The need to make something can be a tenacious itch, clawing to be released into the world. You can try to forget it — like an early summer mosquito bite — refusing to scratch it, aiming your mind elsewhere, hoping it will just go away.
If you suppress it too often, maybe you’ll succeed in dulling your senses, in refusing to heed that inner call. You’ll have managed to wrap yourself in a cocoon, impervious, detached. Congratulations, you can focus on what’s “important,” undistracted — for now.
Sometimes, the reason you ignore that call is because you haven’t yet found the right way to scratch it. Not every medium is right for every artist. For some reason, maybe it’s physical or aesthetic, we may need to keep shopping for a while ‘till we find the right instrument. Bassoon players are somehow different from conga drummers, dancers are different from print makers. (I think it’s sort of strange that in high school band, teachers will often assign instruments to kids, rather than letting them find their perfect musical partner). You need to find your perfect groove.
A few years ago, I visited Creative Growth in Oakland, CA. It’s an amazing hive of artistic activity, all coming from people with various disabilities. I will never forget the energy in that room, with dozens of artists working all day, every day, making paintings, subjects, ceramics, mosaics, prints… it was overwhelming and beautiful. Creatively, these people seemed to have no disabilities or challenges; they’d all found their groove.
When we visited the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore recently, I re-encountered an artist who I’d met at Creative Growth years before. Judith Scott was born deaf, mute and with an IQ of 30. She was also a twin. When she was seven, she was sent away to an institution. She was separated from her sister (who was not disabled), and because of her low IQ, she wasn’t given any training of any kind. So she just sat and festered, neglected, alone.
After thirty-five years in the institution, her sister Joyce managed to spring Judith from the institution and bring her home to live with her. Soon Judith started going to Creative Growth. But at the start, she could not connect. She had no apparent interest in drawing or painting, drawing aimless scribbles and little more. She didn’t speak so no one knew what she needed to take off.
Then, one day, Judith wandered into a class given by a textile artist named Sylvia Seventy. She saw the skeins of yarn and spools of thread and suddenly found her passion. But, instead of following the projects that Sylvia was leading the rest of the class through, Judith began to make her own sort of art, something radical and new. She wrapped objects in yarns and cloth, binding them together into cocoons and nests and complex interconnecting forms. Much of her art seems to be about connection and twins, binding together networks and forms into a powerful and non-verbal emotional message. I can look at her piece for ages, following the colors and lines, and somehow feeling something so sweet and strong and comforting.
I’m not the only person who responded to Judith’s art. Her work is in the permanent collections of several museums and has been the subject of books, films and gallery shows. She made hundreds of amazing pieces in the last two decades of her life.
Judith passed away in 2005. She had lived to be 61, which is extraordinary for a person with Down’s syndrome. I like to believe that her art and her sister’s love kept her going.
I love Judith’s story because it feel so familiar to me. I can identify with what it must have felt like to go from being abandoned in an institution to suddenly seeing the light, to discovering one’s medium, one’s voice, and to see it grow richer and more complex and expressive. And how easily she might never have found her medium and remained mute and locked down. Judith didn’t have the ability to wander through an art supply store, a museum, to trawl the web, and to find her groove.
True love doesn’t just appear. You have to keep your eyes open and look for it. Just because you don’t yet know how to scratch it, don’t ignore that itch.