The work of fiber artist Judith Scott beckons us to touch. Sized to the proportions of the human body, her intricately wrapped bundles suggest at once the envelopment of a cocoon and something bound and yearning to break free. Their forms are familiar, evocative, tempting us to recognize the shape of a butterfly, a human body, a map, a snail. In a well-known portrait taken by Leon Borensztein, Scott embraces one of her creations, pressing her body into its rounded contours. When I see her work, I want to embrace it too.
“Judith Scott—Bound and Unbound,” a new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum curated by Catherine Morris and Matthew Higgs, heightens my desire to touch by placing the artwork temptingly within reach. There are no ropes or glass dividers separating us from these pieces, which perch invitingly on a simple white riser just a few feet above the floor. On opening night, the breeze from my friend’s enthusiastic gestures was enough to stir the looser fibers that stripe the surfaces of one piece. Its vibrant coils are a work-in-progress, giving the viewer a slightly different perspective each time it is exhibited.
“Bound and Unbound” is the first comprehensive survey of Scott’s work to be shown a fine arts museum. The recognition is well deserved and long in coming. Although she is usually branded with the fashionable yet dismissive label of “outsider artist,” Scott is distinguished from other “outsiders” by the non-representational quality of her work. Introduced to fiber art by Sylvia Seventy, Scott worked at the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California from 1987 to her death in 2005.
Morris has chosen not to organize the exhibit chronologically. Instead, viewers can sample works from throughout Scott’s career displayed across two rooms. Smaller, early pieces, which experiment with paint and glue as well the as binding that would become her signature, are placed in proximity to such powerful works as a shopping cart hobbled by missing front wheels, its contents encased in layers of yarn and string. Seeing them together, I’m struck by the range of objects Scott incorporated into her work: spindles, tubing, wires, plastic and cardboard cones, packing material, funnels, a chair, a bicycle wheel, a crutch, an old fan, pieces of denim in various shades of blue. The binding reflects an acute sensitivity to color: one piece is a resplendent autumn of browns and golds, another is a crazy quilt of bright contrasting hues, a third comprises a restrained palette of white and cream. My favorite is a large bundle of meticulously wrapped and knotted paper towels taken from a dispenser in the Center. Transforming paper towels into art, Scott invites us to think about the textures and surfaces of a product we toss thoughtlessly into the garbage several times a day.
Focusing on Scott’s accomplishment as an artist, “Bound and Unbound” downplays her remarkable biography, which is related via a series of simple wall plaques. They tell a devastating story. Judith Scott and her sister Joyce were born in Cincinnati in 1943. Judith, who has Down syndrome, lived with her family until she was institutionalized at the age of 7 after her parents were told she was incapable of learning. For nearly 40 years, Judith lived a life of neglect and sensory deprivation. It was not until she was 39 that staff at the Gallipolis Developmental Center discovered Judith was profoundly deaf. Hearing loss, as much as Down syndrome, was to blame for her difficulty in learning and communication. Judith was never taught to communicate in verbal or sign language. At age 45, she was finally rescued by her sister, who brought her to California and enrolled her at the Creative Growth Center where she began her career as an artist.
As the parent of a son with Down syndrome, I find Scott’s story especially wrenching. It represents the vast waste of human potential during an era when it was common practice to institutionalize people with intellectual disabilities. How many talents went unrealized and lives unlived? I don’t want to suggest that all people with Down syndrome are capable of Scott’s accomplishment. Disability or no, hers is a rare talent. But we simply don’t know what potential was lost in writing off a whole class of human beings as unworthy of education, family life, and social inclusion.
It’s easy to feel self-congratulatory about an exhibit like “Bound and Unbound.” To a certain extent, we redeem the life of Judith Scott by recognizing her talent and putting her work in an art museum. It is no longer the norm to institutionalize people with Down syndrome, and many go to school alongside typical peers, hold jobs, and lead fulfilling lives. But hatred persists. Research funds pour into the development of prenatal tests for Down syndrome with the goal of allowing for earlier termination of pregnancy. Last August biologist Richard Dawkins tweeted that a woman with a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome should “Abort it and try again.” Despite vigorous protests from parents and advocates, his view represents the majority.
The art of Judith Scott should not make us feel comforted. Her bundles convey an infantile desire for the comforts of swaddling. But they also speak of a repressed desire straining to be freed. They speak of someone who, after decades of institutionalization, hoarded shoes, magazines, keys, and other found objects, hiding them in layers of binding as a way to claim them as her own. Scott’s art is the voice of a woman denied a language that would allow her to connect with others but nonetheless driven to express herself, compelled to leave a mark. We respect her legacy by recognizing it as such.
–Rachel Adams likes to have her cake and eat it too.
Thank you for sharing this. One of the challenges of the exhibit, which I’ve visited twice so far, is the way its confronts the visitor with the infinite conundrum and endless possibilities of articulation. While I don’t long to touch Scott’s work, as Adams does, I am drawn to it in other ways. It’s profoundly accessible work, so many curatorial possibilities, so many visual focal points, so many ways in. I was surprised by my own interest in the sculptures at my first visit; having only seen photos of them hitherto, my own early reaction had been flat. Seeing the pieces in their wholeness literally added dimension to my experience.
During my second visit, a multi-generational trip with my collage-artist mother and my fifth-grade son, the three of us kept drawing one another to this or that detail and our discussion about the mounting of the sculptures gave me new insight into yet another dimension I hadn’t previously considered–that the elevation, positioning, or wall-hanging of each piece alters the way it occupies space, suggesting to me that all the sculptures exist in some way as experiments in stature. Finally, following this second visit, my son and I were taken with the idea of making our own Judith-Scott-inspired micro-sculptures. That project, not only tactile, but kinesthetic–defined by movement–and the deliberate choosing of materials, the surprising challenge of wrapping, tying, binding also made me think in new ways about Scott’s product and process, its patient maturity.
As Adams knows, I hesitate to make an explicit connection between Scott’s art and her down syndrome and deaf identity. There is a part of me that is eager for the art to be appreciated without reference to the artist. Partly, given the context of bias described in this review, I fear that the work will be dismissed or diminished by association, that it will be deemed important only because it represents a kind of horror, a forceful suggestion of other lives wasted in venues where disabled people have been treated as subhumans.
Adams is right, though. Context is important and knowing Scott’s biography needn’t move us away from the art, but can be a way further in. The new dimensions I discover by visiting and revisiting, by entering into conversation across perspectives, and by working with my own hands become a lesson not only in the richness of the art, but also serve as a metaphor for our larger relationships with the unfamiliar. The more ways we are brought into experience with any subject, the more open we are to its value and complexity.