Art as Brain Surgery

Art as Brain Surgery

Don’t undervalue what you do, says badass Joyce J. Scott.
Joyce J Scott With Louise David

Joyce J. Scott, right, sits with Louise David, a descendant of Harriet Tubman, at the October opening of “Joyce J. Scott: Harriet Tubman and Other Truths” at Grounds for Sculpture in New Jersey.

Zach Teris,

I got the news that I’d won the MacArthur Fellowship when I was suffering from acute sciatica, so the only place I could actually sleep was at my desk. The phone rang; they said they were the MacArthur people. I didn’t believe it. I said, “Prove it.” I’d just won another wonderful, local award, and I thought it was my friends calling, just giving me a hard time. But it wasn’t.

It has been an enormous honor, but it was also daunting. For one thing, I’ve lived in the same neighborhood for years, and it’s a challenged neighborhood. I thought, “Am I going to have to move?” (I didn’t.)

I also wondered if it would change people’s expectations. It’s an international award, so that ups the ante. But luckily, I’ve always been a hard worker – like James Brown, only in the art world.

It hasn’t changed my work, though, because I’m badass, and I always have been. I never needed money to make good art before. But it will help my career trajectory. It validates what I’ve been doing. You have to be nominated and vetted, and sometimes it takes years. So to get it, and to know they’ve invested that much money in you, that’s a big deal; that’s a big celebration.

Of course, it’s allowed me to do things I might not have been able to do. Even though I have been an entrepreneur since I was 16, selling my little hippie bracelets, that doesn’t mean I can’t use this kind of financial help to keep me working. And it’s allowed me to support some community projects – ones I know of firsthand, in my city, that I know will work. (I always keep it on a very specific scale, though, because I don’t want 80 people calling me, asking me if I’ll buy them coconuts and Brazilian waxes.)

It allows me to be an art godmother. I can take some young artists to dinner, the way people always included me when I was young and didn’t have money.

This is also retirement money. It’s important to realize that even though you may not have a 401(k) or a regular salary and direct deposit, you are working a “real job” – for yourself. It truly is an honest day’s work. I didn’t get it by going to Las Vegas and hitting the slots. I got it by making the artwork, and that is definitely akin to those folks who were picking cotton or anything else.

The same applies to my fellow MacArthur recipients – scientists and doctors and writers; the great thing about the MacArthur is that it doesn’t elevate any one sector or pursuit over another. In fact, I never felt that making art was better, or worse, than everything else. It’s important, especially, for young artists, to realize this and to know their value. I’ve heard artists say, “Yeah, but I’m not doing brain surgery.” I say, “Yeah, you are. If you’re an artist, that’s exactly what you’re doing. It takes all of these things to make life real.”

There’s no “advice” you can follow to be awarded a MacArthur, of course. I just always did what’s always worked for me as an artist, which is to stay the course and be the best – creating a road while I was walking on it. Because why else am I alive? This is the only life I know I’m going to have as a human. If there is reincarnation, I’ll probably come back as a toenail or snot or something. So this time, I have to live and work as a human. I’m off to do my best, I’m off to create artwork that makes a difference for everyone. That’s why I encourage artists, no matter what’s thrown in their way, to just keep making art, even if it’s on the weekend, and to be as inventive as you can be.

This is it, y’all; this is the real thing. To know that your life and your career as an artist is the real thing – there’s nothing better.

“Joyce J. Scott: Harriet Tubman and Other Truths” runs through April 1 at Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton, New Jersey.