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Judith Scott, Expert Fibre Artist, Demonstrating and Challenging Ideas About Expertise

June 8, 2013

I recently wrote the following for a writing course I am just finishing. I wanted to share it because I want to share Judith Scott’s art.

Judith Scott (1943 – 2005) was an American Fibre Artist whose artwork I discovered and fell in love with while researching art created by disabled artists. (I use the term “disabled artists” rather than “artists with disabilities” in deference to disability activists and disability studies scholars. They state that disability occurs when societies exclude the very idea of people with impairments while creating physical and social environments and that living with impairment is part of being human.) I chose to research disabled artists because the disabled community in general, and disabled artists in particular, have much to offer the discussion about expertise; with their life experiences, they bring a very different perspective to the conversation. Scott’s art (and her life) make concrete some ideas about the development of expertise and greatness. Scott and her fibre art also challenge some popular ideas about who becomes great and how they do it.
Judith Scott created three-dimensional fibre and mixed media sculptures (Fraser, 2010) in a wide range of sizes. Scott wrapped yarn and fabric scraps around a variety of objects using many different wrapping techniques. Her work has been exhibited throughout America, in Europe and in Asia. Her pieces are in the permanent collections of galleries all over the world, for example the Musee D’Art Brut in Switzerland, the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, and the Museum of American Folk Art in New York. Some of Scott’s art has sold for thousands of dollars indicating, in our money oriented culture, that the art is very good. Scott’s work is emotional and expressive (American Folk Art Museum, n.d.). Her work reminds many of cocoons (MacGregor, 1999 as cited in Fraser, 2010) though Smith (2002) offers an alternative interpretation. Smith states that Scott’s sculptures could be interpreted as objects turned inside out. The juxtaposition of both possible explanations demonstrates the complexity as well as the emotional intensity of Scott’s art. Looking at Scott’s artwork fills me with awe, desire, and hope. Her sculptures teach me priceless information about myself.
I would like to share some personal information about Scott because I believe that one can not separate a person’s experience from their art (Fraser, 2010). Judith Scott and her twin sister, Joyce, were born in Ohio in 1945. Judith was born with Down Syndrome; Joyce was not. Scarlet Fever during infancy left Judith deaf and non-verbal; unfortunately the deafness was not diagnosed until she was much older. The signs and symptoms of Down Syndrome include intellectual disability. However, Judith’s intellectual disability seemed more severe than it was due to her undiagnosed deafness. Scott’s parents followed medical advice and admitted her to an institution for children with intellectual disabilities. Scott lived in institutions until her twin sister Joyce became Judith’s guardian thirty five years later. Joyce arranged to have Judith participate in arts programs at The Creative Growth Centre in Oakland, California. This centre provides a professional art studio, materials, and assistance/instruction (by artists) for disabled adults. During a workshop with a visiting fibre artist, Judith began creating her distinctive art and continued to do so for approximately twenty years.
Coyle (2009) and Colvin (2006) are popular writers who emphasize the importance of deliberate or deep practice to the development of expertise. Deliberate or deep practice occurs when one works at the edge of their ability, deliberately reaching for the next level (Coyle, 2009). I was struck by the phrase “perform repeatedly” when reviewing online dictionary definitions of practice (versus deliberate or deep practice). Judith Scott wound yarn so many times that her fingers were often covered with bandages (Smith, 2001); she performed art making repeatedly. She created her art on a daily basis for hours each day. In this way, she demonstrated some of the features that Coyle (2009) and Colvin (2006) assert are required for the development of expertise. I will argue later in this piece that Scott did not necessarily practice in the deliberate way described by Coyle (2009) and Colvin (2006).
Judith Scott was a great artist, in part, because she was moved to work for long periods of time creating unique, appealing, touching art. Yes, she practised but I am not convinced that she practised in a deliberate or deep way; she did not necessarily practice to become an expert (Peer 2, 2013). Maybe she did. However, it is equally possible that she practised in the same way I (a new, amateur painter) practise art; doing some of the same things over and over again while frequently adding something new or different to the piece of art. Perhaps she played until it felt done rather than worked until she thought she had reached the targeted end point. Playing allows for the possibility of discovery. Having an end point in mind may actually prevent discoveries of something new and completely different – something innovative. Practising deliberately can stifle honesty. Hernandez (2013) states that disabled artists express clearly and honestly everything inside themselves; they create art naturally, spontaneously and freely. I believe that this is true for Scott and is one of the reasons she was a great artist. Although Scott was very protective of her artwork while she was creating it, she appeared to be almost indifferent towards it once completed. I believe this demonstrates that focusing on the process rather than the goal can also lead to expertise and greatness.
Being great in art and in many other endeavours requires creativity and playfulness. Judith Scott was an artist who created beautiful, innovative, and emotional art. She practised art making for many hours over many years. Our limited ability to understand Scott leaves us only able to speculate as to what she was thinking while she was creating. As an occupational therapist who has interacted with people with intellectual disabilities for many years and as a new artist who has interacted with artists for fewer years, I suspect Scott was not practising deliberately while she was making art. I surmise that she was creating art from a place outside of purposeful thinking (Tolle, 1999). Practising an activity for many years is usually required in order to be great (Colvin, 2006) but it is often not enough without creativity and innovation, playing and discovery.

American Folk Art Museum (n.d.). Untitled (Pink Standing Figure and White Nest). Judith Scott.
Retrieved from May 22, 2013.
Colvin, G. (2006). What it takes to be great. Fortune Magazine. Retrieved April 18, 2013 from
Coyle, D. (2009). The sweet spot. In D. Coyle’s The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t born. It’s
grown. Here’s How. pp. 11-29. New York: Bantam.
Fraser, B. (2010). The work of (creating) art: Judith Scott’s fiber art, Lola Barrera and Inaki Penafiel’s
Que tienes debajo del sombrero? (2006) and the challenge faced by people with developmental
disabilities. Cultural Studies, 24(4).508-532.
Hernandez, O. L. (2013). Retrieved May 24, 2013 from
Peer 2 (2013). Peer assessments. Project 3 Draft: Case Study. Retrieved May 20, 2013 from
Smith, R. (2002). Art in Review: Judith Scott – Cocoon. The New York Times. Retrieved May 22, 2013
Tolle, E. (1999). The Power of Now: A Guide To Spiritual Enlightenment. Novato, CA: New World
Library & Vancouver, B.C., Canada: Namaste Publishing

See also to learn more about Judith Scott’s art and life.

Please share if you know of disabled artists that I and other readers would like to know about.

Thank you.


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