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The genius of Joyce Scott

Joyce Scott, a Baltimore artist, is one of the 2016 MacArthur Fellows. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)

We're a long way from the culture wars of the 1990s, when radically new strategies and styles of artmaking bumped up uncomfortably against long-established notions of who artists are and what art is. Baltimore-born sculptor, quilter and performance artist Joyce Scott was in the thick of those fights from the beginning, and her contributions helped redefine art and artmaking in America as vastly more inclusive and socially aware enterprises than ever before.

That's why we were gratified by the announcement last week that Ms. Scott has been named one of the 2016 MacArthur Fellows, a recipient of the so-called "genius grant" that carries an unrestricted stipend of $625,000 over five years. The award is given annually to exceptionally talented individuals in a wide range of fields, and it is a fitting recognition of Ms. Scott's 30-year career creating an impressive body of visually stunning, exquisitely crafted artworks that by turns challenge, inspire, educate and enlighten all who experience them.

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Ms. Scott, 67, was born African-American and female into a world in which neither African-Americans nor women were considered important actors in the history of American visual arts. In the late 1940s art was still almost exclusively a white male preserve, and the whole canon of Western art, from Giotto to Jackson Pollock, seemed to confirm that narrow focus. It was not until the 1970s that the feminist movement began to kick in the doors of the mainstream museum world and demand that women artists be admitted. Decades more would pass before African-American artists, both women and men, achieved a similar breakthrough.

During all that time Ms. Scott labored in the trenches of the new cultural moment of radical protest and identity politics that made black women artists' unique gender and racial experience in this country central to the meaning of their art. Over that time she has regularly exhibited in galleries and museums across the country, and her works are avidly sought by collectors. Her art distills a painful history of marginalization and oppression into powerful social commentary, leavened by laughter and tears, that speaks directly to issues of racial injustice, gun violence, shattered families and broken communities that continue to torment us. She's been a prophetic voice not only for Baltimore but for a deeply divided nation still struggling to bind its wounds and live up to its highest ideals.

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Ms. Scott's achievements were recognized in her hometown in 2000, when the Baltimore Museum of Art mounted a major retrospective of her work, one of the first such exhibitions ever given to an African-American artist at that venerable institution. "Joyce Scott: Kickin' It With the Old Masters" reflected the artist's famously outspoken, irreverent and intensely personal take on a society where racial, gender and class stereotypes constantly threaten to dehumanize the individual whose only resort may lie in what the poet Langston Hughes once called "laughing to keep from crying." There's plenty of humor to go along with the anger and outrage in Ms. Scott's oeuvre of intricately beaded textile works and extravagant blown glass sculptures, all of which attest to the human spirit's stubborn refusal to give in to despair.

The coming year will see major exhibitions of Ms. Scott's work in New Jersey and in Tulsa, Okla., where she will collaborate with the textile artist Sonya Clark in a city recently wracked by protests over the killing of an African-American motorist by police. She said she initially agreed to do the show there because of its history as part of the Trail of Tears followed by Native American tribes after they were forced to give up their lands east of the Mississippi River under President Andrew Jackson's Indian removal policy in 1839. Now her prophetic vision may well be engaged by more recent injustices there as well. She's been a seminal figure on the Baltimore art scene, as well as nationally and internationally, and we are pleased to take the occasion of her being named a MacArthur Fellow to applaud her life's work.

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