Circle Dance: The Art of John Scott
By Richard Powell, LOUISIANA CULTURAL VISTAS
There is in this vivid description something of the same, eternal character that is found in the work of artist John T. Scott. From his early figurative art in welded steel, cast bronze, and intaglio printmaking to his most recent forays into site-specific, public art and mammoth works on paper, Scott incorporates into each project a set of genetic like markers that, accumulatively and sentiently, convey the history, struggles, and creative spirit of a New Orleans-born citizen of the world. And like many of his artistic predecessors in New Orleans, he references the past and present in his work through a mélange of sensory catalysts — music, dance, and other performance-based rituals — and primary, architectonic forms — squares, triangles, arcs, and circles.
Conventional art classifications such as figurative, abstract, realistic, or expressionistic take critics only so far when describing John T. Scott’s art. While these and other art terminologies are not entirely useless, throughout his career he has embraced all of these directions in art and more — they fail individually to encompass the bigger preoccupations of this artist. One of his driving forces, arguably, is to create (by whatever requisite means or deployment of media) visual critiques and/or commemorations within an improvisatory mode. With this objective uppermost on his creative agenda, Scott, at various times throughout his career, has made paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures, as well as exploring various types and degrees of figuration and abstraction. Despite the heterogeneity of his materials, approaches, and techniques, it is his persistent self-launching into jazz-
inflected visual interrogations and observances — a by-product of his lifelong roots in New Orleans — that brings this huge body of work together under one conceptual roof. One distinctive work of art can, therefore, constitute a formal or philosophical link to an individual, yet related, work. This phenomenon recurs until what one encounters — as in the retrospective exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art — is something on the order of an accumulative, performance-based art experience: circulations through the methods and musings of an artist for whom improvised, dance-like movements are integral.
Metaphors abound in the categorizing and designating of John Scott’s work. One mental picture is particular – the previously referenced Congo Square “circle dance” – alludes to Scott’s performative engagement with three dimensional object making and the self-choreographed movements required by the viewer to fully experience his art (themselves gesturally comparable to the “ring dances” or “ring shouts” that were performed by peoples of African ancestry in the Caribbean and southern United States as late as the early 20th century).
But “circle dance” also refers to the city of New Orleans itself – a place whose anthropomorphic aspect routinely conjures in the mind’s eye bodies in motion. Whether it is in the dancing reveler, the forever-on-the-move tourist, the itinerant artisan, the wily public figure, or the restless flaneur, New Orleans embodies an influx, an improvisatory entity – not only people and portraits, but streets, structures, and urban planning that defy social regimentation or aesthetic comportment.
As it turns out, the art of Scott is similarly errant. Not only an evocation of New Orleans and its multifaceted culture, Scott’s art somehow rises above Mardi Gras and the sea level responding to formulate and considerations that have import beyond the specifics of one place, race, or class of people. John T. Scott’s passions – brilliant color, fluid movement, linear poetics, sharp commentary, social justices, among others – are the products of a lifetime of discerning and fashioning: pursuits that, in tandem with one’s personal genealogy, comprise an artistic performance of substantial proportions. That John T. Scott is both an artist of and from New Orleans is ideally acknowledged within concept and meaning of a “circle dance” – artistic perambulations down real city streets and critical gamboling around theories of form and significance.
Much has been made in labor and art histories about Louisiana as a longtime site for prodigious craftsmanship among skilled workers. The combination of a critical mass of ablebodied laborers plus an ever-escalating, pressing need for adequate housing, goods, and services in the region literally created thousands of artisans over time who left their indelible mark on the city. However, the work ethic that accompanied the creation of New Orleans is perhaps not as fully “branded” or documented in the city’s history as it should be. Arguably, had it not been for the social and cultural mindset that enabled New Orleans’s blacksmiths, carpenters, potters, tailors, upholsterers, mechanics, and builders to learn and develop their respective crafts, then pass these talents on to subsequent generations of artisans, the built and crafted legacy of the Crescent City simply would not exist.
As it turns out, though, the “Big Easy” is the more common referent for New Orleans ostensibly a place and a state of mind where leisure and entertainment are the operative delineators, and the long and distinguished chronicle of its anything-but-easy urban industry and lengthy craftsman tradition is nothing more than a dreary fact for history buffs and an architectural sidebar on the way to the French Quarter.
