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Finding Her Voice Through Fiber Sculptures: The Outsider Art of Judith Scott

By Ashlyn Edwards

Judith Scott
Judith Scott

As a publicity intern with Beacon Press this summer, the first new book I was given the opportunity to read was Entwined: Sisters and Secrets in the Silent World of Judith Scott, in which author Joyce Scott tells the story of her fraternal twin sister, Judith, an acclaimed fiber artist who was deaf and born with Down syndrome. I was repeatedly struck by how Joyce beautifully captured resonant images from her life and her bond with her sister, despite the many hardships they faced. Joyce recounts their separation at age seven when Judy was institutionalized, their reunion thirty-five years later, and afterwards, Judy’s success as an internationally-known artist. It seems that while Judy used intricately woven pieces to convey emotions through the complexity of her sculptures, Joyce uses words to the same ends. She interlaces their narratives with themes of loss, the importance of creative expression, and the unrequited love of family to create a nuanced work.

Joyce enrolled Judy at Creative Growth, an arts education program in Oakland, California for adults with disabilities. In this passage, she describes Judy’s creative process, the intensity of her personality, and the power of her artistic vision.


On this morning, as on most others, Judy is noticeably stooped and moves with caution as she walks carefully to the small white bus that takes her and her friends to Creative Growth. Judy, as she ages, seems older than her years. However, stoop or no stoop, when she arrives, she slips deftly past the crowds waiting to sign in at the entrance and begin their day of artistic expression. She admits no delay and feels an immense pull towards her emerging piece, which seems to beckon her. As she moves to her chosen place toward the back of the huge studio, now bright with morning light, a box of tissues on the table catches her ever-scanning eye and disappears with a swift sweep into her capacious black bag. Had someone’s car keys, address book, or lunch box been visible, they too would have suffered the same fate. Sometime before lunch, the tissues find a place in her evolving creation. Often the objects that become hidden deep within her work seem to reflect her life experience, perhaps recapturing in some way the losses she experienced at the institution. I look at Judy and wonder how she can translate those lost years of institutional living so vividly into the living heart of her work. Judy is ‘stealing’ back and transforming what was taken from her when she was seven. The thirteenth-century Sufi poet Rumi once wrote, ‘What was lost in the looking comes back completely changed.’ This seems like a perfect evocation of Judy’s sculptures.

Judy takes down and examines her current sculpture, which she had placed carefully on the shelf behind her yesterday. She gives it a loving pat. She pulls out her large box of yarns from its hiding place under the bench—yarns she deliberately selected days before—this time colors of muted earth tones. Laying her scissors on the table, she pulls out the chair next to her and places her packed lunch, her black bag, and her magazines on it. Looking around quickly to see who might be watching, she swiftly pushes the chair and its precious contents out of sight beneath the worktable, then pulls it a bit closer to her. Years of institutional life have left their mark, and she is ever vigilant and guarded about her possessions.

Now it is time to start work. While other artists are still waiting in line to check in, some patient, some restless, Judy is already focused on her latest creation. Turning the piece around, she selects an area and begins weaving an orange thread through, around, and in and out of strands already in position. She works without stopping throughout the morning, pausing only to glance occasionally around the studio, ignoring all but a few staff members who come by to greet her and observe her latest creation. When Tom di Maria stops by, they greet each other with high fives, and Judy nods knowingly in the direction of the soda machine, the signal for him to buy her the regulation Diet Pepsi that convention now demands.

Her current piece, like others before it, may take several months of intense work before Judy considers it complete. Only she can decide when it is finished. Although various staff artists may be astonished by what they see in the different stages of creation, they recognize that there is no persuading her to stop. Out of respect for her creative process, they never try. Judy continues to cover and recover a piece a dozen times before she is satisfied. Countless masterpieces, thus glimpsed but momentarily, have vanished forever, consigned to oblivion by Judy’s resolute, unwavering personal vision. For her, they are but one step in her creative process.

Only when she and she alone is satisfied does Judy, with a dramatically expressive sweep of the hands, signal to staff artist Stan Peterson that he can take it upstairs to join the growing collection of her work in storage.

