When fraternal twins Joyce and Judith Scott were born in 1943, they were two peas in pod — soulmate sisters, inseparable and aligned in every way except for the defining feature of Judith having been born with Down Syndrome. Their early, middle-class childhood in Cincinnati, Ohio was filled with days of make-believe, inventing games, playing outside and intimate friendship.
When it came time for the girls to begin grade school, a gap had emerged. While Joyce was developing on pace with other kids, Judith did not speak, and so failed to qualify for the only Ohio public school program offered to children with disabilities. This failure confirmed her doctors’ and psychologists’ assumptions that she was “uneducable”; at age seven and-a-half, Judith’s parents placed her in the Columbus State School, founded in 1857 as the Ohio Asylum for the Education of Idiotic and Imbecile Youth. Eventually, Judith became a ward of the state. Records of her time at the state school describe a restless, lonely and devastatingly unrealized and unloved existence. It was only many years after Judith’s removal from her family home that it was determined that a bout of scarlet fever had rendered her deaf in infancy. She likely could not hear the questions being asked of her during her early education testing.
Joyce, too, was left traumatized by Judith’s institutionalization. After years of grief and heartache, in early adulthood, she sought work caring for disenfranchised children and eventually, against the wishes of her mother, began visiting, along with her daughter, a sobbing Judith at the State School. In 1986, 36 years after their separation and after drawn-out and difficult negotiations, Joyce gained legal guardianship of Judith and brought her to live with her and her family in California, where all citizens, regardless of ability, are entitled to a public education. Joyce and Judith were 43.
Joyce, who worked full-time as a pediatric nurse, enrolled Judith at Creative Growth Art Centre, in Oakland, one of the first organizations in the world to provide resources and studio space to artists with disabilities. At first, Judith wasn’t all that interested; she preferred to look at magazines and eschewed invitations to paint, which jeopardized her enrollment at the center. One day, visiting textile artist Sylvia Seventy conducted a workshop on fiber arts, laying out willow branches and other natural materials for collage and weaving. In a bolt of inspiration, Judith, who’d been casually observing and who was still completely non-verbal, began tightly wrapping pieces of wood in thread, yarn, fabric, and eventually anything she could find around the studio. Her facilitators, witnessing her spark, gave her free rein of materials, time and the independence to explore her newfound voice, uninterrupted and without interference.
PS: “To believe only possibilities is not faith, but mere philosophy.” (Thomas Browne)
Esoterica: Judith, on fire with focus, worked fastidiously, five days a week for seventeen years on some 200 unique pieces, never repeating a colour scheme or armature shape. She enveloped and cocooned found objects into wrapped and woven bundles: abstractions which concealed interior handbuilt structures, voids or caches of hidden items. While she never uttered a word, her objects spoke at times, as bulky, unmanageable objects and, at other times, as intimate and jewel-like treasures. In 2005, at age 61, Judith passed away from natural causes, in her sister’s arms, at home in Dutch Flat, California. She had lived 49 years beyond her predicted lifespan. Her work endures as part of the permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art, the Centre Pompidou, and the Smithsonian, among others. Judith Scott’s solo retrospective, Bound and Unbound, opened at the Brooklyn Museum in 2014.
Joyce Scott, Brie Spangler, and illustrator Melissa Sweet’s 2021 picture book biography for young readers, Unbound: The Life and Art of Judith Scott is available, here.
John M. McGregor’s Metamorphosis: The Fiber Art of Judith Scott, charts Judith’s first 12 years at the Creative Growth Art Centre, and is available, here.
“Intuition is the only true guide in life.” (Jiddu Krishnamurti)
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We all need beauty, especially at a time when it appears to many that the world is in chaos.
Painting is the way I view my life, and it helps me keep my mind straight and my eyes on the positive. I look for beauty wherever I go. For that reason, I know that my life will not be long enough to paint all the ideas that I have.
I am painting because the Lord put the passion and desire in my heart to glorify Him in this way.
I have dedicated my life since 1983 to creating a body of work that testifies of His Creation, majesty, power, beauty, life and love.
Light and how we see it on the earth is the subject of all of my paintings.
I paint the landscape because I believe that we can see the Creator in His Creation, if we just look for Him there.
Since all who are sighted may see our surroundings, I believe this is one of the most evident ways we may see Him.
If I were to give a name to my entire portfolio of paintings, I would call it “The Sight of Heaven Touching Earth.”This Scripture, Romans 1:19-20, is foundational to all of my work: For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made, so they are without excuse.”
Beauty, order, and the possibility to love is all around us—all we have to do is want to see it.
