August 16th marks the closing of Self Taught Genius; a collection of over a hundred works  currently resting at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. The exhibition will soon move on to Texas, Louisiana, Missouri and Florida before returning home to the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. In an effort to make this smorgasbord more digestible the Mingei has been hosting special events with a narrower focus including a screening of Outsider: the Life and work of Judith Scott. Where one might expect a documentary to answer questions, this film posed a few more on influence, intent, and ultimately; What makes a genius?


In Scott’s case these answers are especially elusive, partially due to her passing in 2005, but even in life she proved hard to pin down. Judith Scott was born with what doctors referred to as profound mental retardation, (downs syndrome and deafness.) She was institutionalized at the age of seven and stayed in a residential home until her early 40’s. For a combination of reasons, Judith never developed any written or spoken language skills. With no statements, interviews or background from the artist herself, the work exists in a highly speculative space. However, a lack of self-definition hasn’t stopped critics from naming Scott one of the most important American fiber artists of the 20th Century.
Outsider covers a three year span from 2002-2004 at the height of Judith’s 17 year career. At this point Scott was already internationally known and had work in various museums. Judith’s sister Joyce, a social worker and special education teacher, arranged to have her moved from an institutional setting to Creative Growth, a collective live/work space for artists with disabilities in Oakland California. Director Betsy Bayha was careful to not make assumptions about Judith’s process or motives, since there is no way to determine those factors for sure. Spliced between shots of Judith collecting and wrapping found objects in her signature style we see interviews from friends and family speaking about her behavior, artistic and otherwise and how they’ve come to know her. (Unfortunately the whole video cannot be seen online, but is available to purchase.)
After all this, it was a surprise to hear Bayha remark that Judith had no influences, or that her work was, “entirely self motivated.” While it is true that she never attended any art school, or much formal schooling, it’s evident in her work that she is responding to something. The whole premise of the Creative Growth organization is to provide a space for people to explore art with the guidance of teachers, therapists and other artists. One interviewee specifically talks about her maturation and how she began moving towards more modern materials near the end of her career. Even without working collaboratively, the differences in Judith’s behavior before and after being introduced to this much more experimental and accepting environment is a stark one. Many people also speak about Judith’s habit of hoarding magazines. Again, nobody can be sure why she gravitates towards them or feels the need to keep them but as a book hoarder myself, I wondered why nobody made any mention of these images influencing her work.

Another interesting part of that discussion was the focus on intent, specifically, did Judith know she was making art? Again, with her two decade residency with Creative Growth, it seems unlikely that she wouldn’t have known.

The facility has a gallery attached to its work space and regularly shows artists with and without disabilities side by side to dispel ideas about what “outsider art” looks like. The term “outsider” is thrown around a lot to mean anybody outside of the established art world but was originally meant to describe work made by patients in mental institutions. While technically Judith is neither of these, she was still considered an outsider because of her lack of connection with contemporary culture. But, was there really a lack? Judith had seen her own work in this and other galleries but never seemed interested in engaging it there, instead she focused on her process. She may not have had an intimate understanding of how her work was shown, selected and sold but implying that she didn’t know what she was doing is a stretch at best.

So, was Judith Scott a genius? Without clear language and intent can we still call her a visionary?
My answer is a resounding yes. Her incredibly complex handling of form, materials and texture are nothing short of astute. I’d even go so far to say that her talents are not remarkable because of her disability, but may seem remarkable because of our inability to understand her process the way she does. If you’re in San Diego or any of the other cities Self Made Genius will visit this year, I encourage you to make the trip to see her work. If not, check the links below for more information and photos.

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Originally published by

Further Reading:

Creative Growth
Judith and Joyce Scott
Bound and Unbound: Judith Scott’s retrospective

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