Are Joyce Scott, artist and performer of many personalities


February 03, 1991|By Mary Corey

Squeeze this!" demands Joyce Scott as she grabs a meaty hunk of her inner thigh and dangles it near your face.

"Go on, take a squeeze," she coaxes. "Lemme find you a soft place."

There's flesh there. A whole lotta flesh. Flesh that jiggles and ripples through her two-tone purple jumpsuit.

"Was that muscle?" she asks, knowing full well the answer to her question. "It was fat!"

All this might leave you lunging for the front door (also two-tone purple) if an earlier encounter with this visual and performing artist hadn't tipped you off to her eccentricities. The first time you met, after all, she wore her dress inside out and rummaged through your pocketbook.

Yes, this is Joyce Scott's world, and welcome to it.

Be prepared to meet a woman who is by turns funny, charming, wise, thoughtful, outrageous, bawdy, honest, foul-mouthed,

flamboyant and sometimes even gross. One who, with Robin Williamsesque speed, may at any time become: baby Joyce, talking like a child who loves ice cream, movies and underpants with hearts on them; grand dame Joyce, who speaks with a British accent, calls for a chauffeur (who never comes) and claims to be descended from royalty; or Bobby, a masculine hell raiser with a Brooklyn accent and a fondness for grabbing his/her crotch.

"So many people are so predictable," says longtime friend Arnold Lehman, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. "That's one thing Joyce is not."

In Ms. Scott's case, that may be an understatement. Yet, there is a purpose to her unpredictability, she promises. Sitting in the Northwest Baltimore home she shares with her mother, tucked comfortably in a leopard-print chair, she struggles to explain exactly what that is.

"I'm someone who's on a quest, a real quest to live a full life," says Ms. Scott, 42. "I really am not sure that this is the only life you get, but I like to hedge my bets. If this is the only one I get -- and even if I'm reincarnated I may come back as the heel of your shoe or something horrible -- I need to be able to live this in a full manner."

Living life fully: To Ms. Scott, that means creating elaborate fiber art, beaded jewelry and sculpture, now part of the Baltimore Museum of Art's permanent collection. It means acting in shows like "Honey Chil', Milk," a performance piece about stereotypes of African-American women, beginning at the Theatre Project this week (see box for details). It also means lecturing, giving workshops, writing grants, sitting on boards and currently being a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Delaware.

Looking at her, it's hard to imagine her in some prim schoolroom or stuffy boardroom. She's wearing a purple hat with a brim as round as a large pizza pie. Seven earrings dot each ear, the bottom pair being her own beaded creations. Her shoes -- royal blue and black polka-dot suede flats -- have been kicked off. She frequently refers to you, and others, as "baby" or "love." And when she does speak, you hear a slight lisp, perhaps from the gap between her front teeth.

But the person Joyce Scott sees -- or the one she thinks the world sees -- is very different.

"I am a gaping sore of a stereotype," she says. "I'm 5-4, I weigh 200 pounds. I have brown skin. I have gappy teeth. I have kinky hair. I do artwork. Sometimes, I dress in an outre manner. I'm just like this cesspool of stereotypes. That stuff just oozes . . . I know that through all these things that people glime onto me, I'm still a good person. So I'm always trying to mirror some of the weirdness in my artwork."

Others in the art community put in another way.

"Joyce takes bits and pieces of the world around her and synthesizes those into really fantastic creations that in a sense are their own world," says Mr. Lehman. "She creates her own constellation, an image that really brings the person who's viewing the work to see something very new."

Often through humor or beauty, she tackles the thornier issues of today -- racism, apartheid, physical abuse, violence. A sculpture she's finishing features a woman -- luminescent in red and blue beads -- trying to escape from a bed where she's been abused.

But the work that is quintessentially Joyce Scott, and the one for which she is most well known, is the Thunder Thigh Revue.

Under that name, she and partner Kay Lawal have created and performed in several multimedia shows throughout the United States and Europe, often using satire to examine obsessive behavior and society's views of overweight African-American women.

"People think you're dumb and slovenly, and they say outrageous things about the kinds of jobs you can't do because of your size," she says. "They think you smell. They don't think you look good sitting behind a receptionist's desk."

Personally, she recently lost -- and quickly regained -- 30 pounds. But in the process, she came to understand why food is a compulsion for her. "I consider part of strength to be size," she says. "I know that fat isn't power. Muscle is power. So why do I have it?"

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