Ocean Song, 1990. Aluminum, 16 x 12 x 12 ft. Work installed at Woldenberg Park, New Orleans. Photo: Courtesy Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans.

Playing It Straight, Upside-Down, and Backwards: A Conversation With John Scott

He sits before me, legs crossed, hands folded over one another like the wings of a giant bird, white beard and hair curling up from beneath a baseball cap. John Scott is 64. This would-be monk and recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award has come to Aspen, Colorado, from his native New Orleans to teach a class on bronze casting. Already it’s apparent that his students are getting more than just technique.

By combining African mythology and Western technology, Scott has invented a visual blues, or what he calls “kinetic blues.” But his work is less about the music and more about visually conjuring the spatial “vocabulary” or essence of jazz. His first kinetic sculptures were inspired by the Diddlie Bow, the single-stringed instrument brought to America by slaves, which he translated into a series of sculptures involving a wire that spans a metal arc upon which horizontal rods balance and sway with the breeze.

A prolific artist in a multitude of media, Scott also makes large public works; his commissions have become landmarks throughout New Orleans and in other cities as well. Spirit Gates, at the DeSaix Boulevard traffic circle, depicts the history of African Americans in New Orleans. Riverspirit, a brightly colored aluminum bas-relief sculpture on the Port of New Orleans building, portrays the history of the Mississippi River. These are two of his seven large public commissions throughout the city.

His most recent undertaking and one of his largest public commissions to date is the Lincoln Beach project. To revitalize the segregation beach/amusement park, which was abandoned in 1964, Scott proposes an ongoing art experience, a “visual polyrhythmic environment,” with custom gates, bronze shelters, and five-foot-tall metal figures of musicians and dancers mounted on buoys that will “dance” with the wind and wave action. A retrospective of his work will open at the New Orleans Museum of Art in May 2005.

Five Rings for Philly Joe, 1993. Polychromed aluminum, 35 x 16 ft. Work installed in the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia. Photo: Courtesy Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans.

Hilary Stunda: How have the essence and traditions of New Orleans contributed to your work?

John Scott: There is a tradition in New Orleans that when you die you have to be sent off “right,” some might call this a party. In New Orleans, we’re born with music. We live with music. And they bury you with music. Music is not just about entertainment. It’s a lot more. During the period of slavery there was a place called Congo Square where African people were allowed to go and “entertain” themselves on Sundays. But what a lot of people didn’t realize was that when Africans formed a circle, they had a sacred space and it became a religious ritual. That was the origin of the circle dance. And the circle dance evolved into the bam bola. And that evolved into the second line.

It is believed among West African people that if it rains when they bury you, you’ve lived a good life. If you’ve ever watched a jazz funeral in New Orleans, people symbolically make it rain when they pop open umbrellas and dance in the street to celebrate a life well lived. It’s not frivolous. The umbrella as a sacred symbol comes from Yoruba tradition. The sad thing is that most people who participate have no idea about the tradition.

HS: Do you feel that your work embodies a fusion of African American tradition and the Modernist tradition?

JS: I think that the tradition has had a great influence on my work. In graduate school, I studied the same folks everybody else studied in graduate school—the European tradition, Michelangelo, Raphael, a lot of Catholic images, and the Modernists. I fell really in love with Giacometti, Marini, Henry Moore. But I’ve always tried to make my images about who I am. The stuff I was studying was the language, not the content. So, I started looking for the continuum. I wanted to see if there was a thread I could find that would lead me back to the continent. There really wasn’t a visual form—African visual traditions were disrupted by slavery in the sense that we weren’t allowed to make drums, sculptures, masks, and other ritual objects that were an intricate part of our culture. We ended up doing decorative things for others: our ceramics, the wooden and wrought iron balcony, things to fill the needs of others. At that point in my life I started looking at musicians, because under slavery musicians were given instruments to entertain those who enslaved them. But nobody watched them at night. So at night they could try and infuse their memory into the music. That became my continuum. I started studying musicians.

Composition for Tommy Mable I, 2001. Bronze, 15 x 32 x 20 in. Photo: Courtesy Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans

HS: How does music inform your work?

JS: Music became a philosophy in terms of understanding ideas. So many people think that my art is about trying to make music visual, but that has nothing to do with my art. There are things that Miles, Monk, Parker, and Mingus have taught me about space, because one of the most powerful things in their music is the silence between the notes. In my kinetic work there’s an awful lot of space, and I play on the shifting movement of that space. Even in the paintings I’m doing now, there’s still that spatial rhythm, space bridged by movement.

