Previously, my research into knitting as art led me to Angus McPhee who gathered fleece from barbed wire to spin into yarn and knit into odd garments. He also used a technique of plaiting seagrass to knot into giant garments that he left in nature as a kind of offering. McPhee was diagnosed with schizophrenia after World War I and spent many years in an institution where he never spoke a word. His only form of expression was his craft. In his old age, McPhee’s work was discovered by a woman who was interested in the genre known as art brut or outsider art. The term art brut is French and was coined by the artist Jean Dubuffet to denote artwork created by people outside the mainstream art world, such as children or the mentally ill. These artists have no formal training and do not create work to be recognised professionally but as a form of self-expression with no audience in mind.
I recently came across another art brut artist, Judith Scott, whose work I find incredibly powerful. Scott was born deaf and with Down Syndrome. Considered impossible to educate, Scott was confined to a mental institution for many years. In the 1980s, she was moved to a group home in California, where the staff encouraged her to work creatively in a fibre art class. Shunning traditional crafts such as rug hooking and embroidery, Scott instead began to collect materials and wrapped them in yarn. Constantly hoarding objects to add to her collection, Scott began to create totemic sculptures that resembled distorted human figures or cocoons. These robust sculptures contained every found object under the sun from sticks to wheels, cardboard, fabric strips and electric fans. All concealed beneath thick layers of yarn. People have a natural urge to touch Scott’s sculptures, and the artist herself is pictured embracing one of her cocoon-like works in a photograph by Leon A Borenzstein.
I find that the power of Judith Scott’s sculptures lies in the dichotomy between their naivety and their deviousness. Scott made the works spontaneously and intuitively, but she was calculating when it came to collecting materials. She knew what she wanted and often stole objects and hoarded her collections in a bag that wouldn’t leave her side. The mystery of what lies beneath the surface of these sculptures is mesmerising, too. An archaeologist’s dream, a transformation waiting to unfold.