Deeply moving. The creative, the divine, needs no words. There is no one way to be human in this world, and there is no one way to express creative impulses. So glad Ms. Scott found her way. Kudos to her devoted sister and to her facilitators. I speak as an artist and also as the mother of a young man who is non-verbal.
Wow. Good for Judith and God Bless Joyce.
We All have a voice, even if everyone can’t hear it.
You are so right!!
ART used to mean the highest and best one can offer in her field.
its a sad day for the Arts when Scott’s work is offered as Art rather
than reflecting her own deplorable self image. How does this kind of
work uplift the Art and Culture of a people?
How do you figure it doesn’t? Those under the neurodiverse umbrella see things in a different way, in ways neurotypicals can’t or don’t. Or perhaps in your case, won’t. Your ableism is showing, and I think that’s the deplorable thing here. Wouldn’t it be horrible to bury such rare and unique views of the world? I think it would be awful to believe there’s only one homogeneous standard we should all work towards, to only see the world in a hierarchy instead of a glorious web. Art’s job is to make us question. It’s to comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.
There is a way to measure the intrinsic “value” of Art rather than rely on some collective opinion of so called experts. D.R. Hawkins. in his book “Power VS Force” reflects on the role of the Arts in reaching the spirituality of a people. He has devised a system of measureable values for people, objects and even written works that uses kineseology to
callibrate the numbers. Anything under 200 actually has detrimental effect .
His view s on the Arts is very provocative and interesting.
The author of the Life of Ms Scott wants to be controversial, and assusmes qualites that just are not there.
My view is based on 35 years of Metaphysical studies and a good grasp of spirituality which fine tunes one’s intuition, which is another form of kinesiology, to “Know” beyond the apparent and physical. I do know garbage when I see it.
And “Spirituality” is measured first and foremost by compassion given…and a resounding YES to the universe. This was a very moving and thought provoking letter. Thank you, Sara.
Pseudo-science manipulated and applied to art is, perhaps, clever, definitely cold and narrow.
Art that appeals to a only those who accept your view is not for a larger, more thoughtful, generous and open-hearted audience. I was educated in both the arts and in maths and science, but my real education came from my grandson who has Down syndrome. I consider this child as the soul of the family, and the greatest teacher I have ever had. His gift for music and his joy in it opened the eyes and ears of this ex- music teacher to a world previously unseen and unheard. I could go on and on …..
How sad for you that you see garbage in the work of Judith Scott. Maybe you need Roberts “child eyes” to see the true goodness in the work. I have a Masters Degree in Fine Arts from the Royal College of Art, London ( for what it’s worth) and I think the work is striking and original. I have seen more of her work previously and it’s remarkable. One must attempt to come to art without preconceived opinions about what “is art”.
Thank you ! I totally agree.
Callie, you said it perfectly
the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
I believe Judith Scott’s work matches the criteria in this definition. Are you saying that you are unable to detect the emotional power present in her art?
I think the true value of Sara’s beautiful story and Eva’s apparently well researched , if caustic, definition of ‘art’ is that it inspired so many readers to think about and share their feelings and opinions. I am interested in where a piece of digital art – a non fungible token recently sold for $70 million fits into a mystical, spiritual definition of art?
I am sorry for you and your narrow thinking.
Eva, you’re on the wrong site. Haters go home.
As a parent of an autistic child, this story warms my heart. My son loves to create beautiful colorful symmetric drawings as a method of self expression for the language he lacks. So glad times are different now than in the 1940’s. Differently-abled people have so much to offer and so much love to give.
My comment stands. If this is ART, it sadly reflects the state of a Society and Gallery that would accept this as sensitive and lovingly offered. Garbage by any other name is still garbage.
It may be true that your autistic son’s painting is evocative, but to try to promote a collection of garbage as Art is
not in the same category at all.
How comforting for you to be so certain in your judgement and opinions. Have you been vaccinated for covid? Many people hate Jackson Pollock art; but there it is in the major museums. ;t Aren’t we fortunate?
Sometimes the “art” is not in the product but the process….like the art of loving another human soul back into living. Thanks to Joyce and Judith Scott for their loving relationship that brought about works of art that bear testimony to that love and dedication in their symbolism.
My, Ms. Nolan, aren’t YOU judgy! I guess you would also consider Meret Oppenheim’s “Objet” garbage, too… Here is a link to the MOMA site featuring that surrealist work: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/80997
I would say you fall into the category of people who if its in print, its the truth, except with this example, if its in a museum, its great Art. My point, made at the beginning , is the saddness of the author trying to cash in on controversial “Art” and presenting what is not there as a truth.
