Portrait of artist Judith Ann Scott. Photo courtesy of American Visionary Art Museum.
Portrait of artist Judith Ann Scott. Photo courtesy of American Visionary Art Museum.

Visionary artist Judith Ann Scott is the subject of a solo exhibition that opens July 2 at the American Visionary Art Museum.

“The Secret Within: The Art of Judith Scott” provides an intimate look at a woman who was driven to make art even though she was institutionalized for most of her life because she was deaf and had Down syndrome.

Scott (1943 to 2005) expressed herself by creating intricate, cocoon-like sculptures and other works that provide evidence of her creativity and resilience despite her physical challenges.

Located on the third floor of the museum’s Zanvyl A. Krieger Main Building at 800 Key Highway, the exhibit will feature more than a dozen works spanning Scott’s life as an artist with the Creative Growth Center in Oakland, California, including fiber art sculptures, drawings and paintings. In addition to the works themselves, it will offer insight into Scott’s process as an artist, the materials she used and how she embraced life.

“Judith Scott’s artistic creations captivate and engage on multiple levels,” said AVAM Executive Director Jenenne Whitfield, in a statement about the exhibit. “Her work serves as a powerful reminder that every person, regardless of their personal challenges, offers a unique contribution to humanity.”

"Baba" By Judith Scott. Photo by Dan Meyers.
“Baba” By Judith Scott. Photo by Dan Meyers.

According to AVAM’s official biography:

Judith Scott, and her twin sister Joyce, were born into a middle-class family in Cincinnati, Ohio. Unlike her sister, Judith carried the extra chromosome of Down syndrome. Following an attack of Scarlet Fever in infancy, she also lost her hearing, although this would not be recognized until many years later. For seven years she and her twin shared an idyllic country childhood rich in color and texture, but one lived without words.

Her deafness undiagnosed, Judith was only tested verbally and as a result was considered “ineducable.” Her fate was sealed. When she was seven years old, her parents, acting on medical advice, made the difficult decision to send her away, her undiagnosed deafness being misinterpreted as severe retardation. She would spend the following thirty-six years separated from her family as a ward of the State of Ohio in Dickensian institutions.

In 1986, Judith’s life took a dramatic turn when her twin, following an epiphanal moment of insight, took it upon herself to become Judith’s legal guardian. After long and complex negotiations, and over the objections of their mother, Judith went to live with Joyce and her family in California, moving in time to a nearby Board and Care home. Soon after, she was enrolled in the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, the first organization to provide studio facilities to artists with disabilities. Here, for almost two years, Judith showed no evidence of artistic interest or ability. Then, after observing a class being given by a visiting fiber artist, Judith spontaneously began to create the unique sculptures, for which she has since become famous.

Judith’s innate talent was quickly recognized, and she was allowed the freedom to scour the facility for whatever materials she needed. Nothing was ignored, and objects of every size and shape–both private and public–were gathered up. Day by day, week by week, and sometimes for months on end, these prizes would be gradually wrapped, woven and entwined in fabrics and fibers of carefully selected hues, until Judith, and Judith alone, decided that the piece was complete.

Work would immediately begin on the next sculpture, which might be small, but more often would grow to be almost unmanageable in size, some reaching nine feet in length. Within the core of each piece would be hidden a special talisman of a significance known to Judith alone. With unflagging intensity, Judith worked five days a week for eighteen years, producing over 200 cocoon-like sculptures which today are found in museum collections around the world. Judith died in her sister’s arms in March, 2005, having lived 49 years beyond her allotted span at birth — the last 18 in blissful, unrestrained creativity.

In showcasing Scott’s work, the exhibition “focuses on liberation of self as a vessel for transformation,” according to the museum’s description of the show. “As one dives deeper into Judith’s world, they will hear from the voices in her life who knew her the best,” including her twin sister and Tom di Maria, Director at the Creative Growth Center.

Besides telling Scott’s story, the exhibition will explore accessibility in the arts for people with developmental, intellectual and physical disabilities, and provide information about organizations that serve them. It will be on view until June 30, 2024.

Whitfield notes an organic quality to Scott’s work.

“Judith’s intricate circular weavings unveil the often overlooked rhythm of life akin to the beating of our hearts,” Whitfield said. “Her mesmerizing forms spin in a wild and beautifully repetitive fashion which, in Judith’s case, was a form of communicating with the world. We take pride in presenting our audiences with the unexpected, the unintended, and the unpretentious genius found within our collection.”

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.