Joyce Jane Scott (b.1948) has lived in Baltimore her entire life, but her reputation is world-wide. Her mother Elizabeth Talford Scott (1916-2011) was a well-known quilter who began to teach her daughter beading and quilting when Joyce was only three. Joyce Scott graduated from Eastern High School and in 1970 earned her BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art. She completed an MFA degree at the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Scott pursued her craft by visiting countries with strong beading traditions, such as West Africa’s Yoruba people, the Maasia of Kenya, and South America.
Scott’s subject matter is a commentary on social issues, such as racism, sexism, violence, and cultural stereotyping. “Nuclear Nanny” (1983-84) (32.5” x23.5”) is from Scott’s Holocaust Series. During the Cold War in 1983, the threat of nuclear war was a major topic in the news. In this work a large human skeleton is placed against a fiery red background. The long blond hair that stands on end as if electrified identifies the subject as a woman. Her red heart is visible on the white bones of the rib cage and spine. Small skeletal heads and unattached arms and legs appear around her. An image of chaos is created by the swirling blue, red, and green patterns around her. The composition is created with uneven edges; nothing is stable or secure.
To achieve this effect, Scott has used the Mola technique of cloth making she learned from the Cuna Indians in the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama and Columbia. The cloth is made from cotton and synthetic fabric and kid leather. Several different colors of cloth are sewn together on top of each other. The design is formed by cutting some parts of each layer to expose the colors beneath. Then each edge is turned under and sewn, leaving a clean edge. Sequins, glass beads, and embroidery were added on top of the cloth.
Scott learned the peyote stitch from a Native American artist at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine in 1976. The peyote stitch is as old as ancient Egypt, and the technique allowed Scott to create three-dimensional shapes and to attach objects onto the beads without glue or wire. “Man Eating Watermelon” (1986) (8” x3”) is an example of the peyote stitch, and of Scott’s ironic wit: “I believe in messing with stereotypes…It’s important for me to use art in a manner that incites people to look and then carry something home–even if it’s subliminal…that might make a change in them.” Along with her many exhibitions, Scott often includes performances that are satirical and funny, much like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.
Another series of images Scott has used throughout her career deals with nannys. Her mother was housekeeper and nanny for white families, so Scott is familiar with the feelings of both the mother and the child in these situations. “No Mommy, Me” (1991) (15” x6” x6’’) has to be seen from more than one point of view to be fully understood. A tall African-American nanny playfully lifts a white baby over her head. The baby is not afraid, and while holding on to the nanny’s left hand, the baby thrusts her right arm in the air. The baby is having fun. From the angle of this image, the viewer also can see the brown child hugging the bottom of the nanny’s skirt as if to say, “Please play with me, mother.”
On March 3, 1991, Rodney King was beaten to death by four white policemen, and in 1992 a jury found them not guilty. In Los Angeles, riots broke out lasting from April to May, resulting in the death of 63 people, 2,282 injured, more than 12,000 arrested, and property damage estimated to be over one billion dollars. Scott created in 1991 a bead sculpture titled “Rodney King’s Head Squashed Like a Watermelon” (11” x7” x6”).
The “Three Graces Oblivious While Los Angeles Burned” (1992) (21” x 10”x9”) was Scott’s response to the acquittal and the riots. The three white beaded graces represent the three Greek Graces: beauty, charm, and joy. They dance freely around the white vase Scott employs as the base of the work. The vase is covered with flat black images of buildings, orange and red fire at the top, and green bushes at the bottom. Los Angeles is on fire. Rodney King’s brown beaded head is placed on top of the vase. The black figure holding an orange stone seems ready to assault King.
Gun violence has been a constant for too many years. Scott’s response to this issue is “Boy with Gun” (1995) (3’). About this sculpture she stated, “I feel a responsibility in living in a land where this is happening.” The boy stands on an overturned baby carriage created with black wire. In the carriage is a large green gun which the boy grasps with his left hand. The barrel of the gun is pointed at the boy. Fortunately, no one is there to pull the trigger. The boys’ body is covered with African tribal markings that indicate he has become a man. The wood base on which the sculpture stands is covered with pennies. Life is cheap.
