Art Outside The Margins: Remembering The Inspiring and Introspective Work of Judith Scott

Jul 19, 2023 | Art Insights

Written By: Chiara Atoyebi

Photo In The Public Domain

Early Life

July is disability awareness month and I wanted to remember the artist Judith Scott for her ability to transmute the negative experiences in her life into bright and imaginitive creations. Scott was an internationally renowned American fiber sculptor born with Down Syndrome. She entered into this life during a time of Scott and her fraternal twin sister Joyce were born to a middle-class family on May 1, 1943, in Cincinnati, Ohio. During her early childhood, a bout with Scarlett Fever rendered her deaf, which took years for the family to discover, according to the accounts published in her sister Joyce’s memoir Entwined: Sisters and Secrets in the Silent World of Artist Judith Scott, in 2016. Based on this undetected handicap Scott would begin a life in silence– seperated from her loved ones.

The memoir discusses how Judith was taken from their bed at the age of 7 and sent away to a sanitorium because she had been labeled as “eneducable.” Joyce recalls the intense void she felt from her twin sisters absent and the pain both siblings felt from a strained relationship with their emotionally distant mother. Her sister’s story is a tale of misdiagnosed illness, bad medical advice, and a testament to the unextinguishable bond between twins. (Her sister Joyce would get custody of her sister after nearly 30 years of separation.)

Artistic Life

Judith Scott began making art at the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, CA in her early forties. The non-profit gallery and art space focuses on artists with developmental disabilities and became a creative safe haven for Scott during her lifetime and where she tirelessly created without fail until she died at the age of 61.

What makes her work so unique is the undeniable emotive quality and tension she conveys through her use of positive space and with various colors of yarn loosely lain in some areas and pulled tightly in others. In 2015 a survey of the artist’s work entitled “Bound and Unbound,” exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum . The exhibition, steep in color and large monocrohmatic structures provided insight into the enigmatic mindset of the artists elaborate fabric sculptures and the possible methodologies she used to employ them.

Although, the reasoning behind her artwork remains an enigma because of her complex disability and her inability to verbally express herself. However, when analyzing the biographical information given about the artist, we are better able to observe the historical context in which these works were referenced. As a result, one could argue that it was Scott’s formative years in an institution, the relationship with her twin sister, and the creative license she was given to explore her craft deeply informed the visual language she developed within the works we see today.

Fig. 1 Judith Scott (American, 1943Ð2005). Untitled, 1993. Fiber and found objects, 44 x 10 x 10 in. (111.8 x 25.4 x 25.4 cm). Creative Growth Art Center, Oakland. © Creative Growth Art Center. (Photo: © Benjamin Blackwell)

When she was intently focused on a project she to appropriate various found items around the center and use them in her artwork. Those familiar with the art of assemblage know that when an artist seeks materials to use in a piece, each artifact carries a meaning specific to their inner dialogue long before bringing it into the larger discussion. In her 1993,1“Untitled” sculpture she chose long bright red and blue sticks with a green beading at the top and a yellow bead at the bottom. Intricate beads have been carefully woven around the object in a pattern resembling that of a child’s hairbrush.The pieces are small and delicate which require intense focus and a steady hand–all of which disprove the idea of her being uneducable. Scott’s keen relationship with color is evident with her color theory application. Ironically, despite her past trauma, she is not drawn to the dark in this moment, but the light which is evident in her color choices. She continously used colors reminiscient of whimsy and joy. Her work “Untitled” in 1993 can be seen as playful in its presentation. Perhaps she draws upon early memories of a family member brushing her hair and the intimacy of touch that is shared with the simplicity of grooming. I imagine her imbuing the sculpture with an unpspoken “ouch” or drawing attention to her tangled hair in the moment, or a beautiful adornment.

I was inately drawn to her work largely because of her story and how I felt that her environment shaped her. Oftentimes people wrongly feel that because there is no verbal language that there is no language, Yet, even without words we are communicating at all times. In Scott’s work, we can infer the tensions of her life juxtaposed with the beautiful and colorful light that her work brought to her and those around her. That’s what makes it so breathtaking and timeless. Although, she may have been bound at various periods in her life, she becomes free and unbound through the creative medium of fiber sculpture.

Fig. 2 Untitled (1989), right. Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

As Judith Scott became more comfortable in her art making, she expressed joy and liked to joke around and have fun. In the final artwork shown, she makes bold color choices. She effortlessly juxtaposes yellows, pinks, red, browns with a hint of blue peeking out from underneath a hood like structure. The colors give it a lighthearted feel and is representative of the hallmark of her work. Scott had a masterful eye for color that could possibly be attributed to her highly observant nature. It appears if there is an upside-down shape resembling a hat on top of the circular cylinder shape. The colors feel festive as if in a celebration. Following a trajectory of her work, she had seemed to reach a point of autonomy and joy within her visual language. The light colors draped around the cylinder with the more somber colors peeking through shows a play on light and is uplifting. 


Feminist disability Scholar 2Rosmarie Garland-Thomas weighs in on Bound and Unbound through the lens of feminism and the political stance of Scott’s artwork, writing, “human identity is multiple and unstable. That all analysis and evaluation have political implications.” Other scholars like Catherine Morris, curator of the exhibition remarks that Scott’s work is 3“not autobiorgaphical.” Additionally within the context of Scott’s work, there has been a lot of debate surrounding her disability and whether or not it should be mentioned when contextualizing the visual analysis. I’d argue that Scott’s disability allowed her to develop a high level of sensitivity that informed her choices as an artist.  In her lifetime Judith Scott witnessed and experienced intense suffering early on. It is nearly impossible to separare art and the artist.

Fig. 3 Judith Scott (American, 1943‒2005). Untitled, 2004. Fiber and found objects, 21 x 16 x 16 in. (53.3 x 40.6 40.6 cm). Creative Growth Art Center, Oakland. © Creative Growth Art Center. (Photo: © Benjamin Blackwell)

I believe the outside world has put a label on how art is formed. These labels are often construed through institutionalized language and metrics that historically have created a barrier of understanding and even accuracy. In reality, art is either a response or a reflection to the world around us. Her disability does not discount her humanity. Furthermore, it can be argued that her limited artistic awareness created a fertile soil in which to sprout and nurture her innate abilities. In essence, Scott was always communicating. Her craft was the key to her freedom, where she finally could be heard.

Works Cited

[1]JHassaneldibi “Judith Scott at The Museum of Everything BBC Culture Show 2011.” 2012, 7:37.

[2] Garland-Thomas, Rosemarie 2002. “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory.” NWSA Journal, Vol. 14, No. 3, Feminist Disability Studies (Autumn, 2002), pp. 1-32. Accessed May 24, 2020

[3] Morris, Catherine. “Bound and Unbound.” 2014. New York City. Prestel Publishing.