NRL News

What beauty have we missed?

by | Dec 30, 2014


By Mark Leach

JudithScottartAn exhibit in Brooklyn, New York features the work of an artist who was once called “profoundly retarded” but whose work is now considered “genius.”

Judith Scott was born in 1944, a member of the baby boom generation. But, per the standard of care, because Ms. Scott was born with Down syndrome, she was institutionalized.

She became deaf as a child, but was not diagnosed until she was in her 30′s. Her childhood spent in silence cost Ms. Scott the opportunity to develop speech. From this neglect, she was diagnosed as profoundly retarded and ineducable.

That was until her fraternal twin Joyce became Ms. Scott’s guardian and moved her to San Francisco where Ms. Scott was enrolled in a creative arts program.

Initially, Ms. Scott worked in “traditional” mediums: drawings with colored pencils and paintings. But, then she took a class taught by fiber artist Sylvia Seventy. Ms. Scott had found her medium.

The exhibit at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum is a showcase of Ms. Scott’s fiber art sculptures. At their core, these sculptures are mostly everyday objects, like an umbrella or a shopping cart, but then, through hours and hours of toil, Ms. Scott covered them in yarn, silk, wire, and other fibers knotted and intertwined with one another. They are covered so completely that it is near impossible to tell what began at the center of the sculpture, with the exception of the very large pieces like a shopping cart or a chair.

David Byrne, the former lead singer of the Talking Heads, is an admirer and collector of her works. She has had shows around the world. Holland Carter wrote a review of the Brooklyn Exhibit, explaining Ms. Scott’s process:

Although her materials were pretty much determined by what was in stock at Creative Growth at any given time, what she did with what she had was her decision alone, and the decisions were genius.

And so, a woman diagnosed as ineducable later has her decisions described as genius by a New York Times art critic.

In a commentary on Ms. Scott and her work, Lawrence Downes concluded his piece on the Times’ Op-Ed pages, beautifully:

Ms. Scott’s pieces are colorful, oddly shaped yet graceful, unself-consciously beautiful. That is also a good way of describing a human being, which Ms. Scott — against overwhelming odds, and the larger world’s denial, and without saying a word — declared herself to be.

Judith Scott didn’t move to San Francisco and become enrolled in her art studio until she was 43. She produced work that has received international acclaim, but did so only in the last 18 years of her life. As wonderful as the critical reviews and commentary written about her are, reading them left me wondering:

What beauty have we missed by shunning those with disabilities?

Recall, when Ms. Scott was born, it was simply the norm to believe a child such as she couldn’t amount to anything. So they were warehoused in institutions, shut off and segregated from society, left to age and ultimately die. Things have progressed for the better, but still people with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities remain a minority group for which most of society has very low expectations.

The example of Ms. Scott should challenge all of our preconceived notions about our fellow human beings. We all believe ourselves to have some creative spark, in one way or another. For you it may be how well you host a holiday party, or decorate your house, or play an instrument, or, in my case, try to write something of significance. And, yet, how many of us has looked at another person, a person who has a more obvious disability, and not even considered that they too have the creative spark we humans are all endowed with?

Had Joyce not gone and removed her sister from that institution an entire exhibit hall in Brooklyn would be devoid of works of art described as mysterious and beautiful. How many more exhibit halls may have been filled if those who were left behind at that institution or have limits placed on them by school administrators with low expectations or never had the chance of being born because of biased, coercive, negative counseling, instead had been given the chance to express their creative spark?

How much beauty have we deprived ourselves because of how we have treated those with Down syndrome?

Editor’s note. This appeared at

Categories: Down Syndrome