Joyce Scott: Artist-provocateur

Her technique comes out of the traditions of craft-making. Her creativity comes out of pain and laughter, sexuality and spirituality.

January 16, 2000|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

It is a wintry afternoon and everything inside the old barn seems saturated in silky gray light. The space is large, furnished with the massive equipment needed for metal work: heavy benches, vises, tools that resemble instruments of torture, piles of long steel beams.

The owner of the barn, sculptor David Hess, his eyes shielded by a steel-worker's mask, stands in front of a larger-than-life metal figure of a woman. He grips a blow torch in full flame, trying to heat the metal, to bend and shape it. But he can't. He is laughing too hard.

A woman wearing chartreuse sunglasses, a long red sweater over royal purple pants and a multicolored turban capped with a striped top hat is hopping from one foot to the other as she dances around him, singing:

David, David man of steel

Testosterone, it is really real ...

Joyce Scott is making art.

At 51, the Baltimore artist is renowned for relentless energy, a remarkable body of work in textiles, beads, glass, paper and in performance and a penchant to say, do and create exactly what she feels. When she feels it.

There is anger in her art. And pain. And power. In beaded sculptures, she rages against a white society that hires African-American women to care for its children, then teaches them to say "nigger." In a performance titled "Thunder Thigh Review," she mocks America's cult of thinness. In prints, she explores spirituality.

For the past year, Scott has been in a frenzy of productivity, one that will culminate next Sunday when "Joyce J. Scott: Kickin' it with the Old Masters," a groundbreaking exhibition of 30 years of the artist's work, opens at the Baltimore Museum of Art. (A second exhibition, featuring more of her prints, also is on display at Baltimore's Goya Girl Press.)

On this afternoon, Scott is creating a self-portrait in metal that will greet visitors at the museum's main entrance, which -- in celebration of the event -- will be open to the public for the first time in 15 years.

Scott has designed the figure; Hess, a friend and fellow artist, has been hired to build it. During an earlier work session, Hess fashioned a curving, voluptuous body. Now Scott is trying to decide where one of the piece's large metal arms should go. Should it lie gracefully against the figure's body? Should it arch over her head?

... David, David, man of steel ...

Scott stops singing and abruptly switches gears: "Suppose we maybe put the arm up here?" she asks.

"No," she answers herself. "Having that arm up there destroys the line. I like the line."

As Hess adjusts the silvery metal arm, Scott steps back, as though to scrutinize the sculpture. Then she adds: "I'll bet before you got married this is how you got girls: 'Oooh, baby, it's me and my torch.' "

Hess starts laughing again.

This is Joyce Scott. She's the little girl on the playground who dared you to swing too high; the kid in sex-ed who asked how the sperm got to the egg; the guest who's the life of the party and the last to leave; the artist who never met a stereotype she didn't want to stomp, devour, digest and spit back out as art.

A beaded necklace that depicts a lynching? Hers. A performance about a slave named Rodney Dangerous-in-the-Field? Hers. A series of elegant prints about a little boy who loses his soul to violence? That's hers, too.

"Joyce is the protagonist, the catalyst, the impulse, the thing that is getting on your damn nerves. She is messing with you, just messing with you until she knows she has hit a chord," says Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, dean of graduate studies at the Maryland Institute, College of Art and longtime friend of the artist.

"But if you look at Joyce's work, you will see that it is replete with imagery and moral parables. It is about human error and foible and the human content of what living is all about."

Scott's work is steeped in the traditions of craft-making, passed from one generation to the next. Her mother, renowned artist Elizabeth Talford Scott, creates extraordinarily complex quilts adorned with insects, flowers, shells and stones. With fabric and found objects, "Mother Scott," as she is known, investigates themes of motherhood, racism, memory. From her mother, Scott learned to quilt, then expanded the materials she used to beads, paper and glass. Now, say curators, her creations have exploded the boundaries of craft.

In a piece that Scott calls "Fall," a doll-sized woman, fashioned from black beads, sprawls across the mouth of a two-foot vase. It is as though her body is being sucked in. A face, contorted by anguish, has been cooked into the glass on the outside of the vase, but through the paint, the viewer can see dozens of hypodermic syringes.

Scott's skill is apparent: The figure's braids, eyebrows, eyeballs, lips and double chin all are separate three-dimensional elements sculpted in beads, not clay or bronze. Even the skin on the bottoms of her feet is articulated by slightly paler beads.

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