I became acutely aware of this counterhistory and its concomitant work ethic after talking to artist John Scott about his early life in the city. His father, Thomas Scott, and his mother, Mary Mable Holmes Scott, had instilled this work ethic — its preconditions for one’s survival and itself-engendered honors for one’s character — in each of their six children. As Scott recalled about his working-class, Uptown, and, later. Lower Ninth Ward New Orleans childhood, he and the five other siblings were taught from the very beginning that “if we didn’t have something, we could make it.” Scott’s father, a cook at various hotels like the Roosevelt and at the Commander’s Palace restaurant, taught John basic carpentry, while his housekeeping mother taught her son embroidery. Although Scott’s parental apprenticeship would be augmented after he entered the public schools, his home-based lessons of a partly practical, partly creative volition towards making things — already fundamental to the New Orleans work environment and its aesthetic sensibility — would stay with the artist for life.
It was during Scott’s elementary and secondary school years that he sharpened these extant art skills, especially an understanding of three-dimensional form. From industrial arts teacher Joseph Conrad’s classes at Lockett Elementary School to the more advanced drawing and design classes that were taught by artist Albert Jean at Booker T. Washington High School, Scott was given hands-on experience in designing and building Mardi Gras floats, stage sets for school theater productions, and other large-scale art projects. Noticing Scott’s emerging talents, Jean encouraged him to attend Xavier University of Louisiana, the local, historically African American, Roman Catholic university, whose roster of distinguished faculty included painter Numa Rousseve, who had been trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Sister Mary Lurana Neely. Scott entered Xavier in 1958.
A member of the religious community that had established Xavier University earlier in the century, Sister Lurana, like so many mostly white, Roman Catholic educators working around the 1950s and 1960s, fused her religious vows and teaching vocation with the progressive socioracial agendas that were just then emerging in the United States. Exhorting their black students to excel beyond the greater society’s often narrow-minded expectations for them, Sister Lurana and her fellow educators at Xavier instilled knowledge and initiative in Scott and the other black students. For example. Sister Lurana, utilizing the vast network of Roman Catholic schools, would have Scott and the other students in Xavier’s Artists Guild participate in national and regional ecclesiastical art projects, such as creating mosaic murals and other public artworks
To further Scott’s visual fluency, his teachers at Xavier, like high school teacher Albert Jean years earlier, encouraged him upon graduation to enroll in a master of fine arts program. “The Vietnam War,” Scott recalled, “was also an impetus to continue my education.” Given that he would have faced significant racial barriers had he attempted to enter any of the graduate art programs at universities in the region, Scott instead contemplated attending Michigan State University—the latter being the school in 1963 in which he was accepted and then enrolled.
Having up to this point spent his entire life in the familial, neighborly world of black New Orleans, Scott Initially found East Lansing, Michigan, to be a cold and radical change of address. One of a handful of African Americans at Michigan State University out of a general student population that numbered more than 30,000, Scott, who at first was without a scholarship or extended community support, struggled at MSU to make extra money and adjust to his new environs. Thanks to some of his fellow graduate students and attentive professors like drawing Instructor Clifton McChesney, Scott soon settled Into MSU’s graduate program. In time, two of Scott’s major professors, sculptor Robert Well and painter/printmaker Charles Pollock (brother of the legendary abstract expressionist painter, Jackson Pollock), came to his aid with a much-appreciated fellowship in sculpture and an assistantship in printmaking. It was this kind of academic honor from MSU’s renowned art school, with its recently opened, state-of-the-art Kresge Art Center, that made Scott’s graduate school years especially fulfilling.
Upon the completion of Scott’s graduate work at Michigan State University, a combination of professional and personal developments altered his future directions in art and life. Scott’s former professors at Xavier, Numa Rousseve and Sister Lurana, asked him to return to his alma mater to join them in teaching visual arts. Their invitation to Scott coincided with his betrothal to Xavier student and longtime girlfriend Anna Rita Smith. Returning to Xavier in the role of professor both satisfied Scott”s immeasurable debt to that institution and garnered a measure of financial stability regarding his approaching marriage. Scott joined Xavier’s faculty In the fall of 1965 and married Anna Rita Smith four months later — both “nuptials” have continued to this day.
The careers of many young, aspiring artists with a new spouse and a demanding teaching position would falter at this juncture; and, with the arrival and constant demands of five children, one’s artistic productivity could easily screech to a halt, with only the distant promise of a restart.
Not so for John T. Scott. Anna Rita became an invaluable anchor, adept facilitator, and chief supporter in the art-making enterprise. Amazingly, family life and the daily challenges of teaching at a budgetarily constrained, historically black university motivated Scott to work at a pace and level of success that surpassed artists who had more career options or, arguably, were more ideally situated. A natural teacher, Scott would often intone that “it’s amazing what you can teach young people if you’re not afraid to open up and learn yourself.”
Scott’s art-making techniques at this time — sculptural assemblage, welding, and collagraphy — all revealed his roots in an improvisatory, “make-do” aesthetic, or what jazz musician Ellis Marsalis described as Scott’s uncanny ability to “create with materials from within the environment.”
