A CONVERSATION with Joyce J. Scott begins with a reporter's rundown of the contradictions inherent in her work: Her quilts, jewelry, beaded figures and dolls on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art are almost too welcoming, too accessible, too friendly and folksy for their often disturbing subject matter, which creeps up on you in a manner that might well be described as subversive.
"I think you may have just described my personality," jokes Scott, a large, warm and voluble woman who laughs as easily at herself as she does at her interviewer, whose clunky shoes, jug ears and atrocious penmanship are in short order made fodder for her sharp and improvisatory humor.
It's a humor that leavens her art's potentially heavy political message about what she calls the "isms of life"--racism, sexism, sizeism, ageism--that will "ride you like a pony" if you're not careful. "My personality," says Scott, "unfairly misleads some people to believe that I want to bludgeon you with my work, but that is not the case. Like advertising or prostitution, you've got to get folks' attention first. You've got to get them in the door."
That personality, gregarious, blunt and in-your-face, is not just on display in the artist's graphic and sculptural work, but in her live performance as well, as evidenced by the excerpt from her 1993 "Generic Interference, Genetic Engineering" playing in a continual videotape loop in the gallery. She promises that that same manic, burlesque energy will inform "Virtual Reality," a new performance piece based on "our love affair with the Internet" that Scott will debut at the museum in March.
Scott's philosophies of guerrilla theater and visual art parallel her ideas about teaching, formed during her days as an art education student at the Maryland Institute, College of Art in the late '60s. Nowadays she says she conducts only the sporadic "shotgun" workshop or two ("I come in, do my thing, get out and hopefully leave some students bloodied") but her work is still very much about education--or in some cases reeducation.
"We all are cameras born with a lot of film," says Scott, referring to our natural instincts to form judgments about others, "but somebody has to teach us how to focus it."
"I know how this sounds," she adds, quickly catching herself getting too touchy-feely. "If everyone lit one little candle . . . " Scott's singsong voice trails off in laughter. A minute and several free associations later she's riffing on an idea for a new performance, as she imagines what a cigarette-smoking Lambchop really thought about puppeteer Shari Lewis. "I always hated that bitch," she says, opening and closing her hand in evocation of the not-so-cuddly children's TV character.
Exactly how, you may be wondering, does the wacky extrovert accommodate what she calls her "flip side," the "meditative, solitary, focused" self she must call upon to string all those hundreds of thousands of beads?
"Believe it or not," she smiles, "they cohabit peacefully inside me. Them and about 30 other people."
CAPTION: Scott's artwork mirrors her personality: gregarious and blunt--and a bit subversive.