Mine is a search for Art, whether visual, musical or other medium, when it inspires high attraction,has intrinsic spiritual value to humanity ,and uplifts the ordinary into the divine, according to D. R. Hawkins. It is the metaphysical criteria which he as a Mystic used as the basis for his theoriesa nd views.
I , as a mystic, am only sharing what I “see” in Scott’s work. You are free, along with the others, to see what you wish in Scott’s as your truth.
I think perhaps you’re more of a mystery than a mystic, but then again that’s what spiritualism is all about. Not facing facts and relying on some sort of faith in the afterlife and a creator based on written descriptions of life both BC and AD that have been altered to suit various religions needs and wants is totally ridiculous and shows you lack of knowledge and good judgement. Wake up and smell the coffee so you can investigate the real meaning of life and art’s role in defining how society should function and cooperate for the good of mankind, not just to suit your sordid view of things. Perhaps your spiritualism will carry to an afterlife in a non existent place. Although art often comes from the soul and the heart, it appears you have neither.
And here I thought we’d come a long way. baby!!!
This story is both heartbreaking and heartwarming, how lucky are we to be born with more medical knowledge and acceptance.
I agree with Muriel.
Judith found a way of expressing the love in her heart. Her creations remind me of many abstract little forms I saw in Santa Fe galleries
Thank you Muriel and Thank you Sara for your kindness which always shines through!! FR
Seems labeling and personal valuations have stirred the pot here. Well played, Judith.
I don’t know which feeling to say I’m having right now. Crying, overjoyed, amazed, grateful… I guess they’re all wrapped around my heart. ❤️
How fortunate that Judith is unable to see such narrow-minded and insensitive comments on her work. How wonderful that those of us who appreciate and are prompted to question and wonder what Judith was expressing in her sculptures outnumbers those who don’t, can’t or won’t. How sad that there are those who narrow their perceptions about life by believing some artificially subjective theory applied to such a broad-based concept as art.
How thankful we should all be to be inspired by the story Sara chose to share that prompted us to consider what motivates us and what touches our hearts.
Gifts from above-that’s what these letters are to me.
What IS ART? I have wanted to find a use for my shredder product
My heart aches over the cruelty and ignorance in the world. And yet it sees a glimmer of hope in the love one person feels for another and how acting on that love man completely lift up and transform their world. There is such beauty in the complexities of life.
If the story wasn’t told and the art was exhibited, would you think differently?
I think her art is amazing.
I saw her art and liked it BEFORE I learned about her disability and I only just now learned the whole story of her twin from Sara’s letter. Her work has been shown without discussion of her background and it’s considered quite original.
This story is profoundly amazing on so many levels. The miracle of the bond between twins is something I have always found fascinating. As fascinating as the miracle of the artistic muse that comes from places no one can scientifically explain. Thank you for this one, Sara!
I recently read Louise Penny’s book, The Madness of Crowds, which I recommend to all mystery readers. The statistics person in the story wove her figures of Covid numbers to conclude that the weak and vulnerable should be euthanized for the betterment of society which includes your grandmothers in nursing homes and the wonderful Judith. For myself I wish I had Judith’s passion and focus for her art! And remember she wove hidden treasurers in the perceived mess of materials – clever and creative. The Arts encompass many endeavors – I don’t like all the “art” I see but it really is in the eye of the beholder – sorry to be cliché but that’s how I see it…
“The writings of Sara Genn meet at the intersection of poetic and informative.”
– Miles Patrick Yohnke, https://yohnke.com
I cannot thank you enough for your article on Judith & Joyce Scott. Reading it brought me back to my elementary school years and my struggle with my learning disability. I could so relate with Judith Scott. I never felt like I had a voice for a long period of time. It was a brutally painful cycle of loneliness and isolation that I endured. I’m so grateful to Joyce and how things worked out. Thank you Sara for exposing me to this story and these two amazing lives. With regards to Eva Nolan, is there a link so we can see your art? A link for us to learn about the impact you’ve made on the world?
As always, love is the way,
Miles Patrick Yohnke
R.I.P. (Rest In Peace) Carol Genn
I’m not going to argue and/or use fancy words to try to change the mind of such an inhuman creature as EVA. In short I think she is a stupid, sanctimonious B___H!
Thank you Sara,
Perhaps Eva was rejected in some way. Her art or her persona. The word”Kind” would be a good mantra for her to begin to not only express herself but also to do a little introspection. The Eva’s of the word are rarely kind to themselves.
Thank you for telling us of the life of Judith and of Joyce. Both lives so profound in different ways. Judith’s story will live on because of art, her art. Peace and love to Joyce, her family and to the memory of Judith❤️