and follows someone home whether it’s the beauty and they just want to luxuriate in it or it’s the message…cause I think art has the ability to, if not cure or heal, at least enlighten…slap you on the head; wake you up.” (Messages episode, October 30, 2014, www.craftinamerica.org)
In 2014 Joyce Scott had three exhibitions running concurrently: the neckpieces and blown glass sculpture in From Maryland to Murano at the Museum of Art and Design/MAD in New York City; her jewelry in New Work, 2014 at Mobilia Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and sculpture and prints in Can’t We All Just Get Along at Goya Contemporary in Baltimore. She also was one of eight black women artists represented in the Brides of Anansi: Fiber and Contemporary Art, at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta, Georgia. In 2015, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland, presented the Joyce J. Scott: Truths & Visions exhibition (January 29 - May 24).
Gylbert Coker, Ph.D., is an art historian who lives in Thomasville, GA.
In addition to courtesies noted in some of the captions, the images in this article are courtesy of Goya Contemporary gallery, Baltimore, with the exception of Grandfather’s Cabin/Noah’s Ark and John Dean's photo of the artist.