When internationally acclaimed visual and performing artist Joyce J. Scott describes herself as a classic Baltimore ’round-the-way girl from Mount Street, it all sounds very traditional. That is until she begins to unfold the many layers of her life and art.
Then, the traditional ’round-the-way girl becomes quite extraordinary.
“I am the manifestation of what it is to be an African American kid from a working class neighborhood, from cotton and tobacco pickers from North and South Carolina who had very little public school… I’m talking about standing on somebody’s shoulders,” says Scott. “I am that example of what can happen.”
Schooled in the art of quilting and beadwork by her mother, the late Elizabeth Talford Scott, a hugely talented and nationally-recognized quilter, Joyce J. has always been an artist. A graduate of Eastern High School, she earned her B.F.A. at Maryland Institute College of Art and M.F.A. at Instituto Allende, San Miguel Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico. She continued her exploration of techniques in quilting, beadwork, glass and other disciplines at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine and has never stopped learning or making art.
“My mother was an artist, and I’ve used all the sewing techniques, quilting techniques and bead techniques I learned from her, and then beading techniques that I learned throughout my life, to make sculpture for over 40 years,” says Scott.
Early on, the multi-talented artist developed a reputation for making beautiful, intricately patterned beaded and mixed-media artwork, as complex as the social issues that it addressed, and for creating equally provocative performance art, employing song, dance, humor, intellect and satire to address issues of race, sexuality, body image and life in general. She readily admits that pop culture has been and is a major influence on her work, visual and performing.
“I have been consistently informed by pop culture, contemporary culture, around me,” she explains. “Our pop culture today is so saturated with things that we may or may not have considered to be polite or proper for public consumption, and it’s always on the cutting edge of the political and social issues… It crosses all those lines about class, caste, ethnicity, feminism, all of that stuff… And that’s what I write about and perform about and do sculpture about…”
In 2000, the Baltimore Museum of Art, in partnership with Maryland Institute College of Art, presented a highly successful 30-year retrospective of Scott’s work, “Kickin’ It with the Old Masters.” The museum opened its main entrance for the first time in more than 15 years, admitting visitors to an exhibition that included artwork by Scott, addressing many of the ills of the day, intermingled with the works of the old masters.
For many, Scott’s most memorable performances were rendered in the 1980s, when she and performance partner Kay Lawall took on the issues of weight and body image as “The Thunder Thigh Review.” The show travelled all over the country and to Canada, Scotland and Holland. This summer, in celebration of Theatre Project’s 40th anniversary, the pair will revive their act, under the direction of Rain Pryor.
While Scott has received numerous awards and recognition throughout her career, she considers 2010 a banner year. Honored as one of the country’s 50 finest artists, Scott received the 2010 United States Artist Award Glascow Fellowship. She also received the 2010 Women’s Caucus for the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award. Adding icing to the cake, her artwork received a positive mention in the New York Times review by Roberta Smith of “The Global Africa Project” at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design (MAD).
Then, in 2011, Scott’s world changed, and she seems to have gotten busier than ever.
“Last year seemed to be a kick off! My mother passed away in May. It’s like I was this dove in her hands, and she said, ‘Okay, go fly,'” she exclaims.
“So June, I was in New Orleans. Then, back to New Orleans in October for the Prospect 2 Biennale… Then I went to Murano, Italy to work in the Berengo Glass Factory… I then went to Miami for the Miami Basel, Art Basel Miami, and I sang there. Oh, I did a one-person play with real New Orleans musicians in New Orleans,” she continues.
The two large pieces of art fashioned by Scott using her glasswork made in Murano, Milk Mammy I and Water Mammy I, are now on display in a new exhibition at MAD, “Glasstress New York: New Art from the Venice Biennales,” which runs February 14 – June 10, 2012. Plus, she has work in progress for an upcoming exhibition at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.
And there is still more to do.
Amazingly, while going through this process of making art in many forms for numerous projects, Scott does not lose focus. She says that she tries to be sensitive and listen to the materials and to the inspiration that the artwork is giving her. Because she is highly skilled as a bead artist, she can just submit to ideas. She is not guided by a message and feels that if she trusts the materials and the art, the message will follow.
Scott believes it’s important to use art as a vehicle to talk about change and says, “If my best voice is as an artist, then that’s what I have to use. The first thing that I should do is make the best piece of artwork that I possibly can. I try to make something very beautiful, very comely, something alluring that someone wants to come to, and then they realize it’s about race or sex or whatever. Then, sometimes the message is beauty.”