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27 Mar 2020

American Perspectives: Judith Scott

One night, in Columbus, Ohio, inseparable seven-year-old twins Joyce and Judith Scott fell asleep “curled together, like soft spoons” in the bed that they shared. In the morning, Judith was inexplicably gone and Joyce was alone. In 1950, there were few options available to families who had children with developmental disabilities. It would be decades before federal legislation was enacted to protect members of society with physical and developmental challenges. Vulnerable children like Judith Scott, born with Down syndrome, were virtually discarded. 

When Judith was assessed for her potential to be educated, neither her family nor the assessor recognized that she was profoundly deaf. Her lack of verbal response and engagement were taken as further signs of her inability to be mainstreamed to any appreciable extent. In mid-century, this meant that she was sent to a state institution where the conditions were deplorable, children were warehoused, and indifference was extreme. We have Joyce’s perspective on being ripped apart from her twin; we will never know Judith’s. We can only surmise the pain, fear, and confusion of a child who had inhabited a silent, loving, and secret world with her sister, only to be deposited with strangers and abandoned. Remarkably, Scott survived in this environment for thirty-five years before her now-adult sister was able to wrest legal guardianship in 1985. Joyce brought her beloved twin to live with her in California, where the twins became whole once again.

Joyce enrolled Judith in the Creative Growth Arts Center in Oakland. The Center was established in 1974 in the wake of the Rehabilitation Act, which had been legislated by the federal government the previous year. Creative Growth was founded to encourage creative expression among those who were intellectually, physically, or developmentally disabled in a professional art studio space. Judith was not responsive until 1987, when visiting fiber artist Sylvia Seventy opened a new world of color, tactility, and communication to her. For the next eighteen years, until she died at the age of sixty-two entwined in her sister’s arms, Scott devoted hours each day to knotting, webbing, weaving, and tangling mysteries into works both large and small using various fibers and materials. She embedded secret objects gleaned from the center and from home into the cavities of sculptures that might take hours, days, weeks, or months to complete. Initially, when she was done, Scott would simply leave the finished piece on the worktable; later, she would signal one of the staff to remove the sculpture so she might start another. 

As she blossomed, Scott’s wrappings extended to her own person, which she encased in colorful headgear and clothes. Her vital works are cocoon-like specimens of color, complexity, and presence. They seem on the verge of metamorphosing into some remarkable life form, yet they will forever remain timeless, totemic, and inscrutable.

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Stacy C. Hollander, “Untitled, 1988–1989” exhibition copy for American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum Collection. American Folk Art Museum, 2020.