When it comes to conceptualization, most people think linearly, like a string of beads, one idea over another, connected in a linear fashion. Yet, some people see things on a plane or level. What dawned on me, in watching jazz musicians perform, is that they use what I call “jazz thinking” or “spherical thinking.” If you watch a very good jazz group perform, the music always exists in the now. But the jazz musician is extremely aware of where he’s been, while being tremendously conscious of where he’s going. They do all three of these things at one time, consciously. That has become my operating philosophy.

HS: When did you first discover your kinetic “calling”?

JS: The most significant change of my work came in 1983 when I was working on “I’ve Known Rivers,” the first African American Pavilion in the history of the World’s Fair. W.E.B. DuBois did an exhibit, but he didn’t do a pavilion. While I was working on that pavilion, helping to design it, I was invited up to the Hand Hollow Foundation—which was run by George Rickey. I had wanted to do kinetic work for more than 20 years, but I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t want to imitate Rickey, Calder, Snelson, or anyone else. George said to me, “I didn’t do my first kinetic piece until I was 45 years old. If you’re supposed to do it, it’s going to happen so naturally you won’t even realize it. Don’t worry about it.”

While working on research for the pavilion I came across a piece of African mythology that said when early African hunters killed something there was a tremendous sense of remorse, because they had taken a life. So the hunter would take the wooden side of his bow and would change the tension on the string. His companion would play the string and thereby give a libation of sound to the soul of the animal that gave its flesh to his people. That idea knocked my socks off. So I started making bow-shaped sculptures. What dawned on me was that any line between two points has all the attributes of wave physics—length, frequency, and amplitude. All I had to do was attach something to the line, and I had my kinetic vocabulary.

With more research I discovered that this instrument was called the Diddlie Bow; it came to the United States through the Mississippi Delta. In Bogalusa, Louisiana, and other places like that, they would put a string on the side of the house and a can, a board, or a jar under it to resonate. And they would play this one-stringed instrument. The Diddlie Bow was fundamental to the development of bottleneck blues guitar because a lot of times while playing it they would use the broken neck of a bottle on a finger to hold against the string, which created a very unique sound. In Brazil it’s called Biebob; Bo Diddley’s name came from it.

HS: How much preparation goes into your large public commissions?

JS: The drawings are very loose. A sketch of mine is like the raw notation of the tune I’m going to play. I have no qualms about adding or deleting notes once I start to play. Again, that lesson was learned from Thelonious Monk. Monk would sometimes write tunes on a paper bag and develop a full composition at the piano while performing.

When I was in undergrad school I had some musician friends who used to come and hang out in the art department and practice while I worked. One night the guys came in with a piece of paper no bigger than a three-by-five card and they played for an hour. I’m going, “There is no way in hell you played that for an hour.” First they played it straight, then they played it backwards. They played it upside down, straight, and backwards. Then they put it in a mirror and played it straight, upside down, forward and backwards. That idea was multiplied by eight. They said to me, “The problem with you visual artists is that you guys will take an idea, use it once, and throw it away. We’ll take an idea and twist it to its full potential.” That was not lost on me. So, when I make a sketch for an idea, it’s like that notation. And when I start building a piece I’m twisting it every way I can think of to magnify, or amplify, the idea.

Spirit Gates, 1993–94. Aluminum, 13 x 25 ft. Work installed at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Photo: Courtesy Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans.

HS: How does this apply to your work, Spirit House?

JS: I collaborated with a former student and dear friend of mine, Martin Payton, on Spirit House. It was a collaboration based on the neighborhood where it was going to be built. It was a neighborhood where great craftsmen once lived. We decided to do a monument to those un-named, unknown, un-remembered people who played a major role in building this city. And we wanted to do it in classical fashion. We asked ourselves, what is an African American? We decided that an African American is an African who was brought to America under duress. What’s the symbol for an African American? Being in New Orleans, we thought the hippest symbol we could use was a shotgun house, which came to New Orleans by way of the Caribbean from the Old Country. Then we thought, what makes an African American? There’s this African-European fusion. So we needed a European counterpart. When we were brought to New Orleans it was controlled by the Spanish and French, which translates to Catholic.
So we decided to put a shotgun house on flying buttresses. The thing that most people miss or ignore is that a great deal of what is called European culture, that is, Greek and Roman, is Egyptian based. So we put the whole thing on Egyptian columns.

