Artist Scott named ‘ge­nius’

MacArthur Fel­low­ship award of $625,000 rec­og­nizes Bal­ti­more jeweler and sculp­tor’s ‘po­tent plat­form’

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Tim Smith

Joyce J. Scott was in no mood for a prank phone call a few weeks ago.

The Bal­ti­more-born artist, known for cre­at­ing in­tri­cate, of­ten provoca­tive jew­elry and beaded sculp­tures, was cop­ing with acute sci­at­ica. Un­able to lie down, she tried to get some sleep while seated at a desk, her head rest­ing on her folded arms when the ring­ing jolted her.

The voice on the other end in­formed Scott that she had been se­lected as one of the 2016 MacArthur Fel­lows, an honor that comes with an un­re­stricted stipend of $625,000. It’s the award pop­u­larly known as a “ge­nius grant,” a term frowned upon by the MacArthur Foun­da­tion, which started be­stow­ing fel­low­ships on ex­cep­tion­ally tal­ented in­di­vid­u­als in a wide range of fields 35 years ago.

None of that reg­is­tered with Scott the mo­ment the big news came.

“This sci­at­ica has been hell,” Scott, 67, said. “So when I re­ceive the call from the MacArthur folks, I’m yelling, ‘Who is this? Prove it to me.’ I’m think­ing some­one is jok­ing with me. I’m re­ally in­cred­u­lous. Then, through my pain and sod­den malaise, I re­al­ized this is the real thing. I al­most threw up.”

Asked if she had con­tem­plated how she would start to spend the award money, Scott had an in­stant re­ply: “Li­po­suc­tion,” she said. To keep each year’s list of Fel­lows quiet, the MacArthur Foun­da­tion asks hon­orees to share the news con­fi­den­tially with only one per­son. For Scott, that per­son was Amy Eva Raehse, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and cu­ra­tor of Goya Con­tem­po­rary, the Bal­ti­more gallery that has long rep­re­sented the artist’s work.

“I was elated, al­though not nec­es­sar­ily sur­prised,” Raehse said. “I’ve known of Joyce’s ge­nius for a num­ber of years. It was fit­ting that she would be se­lected.”

The MacArthur recog­ni­tion fol­lows closely on the an­nounce­ment in May that Scott topped the list of the 2016 Baker Artist Awards, earn­ing the $50,000 Mary Sawyers Im­bo­den Prize, among the largest of its kind in the coun­try.

Ma­jor in­sti­tu­tions in­clude Scott’s work in their col­lec­tions, among them New York’s Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art and Mu­seum of Arts and De­sign; the Philadel­phia Mu­seum of Art; and the Mu­seum of Fine Arts in Hous­ton. Works by Scott have been in the col­lec­tion of the Smith­so­nian’s Amer­i­can Art Mu­seum for sev­eral years.

“And the Smith­so­nian’s new Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture has ac­cessed one of Joyce’s works,” Raehse said.

In a state­ment re­leased by the MacArthur Foun­da­tion, Scott’s art was de­scribed as “a po­tent plat­form for com­men­tary on so­cial and po­lit­i­cal in­jus­tices.” She “up­ends con­cep­tions of bead­work and jew­elry,” the state­ment con­tin­ued, “by cre­at­ing exquisitely crafted ob­jects that re­veal, upon closer ex­am­i­na­tion, stark rep­re­sen­ta­tions of racism and sex­ism and the vi­o­lence they en­gen­der.”

The re­cent Baker Artist Awards ex­hibit at the Bal­ti­more Mu­seum of Art of­fered strik­ing il­lus­tra­tions of this el­e­ment in Scott’s work, in­clud­ing “Sex Traf­fic” — a life-sized glass ri­fle with a small fig­ure of a black woman made of beads and thread, hands and feet bound, hang­ing onto the bar­rel.

“Joyce’s work is a re­flec­tion of our hu­man­ity,” Raehse said, “and not al­ways a pleas­ant re­flec­tion. But hold­ing up a mir­ror to so­ci­ety will ig­nite a con­ver­sa­tion. By us­ing her mas­tery of the me­dia, Joyce is mov­ing the con­ver­sa­tion.”

When not ad­dress­ing weighty mat­ters, Scott’s art takes hu­mor­ous, satir­i­cal turns, as in her series of pieces that at­tach seem­ingly in­con­gru­ous beaded fig­ures to Ja­panese ce­ramic fig­urines.

Doreen Bol­ger, for­mer di­rec­tor of the Bal­ti­more Mu­seum of Art, is an­other long­time ad­mirer of Scott. She re­cently do­nated a Scott paint­ing to the Regi­nald F. Lewis Mu­seum. In 2000, the BMA pre­sented a 30-year ret­ro­spec­tive, “Joyce J. Scott: Kickin’ It with the Old Mas­ters.”

