She couldn’t hear, couldn’t speak and had Down syndrome. She spent years in an institution, until her twin sister rescued her. Yet today, her textile pieces are held in museums throughout the world and sell for tens of thousands of dollars. This profoundly disabled person was at the same time a great artist, whose work has bought pleasure to many.
Judith and Joyce Scott were twins, born into a middle class family in Cincinnati, Ohio. As small children, the two girls were dressed alike, played together, and were encouraged to participate equally. Joyce later wrote:
“At first we lived unaware and unafraid. In the sandbox where we played, pouring sand in each other’s hair, wiggling toes in wetness, making our leaf and stick dishes and dinners, we still felt only the innocence of our soft skin and earthy explorations. But the forces pulling at us and threatening us grew as we grew. No longer wrapped in the protective web of our family’s ties alone, we soon joined the neighborhood. There Judy was seen as different – and to a few ignorant and fearful souls, different meant dangerous. Our next-door neighbors refused to let her in their yard. Currents growing, doors slamming shut.”
But Judith was born with Down syndrome, and after an attack of Scarlet Fever, she also lost her hearing. When she was tested for entry to special school, her deafness meant that she did not respond to verbal questions, and so she was thought uneducable. At age 7, her parents, acting on the medical advice of the time, sent her away to a residential institution for people with profound intellectual disability, where she would stay for the next 35 years. Very distressed at being parted from her sister, Judith was seen as a disruptive presence on the wards. Joyce wrote:
“The State Institution was a terrible place – worse than terrible – full of the awful sounds and smells of human suffering and abandonment. It still lives in my nightmares. That Judy is not haunted, that she has not been destroyed is a testament to the human spirit and most especially to hers. There is no doubt that institutional life has left its mark. Her habit of stealing small bits and pieces, of hoarding things, of being initially suspicious of strangers and of tending to isolate herself, these all reflect those terrible times. Her incredible ability to persevere and to sustain her focus, to hear her own inner voice, may also come from those years of crowded aloneness.”
However, in 1986, her sister Joyce fought to get Judith out of the institution, and Judith lived together with Joyce and her family in California. Later she moved into a community home, which meant that she enrolled at Creative Growth Arts Center, in Oakland. She started in the painting class, where she showed no particular talent. Several years later, she saw people working with textiles with a visiting fiber artist, Sylvia Seventy. Judith Scott immediately gravitated to that medium, and created her own way of working.
Her pieces consist of found objects, which she carefully wrapped in coloured fibre. She would appropriate any object lying around the studios that she felt like, to act as the core of her sculptures, including once an electric fan, and at least one set of car keys. Each piece might take weeks of careful wrapping and weaving and knotting until she was satisfied. Sometimes reminiscent of the figures of Alberto Giacometti, the results might look like strange animals or totem poles, or cocoons. Often, they come in pairs. As soon as she had finished one artwork, she would begin on the next one.
Judith worked as an artist for five days a week for eighteen years, and produced over 200 sculptures. Her work is collected in public museums, such as MOMA, New York or the American Museum of Folk Art, and private collections all over the world: she has become one of the most famous of all Outsider Artists. As well as a critical study by John MacGregor, she was the subject of four different documentary films, in which she appears as almost regal, wearing a large hat, and firmly determined to make her work in the way she wanted, often carrying the large pile of glossy magazines, which she liked to look at. Critic Eve Sedgewirk talks of her as “the holder of an obscure treasure”. Rachel Adams writes: “Looking at a piece by Judith Scott, our eyes are invited to function as organs of touch, sensing the texture and heft of the artifact, becoming aware of the relationship between our own bodies and the work of art.”
Until the end, Judith remained very close to her sister and to her sister’s family, and it was in Joyce’s arms that she died of heart failure, aged 61.