Scott, John T.

John T. Scott

1940-2007

Artist, teacher

The vigorous, expressive, and abstract artworks created by sculptor John T. Scott can be found in museums and public areas in historic cites such as Boston and Washington, D.C. However, they are perhaps most at home in the parks and civic buildings of New Orleans, Louisiana, where Scott grew up, absorbing the jazz rhythms and rich cultural mix that inspired his artistic style. Colorful and dynamic, Scott's art blends influences from Africa, the Caribbean, and the American South, along with social commentary and a strong sense of African-American identity. Many of Scott's sculptures have moving parts, inspiring critics to compare their random movement to music. Scott made that comparison himself in Circle Dance: The Art of John T. Scott, "I would like to do with visual language what African American artists have done with gospel, blues and jazz. And if I can move somebody's spirit, I'd like that, too."

John Tarrell Scott was born in the Gentilly area of east New Orleans. He spent his early years on a farm that provided produce for Kolb's, a famous New Orleans restaurant. His father, Thomas Scott, worked as a driver for the owners of Kolb's, and later as a cook in other local restaurants. His mother, Mary Mable Holmes Scott, worked in the home, caring for Scott and his five sisters and brothers. When young John was seven years old, the family moved to the Lower Ninth Ward, a largely black, working-class district of the city.

Demonstrated Artistic Talent Early

Growing up with little money, Scott learned the values of hard work, resourcefulness, and creativity from his parents. He learned to make the things he could not afford, a union of practicality and creativity that would appear frequently in his later art work. He learned carpentry from his father, and, from his mother, who put painstaking effort into the everyday items she made for her family and friends, he learned the patient art of embroidery.

Even in elementary school Scott's teachers recognized his extraordinary artistic talent, and his high school teachers encouraged him to go on to college. After his graduation from Booker T. Washington High School in 1958, he entered Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically black Catholic college in New Orleans. In the fine arts department at Xavier, Scott's teachers helped him gain the confidence to exceed the limits placed on African-American artists in the segregated South. They also urged him to continue his education and pursue a master's degree.

Scott graduated from Xavier in 1962 and entered graduate school at Michigan State University, where he was a teaching assistant for two of his professors, the well-known artists, Charles Pollock and Robert Weil. He earned his master's of fine arts in 1965, then returned to take the job of professor of fine arts at Xavier University. Soon after, he married his longtime girlfriend Anna Rita Smith. Along with caring for his family and creating his own art, he continued to teach and mentor young artists as an art professor at Xavier for the rest of his life.

Although Scott created many paintings and prints, he is best known for his collages and mobile sculptures, energetic combinations of a variety of materials often assembled out of everyday items that could be found around the house and neighborhood. His pieces are characterized by bright colors and geometric shapes, which echo the patterns found in the art of Africa and the Caribbean, the cultural roots of the slaves who were the ancestors of many African Americans.

Influenced by the Catholic culture of Louisiana and the religious atmosphere at Xavier, Scott created many works of religious art during his early career in the 1960s. In 1967 he created Stations of the Cross as a commission for an order of Josephite priests and monks, and in 1969 he created Resurrection of the Risen Christ for a New Orleans Catholic high school. His early work showed such promise that he became one of the youngest artists invited to join the Orleans Gallery, an artist's cooperative.

Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement

By the 1970s the civil rights and black nationalist movements had instilled a new sense of pride in African-American identity. Scott began to reflect this in his art, creating pieces with titles such as Marcus Garvey and Jackson State Murder that stressed his dedication to the struggle for racial equality. His work also began to demonstrate the deep connections he felt among the people of Africa and the many people of African ancestry who had been scattered around the world, largely by the slave trade. In pieces such as Ritual of Oppression Series, a collection of tiny sculptures created in 1976, he explores the pain of this diaspora.

In 1983 Scott received a fellowship to study with George Rickey, a New York artist famous for his work in kinetic, or moving, sculpture. During his six-week residency in Rickey's studio in East Chatham, New York, Scott met and exchanged ideas with many members of the East Coast art community. Influenced by Rickey, Scott began to add more movement and drama to his work. His Diddlie Bow series, created in 1983-84, demonstrates an increased playfulness in movement, along with Scott's characteristic interest in the ties between black American culture and African themes. The diddley bow is an American folk musical instrument that traces its origins to Africa. Often used in traditional blues music, the original diddley bow was also employed as a weapon. Scott's Diddlie Bow sculptures are filled with the movement of the bow shape as it changes from instrument to weapon to boat.

