Earlier this year I visited my son and his girlfriend in Switzerland and was taken to see the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne. Among many other pieces there, I found the work of Judith Scott – strange hanging sculptures, vaguely disturbing humanoid shapes, bound in strips of coloured cloth. They were graceful, unnerving, and seemed to communicate a powerful sense of constriction and alienation.
Judith Scott’s story is unusual. She was born in Ohio in 1943. She had Down’s syndrome and was profoundly deaf, though this wasn’t diagnosed for many years. She also had a twin sister, Joyce. By the time she was seven, her family could no longer cope with her and she was placed in an institute fore the mentally disabled. Separated from her twin, she developed behavioural problems. Her IQ was assessed as 30 and she was treated as uneducable.
In 1985, after 30 years of complicated negotiations, her twin sister won the right to be come her legal guardian. She took Judith to live with her in San Francisco. There, Judith began to attend the Creative Growth Art Centre, which was the first institution in the world to provide studio space for artists with disabilities. After attending a demonstration of fibre art, Judith began to develop her sculptures. In the next 18 years she produced 200 pieces and had her first exhibition in 1999 (she died in 2005). Her work is now acclaimed, selling for substantial sums.
Last week I visited Orkney, which is, as you may know, a centre of Neolithic culture. I had the unexpected good fortune of being shown around the major sites by an excellent guide, Bill Stout. We visited Skara Brae, Maeshowe, the Tomb of Eagles. Each day I was there, thousands of tourists arrived to view the evidence of Neolithic settlement. The sites are impressive, but the individual artefacts, tools, necklaces, sculptures, stone circles are most moving, because of the residue of mystery. We don’t know why stone age people took such care to align great stones with the movements of the sun, or what the sculptured figurines signified to them. We only know that thousands of years ago, artists worked with the same dedication, faith and absorption that they do today, to create something that lasted long after their individual lives ended.
The urge to create is mysterious. What made Judith Scott attempt to give form to something inside herself? What made Neolithic artists devote so much time and energy to something not directly connected to survival? Is it self-expression? The urge to communicate? To commemorate? A sense of the sacred?
Whatever it is, it has little to do with marketing. And perhaps, little to do with the individual artist at all. Whatever it is, the human race would have vanished a long time ago without it. Considering the infinite variety of artworks that have been produced throughout time, it seems possible that what links them all is the sense of absorption in the task, the dedication.
This is something we all experience when we work on our various projects. It is very possibly why we engage in the process in the first place, not for the sales, or publicity, but because, through concentration, focus and dedication, we enter a different state. It may be the most valuable aspect of the process, and the most powerful force in the world.