New museum space celebrates New Orleans artist John T. Scott

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The late John T. Scott was probably New Orleans’ most influential artist of the 20th century. His monumental abstract sculptures can still be found in the cityscape, and the generations of artists he taught, during his 42 years as a professor at Xavier University, carry on his legacy.

Scott’s role as a star of the local arts scene was already well established in 1992, when he received a “Genius Grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, expanding his reputation internationally. national.

Now, a new museum and meeting center in the central business district offers a place of communion with Scott’s art, for those already well aware of his cultural contribution and those discovering him for the first time.

The Helis Foundation John Scott Center is located at 938 Lafayette St. in an 1867 brick structure, known as Turners’ Hall, which was built by German immigrants as a gymnasium, dance hall, and theater. It later became a sort of business school run by Tulane University, and later housed another commercial printing press that produced The Jewish Ledger newspaper.

Since 2000, Turners’ Hall has been home to the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, which provides grants and educational activities dedicated to the arts, culture, and history of the Bayou State. The association also publishes the magazine 64 Paroisses.

The Scott Center occupies the newly renovated 6,000 square foot ground floor. The Helis Foundation, which supports public art projects in New Orleans, was a major contributor to the $2.6 million capital campaign that funded the new institution. Most of the 51 works on display belong to the Louisiana Endowment of the Humanities, and others are on loan from the Scott Family Trust, the Arthur Roger Gallery, and others.

Scott was born in 1940, grew up in Gentilly and the Lower 9th Ward, attended Booker T. Washington High School, then Xavier University and Michigan State University.

He credited two Xavier instructors, Numa Roussève and Sister Mary Lurana Neely, as his most important artistic mentors. He also received instruction from two other stellar artists, abstract expressionist painter Charles Pollock – brother of the legendary Jackson Pollock – and famed kinetic sculptor George Rickey. Some of Scott’s fiery painting style and his love of wind-activated mechanical sculpture can probably be attributed to them.

But Scott’s most important influences were African. His modernist sculptures are inspired by fabric patterns, group dances and music that came to the American South with slaves. He particularly used the form of the diddley bow, a single-stringed musical instrument based on a hunting weapon.

“The magic of the bow was duality,” said artist and professor Ron Bechet, who was Scott’s colleague at Xavier University. “The way John would explain it was the fact that the bow was used to kill the prey. But then the hunter would turn it over and play a libation of music to thank the animal for giving its life so it could survive.

Scott also drew inspiration from the African-American experience, including jazz and the civil rights movement, as well as New Orleans customs such as second-line parades.

Always experimenting, Scott produced sculptures from a myriad of materials, including cast bronze, welded steel, and blown glass. His haunting “Urban Crucifix”, made from the assembled remains of pistols and rifles, is part of the Scott Center collection.

Outside of the collection, several sculptures by Scott can be found in prominent locations around the city:

His rippling, sparkling “Ocean Song” overlooks the Mississippi River in Woldenberg Park.

“Spirit House”, produced in collaboration with artist Martin Payton, is a mint-colored abstraction perforated with human figures. It is located near the intersection of boulevard Gentilly and boulevard DeSaix.

The silver “Spirit Gates” are a permanent exterior feature of the New Orleans Museum of Art, where Scott was celebrated with a retrospective exhibition in 2005.

In addition to his three-dimensional works, Scott also produced woodcuts; some were too big for a printing press, so he ran an asphalt roller over them to transfer the ink to the paper. Many of his prints, including huge portraits of Louis Armstrong and the carved wooden blocks Scott used to produce some of them, are on display at the Scott Center.

Scott has always been a very practical artist. Over time, however, the smoke, sparks, and paint fumes that were integral to his artistic creation began to harm his health. After being evacuated to Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Scott was hospitalized with pulmonary fibrosis.

When asked if he intended to return to New Orleans despite the flood damage to his home and studio, Scott expressed his fondness for his hometown one last time.

“It’s the only house I know of,” he said. “I want my bones buried there. I belong there. I need New Orleans more than New Orleans needs me.

Despite two lung transplant attempts in Houston, Scott died in 2007. His ashes were returned to New Orleans, a friend said.

The director of the new John Scott Center, Asante Salaam, is a visual artist and an alumnus of Scott. She previously worked for the New Orleans Mayor’s Office of Cultural Economics, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, the Louisiana State Museum, and other institutions.

While leading a preview tour of the new space last week, Salaam commented on her former teacher’s lingering aura.

“Everyone who knew him or knew him lights up inside,” she said.

Some of Scott’s work criticizes the racist society he endured. Its aluminum construction titled “I Remember Birmingham” is a fiery tangle of dark silhouettes inspired by the bombing of the Baptist Church on 16th Street by white supremacists in this Alabama city in 1963.

“As a black man, a native of New Orleans, of the 9th Ward, he went through phases of history and conflict,” Salaam said.

But the social critique embodied in his work is often complex and subtle. And appearance is always triumphant.

“I call him a worthy troublemaker,” Salaam said.

Salaam said she hopes the new John Scott Center, with its meeting hall, reading room and art exhibit, will be a welcoming hub for arts and cultural activities and a catalyst for social change.

“He was an example,” Salaam said, “a dedicated practitioner, educator, dedicated to passing all of this on.”

The Helis Foundation John Scott Center is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 6 p.m. Regular admission is $7; children under 12 are admitted free.

A free grand opening celebration, featuring live music, snowballing and art activities, is scheduled for September 10 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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