Our Genius: Joyce J. Scott

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Grad Show IV: Studio Art

Appreciating MacArthur Fellow Joyce J. Scott’s Attitude and Gratitude

Joyce J. Scott sits on the sunny patio of a Reservoir Hill café, about a five-minute stroll from her Sandtown home. The 68-year-old artist had just spent the past few weeks in a whirlwind of interviews and photo shoots after the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation named her one of its class of 2016 fellows in September. Over homemade peach upside-down cake and green tea at Dovecote Cafe, she considers how her life may change given the unrestricted $625,000 that the “genius grant” confers. She’s the only MacArthur fellow currently living in the region, and leaving her home is unthinkable.

“People are always running away to different places, but I don’t want to run away from myself,” she says. “I never thought of leaving. I can travel the world but I don’t want to live anywhere else. I am because of Baltimore. It’s the center of my creative thinking.”

Scott has lived here her entire life, and her body of work is diverse and adventurous. Her glass and beadworks bridge a gap between traditional craft and fine art while confronting misogyny and racism through depictions of historical and contemporary events. Scott consistently explores raw and unflinching depictions of rape, gun culture, lynching, and racism in her prints, jewelry, and performances, work that also frequently manages to be dazzlingly beautiful, funny, and warm.

Scott insouciantly claims to have been an artist in utero. Born and raised here, Baltimore’s disparities and contradictions run throughout her childhood and adult life, leaving a lasting impact on her artwork. She grew up in working-class Sandtown in the 1950s, a time when Baltimore’s black neighborhoods were a range of educated professionals and workers. Her father worked at Bethlehem Steel and her mother worked as a domestic servant, nanny, and cook. Scott describes the Sandtown of her youth as a village where godparents and older people mentored the young, feeding them if needed. In the 1970s and ’80s, many families moved out following the economic upheaval and political neglect that allowed drugs to move in.

Scott stayed. “I have absolutely no desire to leave other people like me because they haven’t done as well as me,” she says. “I am a person of the ’60s and the ’70s. I believe you’re supposed to stay where the fight is. I am a person who respects what my parents went through. My parents ate shit so I could have sugar.”

Charlie and Elizabeth Talford Scott were her earliest influences. Both came to Baltimore from the Carolinas during the Great Migration. “My mom was an artist, my first bead teacher,” Scott says. “She was a textile artist. She didn’t see herself as an artist, and I didn’t realize it until I got out of grad school and started hanging out with Leslie King-Hammond, Lowery [Stokes] Sims, and George Ciscle.”

Scott says she recognized her mother as an artist long before the Gee’s Bend quilts were celebrated by the established art world in the 1990s. Her mother became a fulltime quilter after 1970, creating abstract compositions that touched on family, tradition, and ritual. Her quilts were exhibited at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum, and the Smithsonian, among others. In 1987 Elizabeth Talford Scott received a lifetime achievement award from the Women’s Caucus for Art.

Photo by Justin Tsucalas

As her mother’s only child, Scott benefitted from her mother’s close attention and insistence that she do well in school. She learned a different lesson from her father. “My dad never completely approved of me being an artist,” Scott says. “He always told me to save the money, that no one is going to take care of me. So I always knew that if I wanted to be an artist, I had to make a dollar.”

As an adult, Scott would send her father catalogues from her exhibits, and he’d never say much about them. When she would visit him, however, “he’d introduce me to his neighbors and they’d know all about me,” Scott says. “They’d tell me he bragged about me. Although he couldn’t say it directly to me, I knew he was proud.”

After earning a BFA from MICA in 1970 and an MFA from the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, in 1971, Scott began attending artist residencies across the country, developing her technique and ideas. The fine art world was dismissive of traditional craft at the time, and Scott’s insistence on combining traditional weaving with beadwork was revolutionary in repositioning craft, and beadwork in particular, as a relevant form of expression and social critique.

A Native American artist taught Scott the peyote stitch, a traditional method of free-form off-loom beading, during a residency at the Haystack Mountain School of Craft. Over the years Scott adapted the technique to achieve remarkably complex, freestanding sculptural forms with very little or no internal armature. Her work expanded into elaborate wearable sculpture, over-sized neckpieces and beaded quilts, and large three-dimensional forms and installations.

