Circle Dance: The Art of John T. Scott

by Richard J. Powell


John Scott was born in New Orleans in 1940. As Scott recalled about his working class, uptown, and later Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans childhood, he and his five siblings were taught from the very beginning that "if we didn't have something, we could make it." Scott's father, Thomas, taught John basic carpentry, while his housekeeping mother, Mary Mable, taught her son embroidery. Although Scott's parental apprenticeship would be augmented after he entered the public schools, his home-based lessons of a part practical, part 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. Noticing Scott's emerging talents, his art teacher encouraged him to attend Xavier University of Louisiana, the local, historically African-American, Roman Catholic university. The deep roots that John Scott has to the Roman Catholic world of signs and symbols were in full evidence long after he graduated from Xavier University in 1962. Works like his Stations of the Cross (circa 1967) for a Josephite House, which was connected to a New Orleans Seminary, and his Resurrection of the Risen Christ (1969-70) for Mount Carmel Academy High School clearly subscribed to a corpus of passion imagery that can be traced back in Christian iconography for centuries..

To further Scott's visual fluency, his teachers at Xavier encouraged him to enroll in a master of fine arts program. "The Vietnam War," Scott recalled, "was also an impetus to continue my education." In 1963 he enrolled in Michigan State University.

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, asked him to return to his alma mater to join them with teaching in its visual arts program. Their invitation to Scott coincided with his recent 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 with 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.

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." In many of Scott's circa 1970 collagraphs his involved resurfacing and transformation of printing plates belied the frequently voiced disciplinary requirements for more complex, technological interventions in printmaking. Scott's artistic engagement with subjects from the historical past (Marcus Garvey), current events (Jackson State Murder, The Fire Next Time), and Western mythology (Icarus, Daedalus) demonstrated that serious topics could be successfully addressed even with the most modest of art media and printmaking processes.

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.

In addition to an ever-changing national scene, Scott was keenly attuned to international affairs and world events during this period, especially issues pertaining to the continent of Africa. 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 thirty 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 mini-sculptures 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 twenty year later, that "...anytime you put a human being in a box, whether it's economic, political, social, etc., put them in the ghetto, and no human being should have their spirituality confined."


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