John T. Scott
John T. Scott, 1940-2007, American,Untitled (Africa/America), Carved wood, braided fiber cord, and metal nuts and bolts,
Larger piece: 65 ¼” w x 63 ¾” h,
Smaller piece: 32” w x 22” h
In this monumental sculpture by John T. Scott, the continent of Africa has converged with the United States, creating a complex and profound statement about land, history, identity and consequence. This untitled piece is massive in both size and scope, forcing the viewer to address its multilayered message all at once. In this piece, Scott literally stitches two land masses together, creating an entirely new land, and carving off another section, making an island of the American South. The thread binding the two lands together has several meanings and functions. It is attached to a massive needle, and connects the two pieces even as they drift apart. It creates X’s along the joined border, representing Africans’ loss of identity when they got to America. This is a running theme in Scott’s work. Finally, the cord changes into a noose held almost capriciously as identical profiles of Black faces emerge from this new continent.
“In the African-American community, he was the first to be embraced by the white world. He was an artist of prominence that could rival anyone in the city. He became the role model, the pinnacle that all of us strove to be like.”
-artist Willie Birch, on John T. Scott
One of the art world’s true renaissance men, John Scott led the Xavier University Art Department for 40 years, until his death in 2007. Winner of a prestigious “Genius Grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1992, Scott was born and raised in New Orleans in the Lower Ninth Ward, and graduated from Xavier and Michigan State University, where he studied under Charles Pollock, brother of Jackson Pollock. As a native of New Orleans, Scott was adept at channeling the spirit of the city into his artwork, and many of his pieces inhabit local outdoor spaces in a truly organic manner. He mastered a number of artistic techniques, including woodcut and collagraph prints, kinetic sculptures inspired by music and instruments, traditional African dance, and even cooking. Praised for filtering the spirit of the African diaspora through a modernist spirit, according to the New York Times, Scott left a legacy that lives on through his former students, colleagues and collaborators, such as Ron Bechet, Martin Payton and Steve Prince. Scott guided his students with the mantra “Each one teach one,” instilling a practice of giving and mentorship alongside the development of artistic skill.
Art was in Scott’s blood and future from early on, and he was encouraged to attend Xavier University while a student at Booker T. Washington High School. While t Xavier he was mentored professors Numa Roussève and Sister Mary Lurana Neely, two members of the university’s progressive art faculty who later encouraged him to find his voice, exhibit in national and regional art projects as part of Xavier’s Art Guild, and eventually to teach at his alma mater. His return after completing his master of arts degree in 1965 marked the beginning of an era. He developed both as an artist and as a teacher, drawing upon his life in New Orleans and his Roman Catholic faith as inspiration.
In 1983, Scott received a grant to study in New York under the internationally acclaimed sculptor George Rickey. Though apprehensive about creating kinetic sculpture, fearing it be labeled derivative, Scott created some of his most fascinating work while working in this medium with Rickey’s encouragement, most particularly with his Diddlie Bow series in the early 1980s. Inspired by a West African tale about the diddlie bow, which was created by West African hunters to pay homage to the animal, from the weapon used to kill it, Scott explained in an interview in 2002, “The ritual of using a weapon of war to create a libation of spiritual peace is commonplace. Wherever [Africans] went in the diaspora, the instrument came with us. That instrument came into the Mississippi Delta and it was called the diddlie bow. The musician’s name Bo Diddley came from that instrument.” The idea of weapons being used for peace, like swords being beaten into plowshares, also informed Scott’s work based on the Crucifixion. One of his larger works features firearms literally composing the body of Christ and the cross.
Kinetic sculpture forms a large basis of Scott’s larger work, as well. Many of his pieces can be found around the New Orleans area and farther afield, including Ancestral Legacy, located on the Xavier campus, and Ocean Song, which is housed in the city’s Woldenberg Park. Scott was able to create these pieces, as well as others like Spirit House in Gentilly, Spirit Gates (1994), commissioned for the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) as an entryway into the Museum, thanks to the Macarthur grant. This allowed him to acquire a larger studio, which facilitated collaboration with such artists as celebrated Expressionist Frederick Brown, who created a 98-foot high canvas be installed in the Xavier University Library Resource Center.
Like a jazz musician, Scott was an innovator in whatever form of art he worked in. An avid calligrapher, he was known for dumping out waste bins and crafting pens from whatever he found there. He was also known for his exceptional printing techniques, in particular, the method known as collagraphy. This form or relief or intaglio printing involves building up the print plate with other objects to create an image. For Scott, creating collagraphs was very much like his sculpture, assembled from what he found in his environment.
John Scott also addressed civil and human rights in his work. As a student at Xavier, he would been keenly aware of the University’s mission to serve Black and Native American students, and may have had a front seat to the arrival of Freedom Riders on Xavier’s campus in 1961, welcomed by Dr. Norman C. Francis, the university’s president. Concerned not only with the state of affairs in the United States, but conflicts all across the African continent, Scott channeled his impressions into his work, whether focusing on historical figures like Robeson or Marcus Garvey, biblical and mythological figures like Jonah and Icarus, or the lives of Black children, such as in Desire Street Fountain.
Scott’s work is featured in some of the most prestigious collections in the country, including the Louisiana Humanities Center of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, the Louisiana State University Museum of Art in the Shaw Center for the Arts in Baton Rouge, the Amistad Research Center Collection in New Orleans, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Throughout his career, Scott has addressed the life and culture of the people of the African diaspora, and the consequences of the Atlantic Slave Trade. He has done so by melding forms and ideas to create whole new structures. In the 1970s, conflicts in countries like South Africa, Rhodesia and Angola resonated with Black Americans like Scott in that struggle for justice was recognized as international, that Black people in African and the U.S were indelibly linked. He addressed this by creating the Ritual of Oppression series, which is exceptional for its skill combination of traditional and modern forms. In 1984, Scott was asked to participate in the design and construction of I’ve Known Rivers exhibition in the Afro-American Pavilion at the Louisiana World’s Fair. Scott’s design fused “architectural forms from Ancient Africa…with a modern geometric schema…”, demonstrating Scott’s penchant for hybridity and his overall modus operandi of artistic assemblage.
Points of Interest
Like his contemporary John Scott, Gilliam incorporated a number of disciplines into his oeuvre. He installed a carpentry shop into his studio in order to construct his own stretchers when necessary, and incorporated metal-working into his process by adding aluminum into his compositions. More recently, he has incorporated computer-generated imagery, plastics and hand-made paper into his work, continuing to blur the line between painting and sculpture. Gilliam has referred to his work as a puzzle. Of how many elements, or puzzle pieces, is For Xavier composed? Remember also that this is not a collage, but a print. The fact that this two-dimensional piece exhibits an almost photographic three-dimensionality is a testament to Gilliam’s remarkable skill as an artist.
What the Artist Says:
Powell, Richard J., Circle Dance: The Art of John T. Scott, 2005