At lunchtime, she puts her things away. She quickly consumes her banana and sandwich, and resumes work until 3.


Judy’s sculptures evoke intense emotion and quickly gained acclaim in the art world. In this excerpt, Joyce describes reactions—the public’s, Judy’s, and her own—to the first formal exhibition of Judy’s work at Creative Growth. In this passage, her insights into what Judy communicates without language demonstrate the depth of their bond. 


EntwinedNow Creative Growth is bright and festive. A line has gathered in the street, all admirers of outsider art. Wearing coats and sweaters against the cool night air, they are patiently chatting together as they wait for the doors to open. They are a potpourri of Bay Area art collectors, professors, aging hippies, Piedmont matrons, Goth girls, and young ponytail types. Inside, Creative Growth’s board of directors, together with some distinguished patrons of the arts, have already been admitted by the gallery doorman. Everyone wants to meet Judy. Most are middle-aged professionals, all elegantly dressed. Radiating confidence and enthusiasm, they seem pleased with the event as it unfolds. Perfumes mingle and bright scarves catch Judy’s eye.

In greeting these eager strangers, Judy’s responses vary from ignoring some with what borders on disdain to embracing others with eyes full of tears. I wonder, does the person she embraces remind her of someone she has loved or does she sense something within that person that engenders a deeply felt connection? I cannot say. She cannot say. Many reach out their hand to hers, others make gestures of goodwill and admiration; the man in the brown turtleneck silently pantomimes applause, his partner singles with pleasure, a strong thumbs up.

I too am warmly greeted. Nina, an artist on staff, admires the borrowed Thai silk jacket I am wearing. She squeezes my hand and smiles. Strangers come up to introduce themselves and say how excited and thrilled they are about this evening and, more particularly, about Judy’s work. Several journalists and photographers are full of questions for me: ‘What was it like growing up with a twin with Down syndrome?’ ‘Are you identical?’ ‘Has she always been deaf?’ ‘Did you realize she was an artist before you enrolled her at Creative Growth?’

I look over at Judy, this small, self-possessed figure sitting amid all the confusion of people surrounding her, wildly plumed as always, lacking the language of those around her, yet supremely centered in her solid, certain self. Judy knows her worth. She has never allowed herself to feel discounted by the world or by anyone. Despite decades of institutionalization, her light was miraculously not extinguished and now shines with brilliance. It dazzles us. She cannot name the recognition she receives in this moment. Living in a world without names, without sound, this night of recognition is like … like what to her? It must wrap around her like the embrace of a warm Midwestern night, these admitting smiles, these loving eyes. Judy has known hard eyes and soft eyes and understands the difference.

As I watch guests enter the exhibition gallery, I see reflected in their eyes the same shock and stunned surprise that I experience in the presence of these pieces. I recognize their sense of awe as they move into the room, their sense of the unspoken coming to life, being given form. Emotions, experiences in their pure form, undiluted by words or the repetition of stories told and retold. Instead, they find the concentration of a life distilled into these mysterious forms with their dense, rich colors. Feelings too deep for words and stories never before spoken or heard are here expressed, and we cannot help but gasp. Here, deeply moving but unfathomable, we detect the experience of betrayal, the sense of loss and longing; here, the feeling of closeness, of oneness, of love. Feelings covered, hidden, compressed into a small tight space and protected; here, feelings exposed and exploded, a riot of joyous color.

These oranges and reds, perhaps out rich Ohio summer sun, the greens our trees and grasses, the soft bumps reminiscent of the rabbits we loved. Here, in one piece, she seems to be trying to forget something. I can feel its presence hidden under dozens of layers of covering.


About Joyce Wallace Scott 

Joyce ScottJoyce Wallace Scott, MA, is an educator, RN, development specialist, and published poet. She serves on the advisory board of the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California, and is currently involved in establishing the first program for artists with disabilities in Bali, dedicated to her sister’s memory. She lives in Dutch Flat, California, with her husband.