Judith Scott was an acclaimed sculptor whose abstract pieces—combining fibre and found objects like an umbrella or bicycle wheel—show in galleries and museums around the world.
Yet for more than 40 years, her talent lay dormant.
Judith, who died 10 years ago, had Down syndrome, was deaf and lived most of her life in an institution. Ironically she was deemed too “retarded” to draw with crayons while there. Judith’s life changed at age 42 when her twin sister Joyce brought her to San Francisco and became her guardian.
Joyce enrolled Judith in Creative Growth, a community arts centre for people with disabilities where Judith found her passion.
Joyce’s upcoming book EnTWINed: Secrets From The Silent World of Judith Scott will be published in 2016 by Beacon Press. For seven years the girls lived together in a rural setting on the outskirts of Cincinnati where they were inseparable. At age seven, Judith was sent to an institution three hours away.
BLOOM: What was your early childhood with Judith like?
Joyce Scott: It was idyllic in many ways. We had three older brothers who had their own lives and because we were twins, our parents made this giant sandbox for us where we’d be safe. We played together in this enclosure and had a lot of experiences with nature and the physical world. Behind us were sheep pastures. It was a beautiful place to be children. We slept together and as we got a little older we went around the neighbourhood and played with other children.
BLOOM: What kind of personality did Judith have?
Joyce Scott: She was very loving and outgoing and interested in everything. We didn’t know she was deaf, and what came to be seen as behaviour problems—not coming when someone called her or not being responsive—was related to her deafness. She was very involved in the physical world and now, knowing that she was deaf, I realize the world of tactile sensation and of our touch was a lot more important to her.
BLOOM: How did you communicate?
Joyce Scott: Through signals and touch and she had a few sounds. She understood signals that we developed naturally.
BLOOM: How was her disability explained to you?
Joyce Scott: I don’t remember it being explained. Our parents didn’t even know what Down syndrome was, or have a name for it. I don’t remember realizing she was different for quite a long time, until she started being excluded. I just thought she was Judy.
BLOOM: Why was Judith sent to an institution?
Joyce Scott: She was seen as being more difficult. She’d figured out how to go to the back door where the screen door was locked and get on a chair and climb up and unlock it. She’d wander away and we’d call her and she wouldn’t respond. We had a bad experience when Judy was maybe six where we were next door with a lot of children on the porch and a little one…fell off and her mother had this idea that Judy had pushed her, which was untrue. She said Judy couldn’t come over after that. Our mom carried Judy a lot and she developed back problems. Our parents met with a pastor and a doctor and were told ‘you need to put her in an institution.’ They were told it was bad for the other children for her to live at home.
BLOOM: What was it like when she left?
Joyce Scott: It was absolutely horrendous for her and for me. I woke up and we slept in the same bed and she wasn’t there. I went looking for her and my mother said she was going to a special school where she would learn to talk. At first I thought she was coming back and I thought maybe I could do something to help to bring her back.
BLOOM: Did you visit?
Joyce Scott: It was this horrendous state institution that was something out of Charles Dickens. Terrible. We went regularly for a while, and she came home the first summer, but then our father had a serious heart attack and he died a few years later and that sort of changed everything. Initially she was three hours away but when we were 10 she moved to another place that was four-and-a-half hours away. We would go, but not as frequently. Our mother had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. It was very hard on her. She had a lot of guilt and shame about sending her away.
BLOOM: How did Judith influence you?
Joyce Scott: I’ve worked almost my whole career with children with disabilities and families. I was a pediatric nurse and a parent/infant specialist and I did home visiting with parents of babies up to age three who had a disability or were at risk for having a disability. It was an incredibly satisfying and meaningful career for me. So much of what my life has been has been deeply influenced by Judy. When I first finished school at Ohio State I got a job teaching at the state institution where my sister had been sent.
BLOOM: How did you decide to bring Judith to live with you?
Joyce Scott: I moved to California when I was 25 and I would go back to Ohio once a year to see Judy. Later on I was working as a critical care nurse to a family of a baby with medical problems. I became close with the family and went to meditation retreats with the mother. One was a six-day silent retreat. I’ve always been very busy and it was the first time ever that I was quiet. Every day I went deeper inside. Around the fifth day I felt like I came to my heart, my centre. I had this feeling that I was there with Judy and that our core was a central core that we shared. It was like someone turning on the light in a dark room. It became clear to me: ‘What on earth is she doing in an institution 2,000 miles away when she could be with us?’
BLOOM: How did she adapt?
