Communicating Through Process
by Chris Clother
The work of Judith Scott involves the careful and obsessive wrapping of various and often unidentifiable objects in yarn, twine, cord, and fabric. They are human in scale—the smallest are easily hand-held, while the largest are the size of a person. Together they are a showcase of color, texture, and form, instilling new life in the otherwise negligible items she chose to work with. Scott devoted the last eighteen years of her life to the production of these sculptures, working six to eight hours a day on them. This work in its own right is sufficiently compelling to invite attention, but considering that these objects were produced in such an obsessive manner serves as further cause to dwell on her work. The human story behind her art gives pause, and strengthens the relational connection between the work and its audience.
When one wraps something in string or yarn, a specific and expected form results. Consider wool being spun into yarn on a spindle, or string being spun onto the bobbin of a sewing machine. Where the string has wrapped in many layers, the overall form bulges. Where the string is wrapped sparsely, the overall shape is narrower, and it is possible to still see the color and material of what the string is being wrapped around. Hard edges and corners are rounded and softened as the string wraps, swells, and eventually overwhelms the original object. Often, the final form takes on similarities in shape to a seed or an egg, rounded forms that offer the hope and promise of new life.
To wrap something may be an act of protection, an attempt to hide or conceal, like wrapping up in winter clothes, or a baby wrapped up in its mother’s womb. That which has been wrapped is safe, contained, and warm. Looking at Scott’s finished sculptures, one often has to guess what the objects hidden inside actually are. The gesture of wrapping is of primary importance. Like the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, or the meticulous and meditative grids of Agnes Martin, Scott’s work serves as a portrayal of human action.
A more sinister read of Scott’s work can be discovered if one considers how her sculptures resemble the wrapped victims in a spider’s web. Something has been seized and trapped, bound and secured, to serve as sustenance for later. The objects within have, in a sense, died to the world, or to their old identity, and now serve a purpose determined by the one who trapped them. This puts Scott in the role of the spider, which, through the work of artists such as Louise Bourgeois, has taken on a distinctively feminine slant. The spider as a weaver, as a protector of offspring, and as a mother suggests a duality where the threatening quality of one who traps and binds coexists with protective, maternal warmth.
On occasion, the objects within Scott’s wrappings can be identified, which sometimes works against their mysterious quality. One may see large cardboard spools, tubes, or other art/textile studio detritus in her work. It becomes apparent that Scott had likely pilfered what was lying around her work area for the sake of needing something to wrap, and knowing the truth of what’s within can feel disappointing. When objects in Scott’s work are fully concealed, there is a hope that, perhaps, what’s hidden inside the sculptures are truly unexpected and confounding items that could somehow warrant this obsessive process. That said, having knowledge of what Scott has wrapped affirms that the process is actually what matters here, a process which seems to have been more of a reaction to the world than a reaction to specific objects.
There is one particular sculpture with identifiable items that is quite compelling. It is a work by Scott featuring a shopping cart with its front wheels removed, spilling over with a wrapped form. With this, it is hard not to begin exploring various interpretations or commentary: perhaps a critique of consumer culture, or an expression of the experience of homelessness. A shopping cart, in its essence, is a way of transporting objects from one place to another. All that is contained in Scott’s cart is not just held, but is secured, bound up, and trapped within. There is something disconcerting about the missing front wheels, in that one of the functions of the cart has been disabled. This bound up load will not be traveling far, making plain the role of stasis in Scott’s work. To bind something can be viewed as an attempt to render something immobile, or to keep something from changing or getting away.
Elements of Judith Scott’s biography are hard to keep separate from the appreciation of her work. Her human circumstance is compelling and unique, and can in some ways act to illuminate various qualities of the work. Judith Scott had Down’s Syndrome, and was born with a typically-developed fraternal twin sister, Joyce. Judith was also deaf and without speech, and at the age of seven was removed from her family and institutionalized for thirty-five years. She came out from that life when Joyce found her and brought her home. Joyce connected Judith with an arts organization in Berkeley, California, where Judith began her creative path.
Overall, Judith Scott’s sculptures are expressive of relatable human conditions. They speak of the need to protect, to preserve, and to keep; and by speaking as such, they draw attention to the insecurity and ephemerality of the world we inhabit. They are soft and inviting, and seem to offer comfort in light of life’s challenges. The desire to meaningfully connect with the people around us can be understood as a relatable need, and in the case of Judith Scott, we have a body of work that suggests this desire to demonstrate her personal experience. Human experience needs a vehicle, a means of getting from one person to another, and in our daily life, speech often acts as this vehicle. When one has no speech, process, action, and form can effectively stand in, conveying feeling and ideas without a spoken word. Judith Scott fully embraced this notion, and through her sculpture gives rich and evocative access to her otherwise inaccessible inner life.
Chris Clother lives with his wife and three children in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania, where he is the Residential Director of Camphill Soltane, an intentional community for people with and without developmental disabilities. He grew up in Portland, Oregon, and earned a degree in Fine Art from Portland State University. He has worked collaboratively with other artists and organizations to produce album artwork, illustrations, and zines. Chris is the illustrator for Cordella Magazine.