If you went all the way back to Egypt, through classical Roman, Greek, Black Pagoda in India, Russia with its icons, all the way down to the Aztecs and the Incas, every structure built under any of those cultures had one thing in common. They were designed for people who were visually literate, not verbally literate. A peasant could go to Notre Dame and read the sculpture and the stained glass windows and know the story. So when we built this form, this house, it’s exactly that. You can walk around it and read our history in visual form. We took it a step further by using the vocabulary of contemporary sculpture.

HS: Why did you use a chain saw for your large-scale wood pieces?

JS: First, I really wanted to pay homage to Louis Armstrong, who I consider a giant, not only in music but also as a human being. Two, you cannot pay homage to a giant in miniature. It just doesn’t make sense. Three, having worked at this for a very long time, I didn’t want my ideas to look facile—“Look, he’s got all this hand skill!” It dawned on me that the only time you can have control over anything is when you realize you don’t have control. So I chose the chain saw. I wanted to give up the facileness that I know I have with tools to get a combination of material and tool that was not that compatible and not that easy to control.

Reliquary #1, 1998. Bronze, 13.75 x 15.5 x 7 in. Photo: Courtesy Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans.

HS: Hence the spontaneity of the creation.

JS: Yes, improvisation is a major part of how I work.

HS: How did you arrive at the final product?

JS: I did research on Armstrong and chose images of him or images of his environment that I wanted to use for this project, and then I made large drawings on four-by-eight sheets of plywood. From then on, it was just go for it.

HS: Is your work political?

JS: All art is political. Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling is political; Guernica, political. But there’s a way you can include all of the politics with the aesthetics that will make the soul inside the art. Take “Strange Fruit,” by Billie Holiday: it’s a hell of a political piece, but it’s one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. So, there’s nothing wrong with content. There’s something wrong with propaganda. That was my take on the Lincoln Beach project. There’s so much that can be celebrated about the space that everybody could celebrate, a marriage of form and content.

Reliquary #3, 1998. Bronze, 12.75 x 10 x 7.5 in. Photo: Courtesy Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans.

HS: How do you infuse spirituality into your work?

JS: In Ghana today there is still a place called the Gate of No Return. And inside that gate is a tree around which people in bondage were marched nine times to forget who they were. When they went through the gate there was another tree around that they were marched three times so they would believe that when they died their souls would return. We decided to use symbolism. Our structure was installed facing due north, so every morning the shadow would be in the west. And every afternoon, we send the souls/spirits of the people back home by sending the shadow to the east—the idea being a polyrhythmic visual/conceptual and spiritual idea. But it also had to be one hell of a sculpture.

HS: You use the concept of shadow in Lincoln Beach.

JS: Yes, and we’re also talking to some people about using directional sound, activated by movement. When you come in you might hear Fats Domino telling a story that’s related to the place. We want to keep it as spiritual as possible. In the water there is a swimming area surrounded by buoys. We’ve taken the buoys and are going to do a kinetic second line based on the hydraulic motion of the waves.

HS: Is there a sense of cultural healing through this process?

JS: In the late 1960s and early ’70s I did a whole series of work called “The Ritual of Oppression,” a series of bronzes on Rhodesia and South Africa. I’ve often said in lectures that I had two choices at that period in my life. I think choosing art was the more appropriate one. It was more positive than negative. That’s the way I prefer it to be. I’m an artist who works out of his history to hopefully bring my patch/voice to the quilt of mankind. That’s all I want to do. It will not be until we recognize the value of each of those patches that we will have a culture that is intact.

Urban Placement #1, 1998. Painted aluminum, 16.75 x 18 x 5.75 in. Photo: Courtesy Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans.

HS: Do you aim to create art that transcends “art-making” to become something else?

JS: If it’s art I’ve accomplished then that’s what I want to accomplish. Now, my definition of art may be different from others. Every artist who has ever made anything, anywhere on the globe, started out with a particular experience of himself/herself. And what changes that idea into art is when that particular can be transformed into a universal concept that anyone can relate to.

There’s one goal I’ve shot for in my art: I would love to be able to do what African American musicians have done, whether it be blues, jazz, or gospel. That is, you have to look at a piece of my work and feel it in your soul. If I can accomplish this just once in my lifetime, then I will have been a success. I don’t want it to be propaganda, because propaganda is all content, no form. And I think decoration is all form and no content. In our society we seem to be practicing both of them rather well without me.

Hilary Stunda is a writer living in Colorado.