Joyce Scott: It was completely unbelievable. She walked in the door like she’d come home and she went into the kitchen. There were dirty dishes and she looked at me and laughed and washed up the dishes and then she took her wet hands and wiped them down my body and laughed. She was always doing little tricks. She had a bedroom and she came in and took things out of her suitcase and rolled them up and put them in her dresser and put her shoes under the chair. She was completely at home—like she’d been waiting for me to realize she was supposed to be there. I had two daughters at the time and the 10 year old became best friends with Judy. She lived with us for a while and then I found her a ‘board and care’ home nearby and she stayed there. We saw her every day and she’d come spend the weekend with us at our house in the country.
BLOOM: How did you find Creative Growth?
Joyce Scott: I was looking at different programs and really not liking them. Some had cubicles and people would sit in them separating nuts and bolts. They were doing stupid, meaningless activities and it was isolating. I have a good friend who’s a psychologist and she told me about Creative Growth so I called and went to visit and fell in love with the place.
BLOOM: Was this a public or private program?
Joyce Scott: It was provided through the Regional Center in California, an umbrella organization for people with disabilities, so it was paid for. It was a program from nine to three.
BLOOM: When did Judith first start to show potential?
Joyce Scott: For about two years they were introducing her to different materials. She didn’t like drawing, painting or ceramics. She would draw, but not even look at what she was drawing. Eventually they began to think ‘Maybe this isn’t the right place for her.’ One day Judy was sitting at a table where a visiting artist was working with textiles. Judy took some threads and yarns and found some sticks on her own and she wrapped them and made this amazing sculpture that looked a bit like a Native American worship symbol and everyone was astounded. After that they gave her free rein to go to a materials room and pick out what she wanted. Once she started fibre sculpture, you could not get her to stop. Sometimes her fingers would bleed because she worked so many hours and so hard on it.
BLOOM: What did her art mean to her?
Joyce Scott: Without language, she couldn’t communicate her thoughts. Tom, the director of Creative Growth, felt she was finding her own language and finding a way to give voice to her feelings and her deep self. The sculptures are her way of telling her stories and speaking her truth. When people are in the presence of them they often say they get this feeling of such intensity and spirit inside them. They feel they’re pulsing with this life force. The idea that her sculptures were her voice—and her language, her paragraphs and sentences—makes sense to me.
BLOOM: How did she feel about the recognition she got?
Joyce Scott: She was becoming well known in ‘outsider art’ and museum circles and people would come to see her. She would usually be quite gracious and shake their hand and then go back to work. It didn’t mean much to her. When she finished a piece she would rub her hands back and forth, as if to say ‘That’s it, it’s done, good job’ and then she would point to the staff person next to her and point upstairs to indicate that the person could take the piece away. Within five minutes she’d start on something else.
BLOOM: You mentioned she had a first show at Creative Growth?
Joyce Scott: Yes. With that first show they brought her into the room where her pieces were on exhibit. These were pieces she hadn’t seen for months or years. The staff was hiding in the alcove, waiting to see how she would respond. She went to each sculpture and either patted it or blew it a kiss or waved to it. There wasn’t a dry eye. It was like she was greeting her long-lost children.
BLOOM: Her talent could have easily remained hidden.
Joyce Scott: I feel so strongly that people who may look different or appear to be somehow ‘less than’ or who are labelled ‘less than,’ can and often do have great giftedness and great potential. I see Judy as a kind of a model for that. Who would have thought that someone labelled as profoundly retarded and deaf and institutionalized for most of her life had this amazing greatness within her as an artist? What she needed was an opportunity, a place, and respect.
BLOOM: What advice would you give parents on how to best support siblings of kids with disabilities?
Joyce Scott: Often the focus is on the child with disability and the sibling assumes a caretaking role that is more dominant than is healthy for their own self-development. I think it’s important to encourage brothers and sisters (and mothers!) to stay in touch with their own wishes and dreams. I think it’s important for parents to have special time to really honour the other child.
BLOOM: How did Judith die?
Joyce Scott: She was just about to turn 62. We had gone out to dinner and she seemed to have a stomach ache. She hated hospitals and would become hysterical if I took her to one, so I called my ex-husband, who’s a doctor, to ask what he thought. He felt certain it was just a stomach ache. So we went home and I was lying in bed with her and talking to her and she suddenly stopped breathing. In some ways it was such a gift that she died in my arms. But there’s another part of me that thinks maybe if I’d taken her to the hospital, things would have been different. However, when she was born she was given a life expectancy of 13 years and she’d lived a half century beyond that. So I need to focus on being grateful that she was with us as long as she was.
Learn more about the twins at Joyce Scott's website. The photo immediately below is of Judith's exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum earlier this year. Photo by Ruth Fremson, The New York Times/Redux.