"We've lost a giant."
Xavier University president Norman Francis undoubtedly spoke for many when he uttered those words regarding the passing of New Orleans artist John Scott. He died after a long struggle with pulmonary fibrosis on the morning of Saturday, Sept. 1, at Methodist Hospital in Houston, on the second anniversary of the flood that inundated his city, home and studio. The news took many by surprise; his condition had seemed to improve earlier this summer, so it was a shocking postscript to a Katrina anniversary that had otherwise passed uneventfully. One of this city's preeminent modern artists known for his large public sculpture, Scott was also one of those dedicated and quintessential New Orleanians for whom this city was a way of life more than merely a place to live. He was 67 years old. He is survived by his wife, Anna Rita Scott, a son, four daughters and six granddaughters.
Born on a farm in Gentilly, he grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward. His father was a chauffeur and an accomplished cook, but it was his mother's flair for embroidery that first piqued his interest in art. After graduating from Booker T. Washington High School in 1958, he attended Xavier and then Michigan State, where in 1965 he received a master of fine arts degree. Once back in New Orleans, he returned to Xavier to teach. Over time, he became a mentor to generations of African-American artists, a role that would, along with his own artwork, shape his legacy. The '60s was also when he became the youngest member, and first black artist, voted into the Orleans Gallery, the pioneering co-op gallery that launched the careers of some of our most respected modern artists like Ida Kohlmeyer, Lin Emery and George Dunbar.
By 1970 his sculpture and prints were steeped in this city's African, Caribbean and Creole cultures, especially the playfully structured dynamics of jazz as well as the rhythmic, stylized gestures of Mardi Gras Indians and second-line processions. In 1983 he received a fellowship that enabled him to study with the acclaimed kinetic sculptor George Rickey in New York, and from then on his vibrantly hued sculptural works included delicately balanced moving parts that often seemed to buoyantly float on the gentlest of breezes. That life-affirming buoyancy was reflected in titles that often harked to the masters of jazz, especially the richly textured modern jazz that Scott's sculpture often evoked. As an African-American modernist, he followed a trajectory not unlike our progressive jazz greats such as Ellis Marsalis, pioneering a kind of Creole modernism that reflected Afro-Caribbean sensuality interwoven with the cool bebop mindset of a Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. It was an approach that Scott continued into recent times, in works such as his 2001 Circle Dance Series inspired by the African ceremonial rituals that survive in street processions, jazz funerals and second lines. Yet, while his sculpture remained buoyant if at times ironic, his prints increasingly reflected a dark complexity expressed in brooding, expressionistic cityscapes where culturally vibrant neighborhoods appear enshadowed by chronic violence and neglect.
In 1992 he won a "genius" grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a hefty sum of money that he used to build a bigger studio where he crafted several of his monumental public sculptures, including his 1994 Spiritgate at the side courtyard of the New Orleans Museum of Art, and his 2002 Spirit House on DeSaix Avenue, in collaboration with Martin Payton. In 2005, his Circle Dance: The Art of John T. Scott retrospective premiered at the New Orleans Museum of Art, where it closed mere weeks before Katrina struck. Just before the storm, he evacuated to Houston, where he spent much of the past two years trying to recover from two double lung transplant operations. During an interview with Times-Picayune art critic Doug MacCash earlier this summer, when his health seemed resurgent, he affirmed his desire to return to "...the only home I know. I want my bones to be buried there. I belong there. I need New Orleans more than New Orleans needs me." The comments were pure John Scott, a New Orleans diehard to the core. But, in reality, John Scott -- specifically, his generosity, skill and compassion -- is exactly what New Orleans needs now. Fortunately he, or his spirit, is with us still, in his prolific artworks that grace this city and nation; in his students, friends and colleagues; and in all who share his vision and his mission to spread light and love amid the twilight's long shadows.
- Photo courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery