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Communicating the human experience

Artist John Scott, a son of New Orleans, wants his work to do more than look pretty; it should tell a story about the rhythms and meaning of life.

Published October 16, 2005

John Scott was born and raised in New Orleans, getting his undergraduate degree at Xavier University and leaving the city only to attend graduate school at the University of Michigan and for brief artist-in-residence stints. Among his many awards and honors are a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant and an honorary doctorate from Tulane University. A major retrospective of his work ended July 10 at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

The exhibition of I Remember Birmingham at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg has special resonance now because Scott left New Orleans along with thousands of others as Hurricane Katrina approached. He left behind several hundred works of art that had recently been returned from the museum. He is living temporarily with one of daughters in Houston. In a telephone interview, he said his studio has been under 3 feet of water but he feels fortunate because it's a two-story, so the paintings and drawings on the second floor, he hopes, are all right.

Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

ON ART: I feel art is a language, a way to communicate. I don't believe in art for art's sake. I believe in art for humans' sake. But that doesn't mean it should be preachy. That's part of the problem with a lot of art that deals with tragic events; it can become very preachy.

ON MUSICAL INFLUENCES IN HIS ART: After graduate school, as I studied the Harlem Renaissance, I realized the artists were in a basic Eurocentric tradition. That's not a criticism, but I was looking for a continuing thread from Africa to here. Our traditions had been usurped for generations. Instead of the art of our ancestors, we were making crafts for our owners. But musicians, nobody was watching them at night. They were able to keep the continuum alive in music. I started looking at jazz and the blues and realized that many symbols from Africa had been incorporated into those forms, things like polyrhythm. That led me to look at images as many layers of meaning simultaneously. Jazz is a metaphor and an abstraction, a sound poem. The blues are a narrative form that tells a story, a heartfelt communication of human experience. I want to illuminate ideas the same way as a poet or musician. I think of myself of a polyrhythmic storyteller.

ON I REMEMBER BIRMINGHAM: This was an installation piece that played off a lot of ideas. I had been thinking about it since the bombing occurred. As a Catholic in New Orleans, I had the idea of seeing candlelight in a space, and putting color inside glass was like going inside a church. The wording on the blocks are fragments from my sketchbooks. I wanted to layer them like a cacophony of sound, like four or five radio stations going all at once so you're bombarded.

ON NEW ORLEANS: A lot of people who know nothing about this city are talking about how to re-create it. This is the most African city in the United States. It was created from the bottom up; the music, the food, the culture all came from the bottom up. I get the feeling some don't want the people back who created New Orleans. I'm going back, and I'll fight for that. New Orleans is more than a place, it's a spirit.

ON HIS LEGACY: When you hear the eloquence with which a story is told in an opera, for example, no matter how terrible or sad, it expands the human spirit. My goal is to expand the human spirit the way music does. I hope I live long enough to do that.

[Last modified October 13, 2005, 09:14:03]

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