Regardless of media, all Scott’s exquisite pieces reveal the often stark realities of African Americans and women, offered with an unflinching eye and a wicked sense of humor.

“I always want people to say, What the fuck, Joyce? when they look at my work,” Scott says. “I want people to always be like, Daaaaaaaaammn, with all the a’s. I want to be the groundbreaker. I like to challenge, to please myself, and go beyond pleasing myself and open the door to someplace else.”

That challenge to herself pushed her work into more and more ambitious territory, and people noticed. Scott’s career highlights include the Met and 2015 Venice Biennale, a retrospective at the BMA, numerous national awards, including the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation and Anonymous was a Woman, and inclusion in the permanent collections of dozens of national and international museums.

In 2016, Scott was awarded a $50,000 Mary Sawyers Baker Award, the largest grant ever given to a working Baltimore artist. When she was notified about it, “I was shocked,” she says. “When we did the performance and reception at the BMA, that crowd made me feel so loved by my city. There was a sense of, ‘That’s our Joyce.’ It made the award was not just about me. There was an amazing warmth and comfort in it.”

That September night Scott was harboring a secret that she only shared with Amy Raehse, her close friend and director of Goya Contemporary, the gallery which represents her. The MacArthur Foundation had called earlier that week to inform Scott of her no-strings-attached award. “I had never gotten a phone call like this before,” she says. “The MacArthur is global. It’s probably intergalactic.”

After she got off the phone, Scott says she thought she would vomit. She took to bed and had a panic attack. “But it was an awakening because it’s a confirmation,” she says. “If you get this award you know that you’re on the right road.”

Scott shares MacArthur Fellow distinction alongside former Baltimore residents Ta-Nehisi Coates and Liz Lerman, as well as artists such as Janine Antoni, Kerry James Marshall, James Turrell, and Fred Wilson. And she’s already busy with several new projects. She created an outdoor installation of unprecedented scale in homage to Harriet Tubman for an exhibit at Grounds for Sculpture in New Jersey, as well as an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Photo by Justin Tsucalas

She’s also planning a two-person exhibit with fiber artist Sonya Clark at 108 Contemporary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “I really want to create work for Tulsa because most many people don’t know that between a quarter and a third of the people who marched on the Trail of Tears were the African slaves of the Native Americans,” she says, adding that after the Civil War, slaves owned by indigenous people were left stateless and country-less for many years. She sought out their descendants, people who were living in Tulsa’s Black Wall Street area when whites rampaged the area and ran them out of town in 1921. “There was a dual trail of tears, and I am working on that.”

The MacArthur grant has also allowed Scott to dream bigger. “I’d like to take uninhabited houses, put two together to make one a domicile and one a studio, and offer these to African-American artists, providing an affordable place to work,” she says of vacant buildings in her neighborhood.. “I’d love to make a giant urban farm where people from the community can work.”

After all, she’s a girl from Sandtown. And she isn’t going anywhere. After she won the MacArthur, Scott called her my friend and fellow artist Tony McKissick and asked him to make her a chitlin pie, a savory dish made of pig intestines that’s traditionally a southern soul food delicacy. Then she decided on something else.

“I said I want a chicken foot pie,” she says. “Everybody else laughed, but he said of course. Not dim sum chicken feet. I wanted Negro chicken feet. So he marinated them, put them in gravy, onions, and garlic, and then he made the pie and brought it to my house. This was the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my whole life.” She mimes grabbing a chick foot and makes a slurping sound and sighs.

Afterwards, Scott sent out photos of herself eating it “to everyone because it was so damn good,” she says. “And the MacArthur people were like, you’ve got to be kidding. These people were like, Joyce, that’s an abuse of negritude, a chicken foot pie. They think you’re abusing black people by making them eat that. And I’m like, Your problem is you don’t know how black I actually am. Some people think I lost something when I went to college or when I win a big award. But I eat chitlins and I eat chicken foot pie. I’m me and I’m a Baltimore girl.”

Editor’s Note: Our Genius first ran in The BmoreArt Journal of Art + Ideas: Issue 03 Legacy, with Joyce J. Scott on the cover in November, 2017.

Text by Cara Ober

Photos by Justin Tsucalas and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation


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