Scott has tackled difficult subjects with her art. Date rape, drug abuse, sex trafficking, and current events such as the genocide in Darfur are among her topics. Concerning the impact of her work on viewers, Scott states, “I don’t believe in shielding them from issues they are seeing every day. Isn’t it smarter to say ‘what is this about?’ “
Scott received in 2016 the prestigious McArthur Fellow, Genius Grant of $625,000. She said that an award of this scale was an invitation to think bigger and take more risks. The result was the 2016 exhibition Joyce J. Scott: Harriet Tubman and Other Truths at the Grounds for Sculpture in New Jersey. “Araminta with Rifle and Veve” (2017) (10’) (painted milled foam, blown glass, mixed media, and beaded staff) is an image of Harriet Tubman. She carries a rifle in her right hand and a Veve, the crooked staff in her left hand. The staff is beaded in several colors and resembles the staff associated with the Egyptian pharaohs as a symbol of their deity and power. The name Araminta means “lofty, defender, and lion,” characteristics of Tubman. Scott considers Tubman to have been “someone who was a go-getter and had the nerve. When we talk about resiliency, self-sufficiency, black pride, Black Lives Matter, black girls matter, we’re talking about her.” The statue is on display at the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis until August 30, 2023
Scott often employs images of Buddha in her sculpture. Her interest in Buddhism and Hinduism led her to create in 2013 the series of three Buddhas, of “Earth,” “Wind,” and “Fire and Water.” In Buddhism anyone can become a Buddha, and Scott found much in Harriet Tubman’s life journey similar to that of the Buddha. She stated, “He wasn’t a god. He worked really, really hard to evolve and have his greater enlightenment.” Scott’s sculpture “Harriet Tubman as Buddha” (2017) (40” x25” x10”) (blown glass, beading, found objects) confers on Tubman the spiritual status of a Buddha. Tubman sits in the lotus position that calms the mind and allows for deep meditation. The statue wears a halo, found on all statues of Buddha as a symbol of holiness. Scott compares Tubman to her mother, the highest compliment: “Harriet Tubman really makes me think about my mother. They were both thunderbolts. Neither of them was five feet tall. They were both dark skinned…and they were go-getters.”
In this same exhibition, Scott included another sculpture of Tubman: “Graffiti Harriet.” The 15-foot-tall statue was made of soil, clay, straw, and cement designed to disintegrate, to become part of the earth. The location of the Harriet Tubman exhibition in New Jersey was 40 miles from the route Tubman used to conduct slaves to freedom, and it was 175 miles from Washington, D.C. The decision to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman was under debate at the time. It is scheduled for 2030.
Scott is a sculptor, printmaker, installation artist, performer, quilter, storyteller, and jeweler. Before she learned the peyote stitch in 1976, her beadwork was confined to the making of jewelry. She has never stopped making jewelry. “War Necklace” (2022) (17” x15”) is the catalog cover image for Scott’s traveling exhibition War, What is it Good For, Absolutely Nothing, Say it Again (2023-24). Her jewelry carries the same potent messages as her other artistic pursuits.
Among other awards, Scott has received honorary doctorates from the Maryland Institute College of Art (2018) and the California College of Art (2019). She was named Smithsonian Visionary Artist (2019), she was awarded the Gold Medal for Consummate Craftsmanship from the American Craft Council (2020), and she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letter by Johns Hopkins University (2022). The presentation of her honorary degree at Johns Hopkins recognized: “…her visible and visionary commitment to art as a conduit for honoring the rich and storied history of our ancestors and for conveying profoundly resonant commentary on cultural stereotypes, systemic racism, and healing.”
“I’d like my art to induce people to stop raping, torturing, and shooting each other. I don’t’ have the ability to end violence, racism and sexism…but my art can help them look and think. (Joyce Scott, 2015)
NOTE: In 2015 Freddie Gray was murdered in Baltimore, and that resulted in rioting during which businesses were looted. The most prominent business was the CVS pharmacy that was set on fire. Scott and her mother live in a rowhouse down the street from that CVS. Scott responded, “How did all this affect me? I am an African American woman who decided to never turn away from herself as a black woman, to never leave her community, and the uprising is happening right outside my door. People are walking up and down North Avenue. The CVS is on fire and they are using my fire hydrant to put the fire out. I see preachers in prayer circles, right outside my living room window.”
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.