Like so many African-American artists in the late 1960s and early 1970s, John T. Scott made his art a fusion of racial/cultural identity — something that prior to the mid-1960s had been visually suppressed or appreciably nonexistent in the art world. From self-portraiture to politically charged subject matter, Scott’s work demonstrated his allegiance to a national black arts scene that, in form and action, was perhaps more noticeable in cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles than in New Orleans. Scott acknowledged the pivotal role that artist and curator David C. Driskell, then at Fisk University, played for him and other black artists during this period. Under Driskell’s leadership, Fisk University’s art exhibitions, public lectures, and visiting artists brought the current black art scene to the South and, as a result, attracted artists as far away as Scott was; he frequently made the roundtrip, five-hundred-mile drive between New Orleans and Nashville in order to keep up with what was going on nationally.
In addition to being aware of an ever-changing national scene, Scott was keenly attuned to international affairs and world events during this period, especially issues pertaining to Africa, The mid-1970s were a particularly volatile time, with liberation struggles ongoing in the former Portuguese colonies of Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique; battles between various ethnic groups throughout the Horn of Africa; and the chronic, gnawing vestiges of racial, political, and economic oppression in Rhodesia and South Africa. Scott’s recognition of the problems there was part of a heightened racial consciousness among many African Americans in the 1970s; the difficulties in Africa resonated with political struggles and racial disturbances in the United States, and provided a palpable object of empathy for justice seekers in the wider world.
Scott’s artistic response to Africa’s plight, specifically the social inequities being played out in what was then the former British colony of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), was a suite of approximately 30 small-scale, welded and cast bronze sculptures entitled the Ritual of Oppression Series (1976). Inspired in part by his daughters’ broken and discarded dolls, these minisculptures of tiny, fragmented body parts, apples, container forms, and cutlery probed the often unvoiced hopelessness, which, though afflicting many Africans, cut across geographic and cultural boundaries. “I felt” Scott recalled some 20 years later, that “… anytime you put a human being in a box, whether it’s economic, political, social, etc., … you put them in the ghetto, and no human being should have their spirituality confined.”
Among the adjectives that art historians and critics have used to describe the art of the 1980s, “playful” is one that, while often deployed to describe postmodern architecture, rarely gets used with any level of earnestness in connection with sculpture. Many sculptors whose works achieved notoriety in the 1980s — Robert Arneson, Jonathan Borofsky, Barry Flanagan, Jeff Koons, among others — could be portrayed as having approached their respective media and subjects with significant degrees of freedom and conscious abandon, creative modes that have come to epitomize the art and culture that was produced in the United States during these years. John T. Scott, another sculptor of that era, also experimented in his work with playful, exuberant forms.
But playful here does not mean a mindless or apolitical statement. Cultural critic Albert Murray reminds us that, in addition to its recreational connotations, play should be thought of in the sense of “competition,” “chance-taking,” and “make-believe.” Murray pushes this reconceptualization of play to include, in addition to the above associations, the art of improvisation and its tendency within blues-inflected culture towards “vertigo,” “inducing exhilaration,” and “gratuitous difficulty.”
The sense of play that John T. Scott began to employ in sculptures in the 1980s emphasized qualities of movement and theatricality. For example, Weighted Baton (1982) made stylistic overtures towards surrealism, pop art, and the various schools of pattern art that were then receiving special attention in the art world. The New Orleans representatives of this pattern-plus-decoration aesthetic — Robert Gordy’s obsessive paintings, architect Charles Moore’s overwrought Piazza d’ltalia, and the costumes and floats of Mardi Gras itself — make interesting comparisons next to, for example, Scott’s Storyville Starter Cord with Thorns (1982), an insolent, conceptually quirky object that, like early New Orleans jazz, fused the profane with the spiritual and formed a new hybrid art. Like Scott’s Ritual of Oppression Series, this new work was small-to-medium in size and capable of sitting on a tabletop or being wall-mounted. Unlike any of Scott’s previous work, these new sculptures were carved and assembled from wood, metal, and rubber, and then painted in bright, electric colors.
With titles that made references to New Orleans, black history, the world under observation, and an object’s physical status, these sculptures (which inaugurated the 1980s for Scott) also acknowledged the artist’s profound sense of play and place — a community and cultural destination where the inhabitants, past and present, and their partly choreographed, partly improvised movements across time and space transformed John T. Scott into a willing respondent. “The ideas I use are not mine,” he told artist Yvonne Edwards-Tucker in 1985. “[T]hey’re everywhere, … and I just get in the way of them. One’s consciousness,” Scott continued, “should seek to constantly expand and absorb all that it touches … to expand itself and become deeper involved in its environment.” LCV