In 1984 Scott took part in a cooperative art project about black history, titled I've Known Rivers. His contribution to the piece combined his characteristic bright colors with geometric symbols that suggested the culture of ancient Africa. Also during the 1980s, Scott began working with a New England art gallery and received a commission for a public sculpture that was placed in a Boston train station.

Created Works Inspired by New Orleans

By the 1990s he was also creating large public art pieces in his home city of New Orleans. River Spirit, commissioned by the Port of New Orleans for their main office building, is a three-dimensional mural depicting the boats, workers, and music that make up the culture of the Mississippi delta. Other Scott sculptures were placed in the city's Woldenberg Park, City Park, and Museum of Art.

At a Glance …

Born John Tarrell Scott on June 30, 1940, in New Orleans, LA; died on September 1, 2007; son of Thomas and Mary Mable Holmes Scott; married Anna Rita Smith, 1965; five children: Ayo, Maria Scott-Osborne, Tyra Joseph, Lauren Kannady and Alanda Rhodes; six grandchildren. Education: Xavier University of Louisiana, BA, 1962; Michigan State University, MA in Fine Arts, 1965.

Career: Xavier University of Louisiana, fine arts department, professor, 1965-2007; professional artist, 1965-2007.

Memberships: Orleans Gallery; Phi Kappa Phi National Scholastic Honorary Fraternity.

Awards: City of New Orleans, Second Annual Mayor's Arts Award, 1980; Youth Leadership Council, Role Model Award, 1988; John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, MacArthur Fellowship, 1992; National Conference of Artists, Outstanding Art Contributor Award, 1995; Loyola University of New Orleans, honorary doctorate in humane letters, 2007.

In 1992 Scott was awarded a fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Nicknamed the "Genius Grant," the MacArthur Fellowship is a prestigious award, given to creative individuals to help them in their work. As an African-American artist who had worked hard for his place in the artistic community, Scott was somewhat skeptical about qualifying for the title of "genius," but he appreciated the $315,000 grant that accompanied the award, using the money to expand his studio.

In 2005 the New Orleans Museum of Art presented a retrospective show of Scott's work, titled Circle Dance. Named for one of his characteristic sculpture series, the term circle dance also describes a certain kind of folk dance, common in Africa, and brought to the United States by African slaves. The rhythmic sense of music, movement, tradition, and change suggested by the term circle dance is perhaps the most common characteristic of Scott's vast body of artworks.

Shortly after the end of the Circle Dance retrospective, the city of New Orleans was hit by the devastating force of hurricane Katrina. In the early morning hours of August 28, 2005, as the powerful storm approached the city, Scott and his family evacuated to the nearby city of Houston, Texas. His home and studio were badly damaged by strong winds and flooding, though the eight major art pieces he had installed around the city were unharmed.

Scott never returned home to New Orleans. He was in poor health, having suffered for several years from pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease possibly caused by cigarette smoke and the fumes and particles from decades of welding his sculptures together. He underwent two full lung transplants in Houston, but did not recover and died there on September 1, 2007.

Sources

Books

Powell, Richard J., and John Tarrell Scott, Circle Dance: The Art of John T. Scott, University Press of Mississippi/New Orleans Museum of Art, 2005.

Periodicals

Black Collegian, March-April 1992, p. 33; October 1998, p. 147.

Black Issues Book Review, January-February 2006, p. 29.

Jet, September 24, 2007, p. 17.

New Orleans City Business, September 8, 2007.

Online

Adams, Noah, "Prized Sculptures Survive Katrina, Stolen by Thieves," National Public Radio,http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId_6692039 (accessed December 28, 2007).

"Circle Dance: The Art of John T. Scott," Traditional Fine Arts Organization,http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/5aa/5aa313.htm (accessed December 28, 2007).

Cotter, Holland, "John T. Scott, New Orleans Sculptor, Dies at 67," New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/04/arts/design/04scott.html?_r=2&adxnnl=1&oref=slogin&adxnnlx=1198854422-RT/JzlFSYnAyrIpaCunvFg (accessed December 28, 2007).

Elie, Lolis Eric, "Scott Led War for Soul of the City," Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com/news/t-p/index.ssf?/base/news-0/1188799370218160.xml&coll=1 (accessed December 28, 2007).

"John T. Scott," St. James Guide to Black Artists, St. James Press, 1997. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center,http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (accessed December 28, 2007).

MacCash, Doug, "Renowned Artist Stayed Close to N.O. Roots," Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com/news/t-p/frontpage/index.ssf?/base/news-9/1188713831303400.xml&coll=1 (accessed December 28, 2007).

—Tina Gianoulis

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