“We put a lit­tle warn­ing about adult con­tent on a few items,” Bol­ger said. “We wanted to let peo­ple know they would be see­ing some­thing chal­leng­ing, rang­ing from race to gen­der and you name it. She makes you think, and art should make you think. I get more and more and more im­pressed ev­ery time I see her work.”

Scott joins a ros­ter of Bal­ti­more-born MacArthur Fel­lows that in­cludes writer Ta-Ne­hisi Coates and ac­tress/play­wright Anna Dea­vere Smith. Other re­cip­i­ents in­clude such Bal­ti­more-based notables as Bal­ti­more Sym­phony Or­ches­tra mu­sic di­rec­tor Marin Al­sop and his­to­rian Tay­lor Branch.

“Isn’t it amaz­ing the num­ber of ‘Bal­ti­morons’ who have won?” Scott said.

The wind­fall from the award — the $625,000 will be paid in quar­terly in­stall­ments over five years — won’t bring with it any up­root­ing. The artist plans to con­tinue liv­ing in the row­house where she has lived for four decades on a mod­est block near the in­ter­sec­tion of Penn­syl­va­nia and North av­enues.

“I’m a true Bal­ti­more babe and a Sand­town girl,” Scott said. “I’m in a chal­lenged neigh­bor­hood, but the peo­ple here are very sup­port­ive of me. How could I run away? My model is Louis Arm­strong. He and his wife stayed in the same house [in Queens, N.Y.] for­ever. I’d like to in­vest more in my com­mu­nity.”

Someof the mon­ey­will go to­ward mak­ing life a lit­tle nicer for Scott in her home, which is adorned with art in­side and out.

“The houses on this block are more than a hun­dred years old,” she said. “I’d like to make sure the water and plumb­ing are right. And I’d like to buy a walk-in tub and do things that will let me be in­de­pen­dent here. One thing I won’t be do­ing is buy­ing furs. I tried one on once, and I looked like a wall of dead an­i­mals.”

Scott, who has never mar­ried, added that she in­tends “to spend ev­ery damn penny,” but mostly in the cause of her art. If she wants to travel abroad to hone skills, she will do it in com­fort. She also en­vi­sions ex­pand­ing com­mu­nity out­reach ef­forts, us­ing her new stu­dio at Mo­tor House in the Sta­tion North arts district.

“I think [the money] will give me more mulling time — maybe I’ll mull in New Zealand,” Scott said. “It will en­able me to do larger sculp­tures. The work ethic is very deep with me.”

Scott’s mother, El­iz­a­beth Tal­ford Scott, was a na­tion­ally rec­og­nized tex­tile artist, es­pe­cially ad­mired for her quilt work. She died in 2011. Her fa­ther, Char­lie Scott Jr., worked at Bethlehem Steel; he died in 2005. Both had been share­crop­pers in the South be­fore mov­ing to Bal­ti­more.

“On my mom’s side, there were black­smiths, ce­ramists and weavers,” Scott said. “On my fa­ther’s side, quil­ters. All of that co­a­lesced in me. The imp­ish be­hav­ior I got hon­estly, to the cha­grin of ev­ery­body.”

That imp­ish side ex­panded in a big way in the mid-1980s, when she and a friend launched the Thun­der Thigh Re­vue, a com­edy act with mu­sic that toured ex­ten­sively. Scott’s sense of hu­mor also could be found in a char­ac­ter she cre­ated called Rod­ney Dan­ger­ous-in-the-Field, a slave who did stand-up com­edy for what he liked to call “a cap­tive au­di­ence.”

Scott en­vi­sions writ­ing com­edy for oth­ers in the fu­ture. She is also an ac­com­plished singer and plans to get back to that when she can. But art re­mains her pri­mary fo­cus.

“I saw early on that the im­por­tant thing was not just be­ing cre­ative, but liv­ing a cre­ative life,” Scott said. “Not tin­ker­ing. I have made my whole life’s en­deavor to be 100 per­cent artist. I’ve been a self-em­ployed artist for over 40 years.”

Scott has never cared for be­ing just an­other artist.

“I want to be the best. I know there’s a smidgen of ego­tism in that,” she said with a smile. “I want to re­main a chal­lenge. I don’t want to be at ease in my life, be­cause the world is not at ease. I want to be even more Joyce, as if that were even pos­si­ble.”

KIM HAIRSTON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Joyce J. Scott said she planned to stay in the mod­est row­house in Sand­town where she has lived for four decades.

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