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John T. Scott
American 20th Century
(1940–September 01, 2007)
A sort of jack-of-all-trades, the breadth of John T. Scott’s artistic mastery includes drawing, painting, printmaking, and sculpture; his subject matter ranges from self-portraiture to work with important political and social messages. Born John Turrell Scott in the Gentilly section of New Orleans in 1940 and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward, he attributes his first artistic experiences to his parents, learning basic carpentry from his father and embroidery from his mother. Scott continued his artistic education at Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically African American, Roman Catholic university, where he studied under painter Numa Rousseve and sculptor Frank Hayden. As Scott states, “The Vietnam War was…an impetus to continue my education,” and so, in 1963 he began his studies at Michigan State University and completed his MFA in 1965. During his time at Michigan State, Scott worked as an assistant to his professors, sculptor Robert Weil and painter/printmaker Charles Pollock (the brother of Jackson Pollock). Scott returned to New Orleans in 1965, to serve as professor of fine arts at his alma mater. He continued to teach for 40 years, fleeing to Houston just before Hurricane Katrina. When asked whether he would return to New Orleans, Scott replied, “That’s the only home I know. I want my bones to be buried there. I belong there. I need New Orleans more than New Orleans needs me.” Scott, who had recently undergone a bilateral lung transplant, died in Houston on September 1, 2007 and never returned to his home town. However, as a vital member of the New Orleans art community, Scott left his mark on the city he so loved with public works, including, “Siprit Gates,” which marks the New Orleans Art Museum entrance and “Riverspirit,” a bas relief aluminum sculpture located on the Port of New Orleans building.
The local traditions of New Orleans, which draw on the African and Caribbean cultures, heavily influence Scott’s work. His Diddlie Bow Series, created between 1983 and 1984, demonstrates this influence. The brass and wooden sculptures are inspired by mythical African ritual and allude to the development of blues music, a cross between African rhythms and western harmonies. His method comes out of an improvisational thinking, which mirrors that of a jazz musician. During his creative process, Scott uses what he calls “jazz thinking” or “spherical thinking,” which enables him to make connections between entities and ideas that may be invisible to others. Perhaps due to its jazz-like construction, Scott’s work often contains movement either kinetic or implied. Many times the movement of a sculpture is communicated in the “self-choreographed movements required by the viewer to fully experience his art.” The desire to invoke movement continues through Scott’s main objective to “move someone’s spirit.”
While Scott attained national recognition during the 1980s, the years between 1992 and 2004 were his most prolific period. In 1992, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded Scott the MacArthur Fellowship, or “genius grant,” given to individuals who demonstrate exceptional creativity in their fields of endeavor. Relatively few artists have received this honor, especially those working in the field of visual arts outside of New York. Although the grant established Scott as one of the most innovative artists in the country, he was humble about the award and the exceptionally generous stipend, with which he built new studio space. Scott commented, “I'm glad somebody thinks I'm a genius, but it hasn't changed my perception of myself...Coming out of a minority situation, it's always been important for me to be centered and know what I am. Nobody made me credible except myself..." It is exactly this experience as a minority that Scott’s rich body of work addresses. His art brings attention to the national black arts scene and the political issues surrounding African American life and history.
Holland Cotter, “John T. Scott, New Orleans Sculptor, Dies at 67,” New York Times (September, 9 2007) www.nytimes.com/2007/09/04/arts/design/04scott.html
“Circle Dance: John T. Scott Retrospective, May 7- July 10 2005,” Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Resource Library www.tfaoi.com/aa/5aa/5aa313.htm
Richard J. Powell, “Circle Dance: The Art of John T. Scott,” Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Resource Library http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/5aa/5aa323b.htm
Written by Megan Downing (SC '08), 2007-08 Academic Year Wilson Intern
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Combining traditional African art with Caribbean elements and African American culture, John T. Scott melded a complex world of history and aesthetics in his sculptures. Born in New Orleans, Scott developed themes relating to his birth city and its Black culture in his acclaimed works.
With a BA from Xavier University of Louisiana and an MFA from Michigan State University, Scott’s technique and artistic abilities earned him recognition as a sculptor, painter, printmaker, and collagist. After graduating, Scott studied under Charles Pollock and George Rickey, then taught at Xavier University for 40 years.
Scott’s work ranged from large woodcut prints to kinetic sculptures. Many of his commissioned pieces line the streets of New Orleans, including Spirit Gates at the New Orleans Museum of Art, Spirit House at DeSaix Circle, and River Spirit at Woldenberg Park along the Mississippi River near the Port of New Orleans. In an article for My New Orleans, John Kemp describes Scott’s work as creating “physical and spiritual bridges between life, the imagination, creativity and mythology.”
-Amelie Lee SC ’23, Wilson Arts Administration Intern 2020