“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
~ Abraham Lincoln
“Life is full of mysteries but your identity should not be one of them.”
~ Awolumate Samuel
What is the role of art during times of great crisis? It’s a question writers, painters, filmmakers, dancers and musicians, even scientists, have grappled with throughout time.
On the first year anniversary of 9-11, as a city librarian in a town rich with brilliant and accomplished writers, I posed the question, “Can Stories Heal?” to a panel of prominent authors and poets I had gathered together to speak to the relevance of poetry-making and fiction-making during times of national tragedy. It was a question, as the mic was passed around, each talented writer confessed to be struggling with. The work that had filled them before with so much dedication now felt insufficient to speak to the trauma their country was suffering.
Yet at the end of those two-and-a-half hours of passionate discussion and readings, this gathered community of writers and readers arrived at a clear and resounding consensus: Art matters.
From periods of societal upheaval to political persecution and imprisonment, from personal battles with cancer, mental illness, and addiction to the tragic lost of a loved one, art has served as both lightning rod and salve. Art gives language to emotions and experiences, both shared and personal, which often cannot be expressed any other way. Art challenges the unexamined, inspires an opening of the mind and thoughtful dialog, and creates space for quiet reflection.
Today, when America is in the midst of an identity crisis as destructive as it is ripe for rebirth, one might argue that we need artists more than ever who inspire us to live up to the ideals we as citizens may espouse but as a country have far from realized: Ideals like those addressed by Richard T. Scott in such works as New Amsterdam and Hearts of Men, which challenge the notion of the United States as a multiracial democracy. When in fact, as Scott suggests, this safe haven for immigrants has relied upon the exploitation of forced labor, a practice which spans from slavery days to our current for-profit prison system.
In her book, The Healing Wisdom of Africa, Malidoma Patrice Some writes, “Indigenous people believe that without artists, the tribal psyche would wither to death. Artistic ability, the capacity to heal, and the vision to see into the Other World are seen as connected. There is only a thin line between the artist and the healer. In fact, there is no word for art in the Dagara language. The closest term to it would be the same word as sacred.”
Now then, with Richard T. Scott as your guide, your journey into the sacred…
INTERVIEW WITH CLASSICAL REALIST, RICHARD T. SCOTT
Hudson Valley, New York ~
Deanna Phoenix Selene: In your recent work, New Amsterdam, you address this country’s reliance upon systems that enslave the most vulnerable among us, for the benefit of many. Taking on subjects that make the viewer uncomfortable is not an unfamiliar terrain for you. I’m thinking, for instance, of Hearts of Men, and Hermetica, neither of which are compositions any but the most courageous would rush to hang above their hearth at home. What do you see as the role of art in our contemporary world? Has it changed over the years? Do you feel the role of the artist has become more or less crucial to the health of modern society?
Richard T. Scott: Yes, my ideas about the role of art has changed substantially over the years. I used to attempt to define it in broad, grandiose strokes, but I’m coming to realize that though it may play some universal purposes for humanity, one of the reasons it continues to be so necessary is that these purposes are also maleable and individual. It can play a role in society at large, and/or it can be intimate and explore more nuanced meaning for its maker, and for a small, specific audience.
Richard T. Scott: The practice of art-making in itself, regardless of the result or even whether anyone sees it, is more important than ever. Like yoga or Tai-chi, I see it as a healing spiritual practice. Like alchemy, it not only distills its foundational elements into something new and pure, it transforms ourselves through the act of creation. In our ever-accelerating lives, inundated by distractions and pressures existing in an increasingly abstracted and digital world, the mere act of slowing down, observing and connecting with reality is in itself revolutionary.
We as individuals and as a society need to practice the conscious habitation of our bodies, to quiet and focus our minds, to nourish our souls…to daydream, to experience the vibrance that is the eternal present moment. This is imperative for our happiness, our sanity, and it is crucial for our survival as a species.
Richard T. Scott: The purpose of my art is twofold: first it is a practice through which I seek understanding about something, whether it be a social issue, our history (and therefore our present and future) or something personal. Secondly, it should distill the complexity of what I’ve learned into a symbolic singularity that communicates these revelations intuitively to the viewer… like the tight bud of a flower that will slowly bloom to greater meaning as the spectator meditates with the painting. It should have emotional resonance, and it should seduce the viewer into seeing and understanding a new perspective. At its best, art is about broadening the mind and reconnecting it with the body and the spirit. Art is a wonderfully enjoyable means of personal growth, and it can be that for society as well.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Is there any subject you personally would never address?
Richard T. Scott: No, but the way I address the subject is very important, and something I think about extensively. I have to understand both my responsibility and how my actions are perceived within the broader context of multiple competing and overlapping cultural perspectives. I have to consider if and how I can contribute something of meaning to the issue, and I have to be very conscious of the context in which I present the work and what audience I intend to address.
Richard T. Scott: All that said, I consider it more of a dialogue. Sometimes I advance the discussion and sometimes I don’t, so it’s imperative that I learn and my ideas evolve throughout the process. My ideas and beliefs are never static, never fixed. They either become more or less certain depending on new data and always more nuanced as I learn more. This is the only path to truth, not to begin with a belief and look for evidence to back it up, but to begin with all the evidence you can gather, approach it as objectively as possible, and come to a conclusion based upon that evidence. It’s also important to remember that we all think we do this, but we don’t always. It’s contrary to human nature.
None of us is actually objective, but through the practice of questioning our own assumptions, we become more so. If we accept and account for our limitations, we have the chance to address the deep issues facing us as a diverse culture, as a species, and individually as human beings.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: How important is it to you that the art you create, regardless of the subject matter, strive for beauty? What is your definition of beauty?
Richard T. Scott: It is absolutely essential that my work strives for beauty.
Beauty is a communion with the pulse of the universe. It connects you simultaneously with the magnificence of the tangible and with something undefinable and transcendent. What I hope my work achieves (and it rarely even approaches this) is to evoke for the viewer the same awe, the same transformation, the same presence of eternity I felt while creating it.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Of all of your artworks, is there one particular piece that has affected you the strongest? Maybe even continues to haunt you long after its completion?
Richard T. Scott: It would have to be my painting Man in Black. At first glance, you could say that I’ve created far more complex and challenging paintings, but I just can’t shake this one. It seems to distill the breadth and nuance of the current crisis of American identity into one monolithic symbol in a way that I didn’t foresee. It’s that harmony between my inner world at the time of painting it and the larger political landscape that transcends the self-portrait and becomes something archetypal.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What has been the greatest source of inspiration for you? Do the ideas for your compositions tend to come from personal experiences, issues that affect you directly? From your subconscious, such as from your dreams? Or simply from being, as many sensitives tend to be, tapped into the collective struggles of others and society as a whole?
Richard T. Scott: All of the above! Honestly, it’s hard for me to see the distinction between all of these sources. In a psychological sense, our minds are a complex interaction between the inner and outer worlds and it’s difficult to draw a clear line between the two. Our perception influences the way we see the world and the reality of the world influences our perception. That’s why the lens of identity is so crucial to understanding ourselves and others, and by extension, the socio-political landscape we find ourselves in.
With Hearts of Men, for example, the idea had been forming for nearly fifteen years. I witnessed a school shooting when I was eighteen, and observing how they occurred more and more frequently made me increasingly frustrated. When Sandy Hook happened, I was living about an hour away in Connecticut and something within me snapped. I had the overwhelming desire to do something, coupled with a profound feeling of helplessness. So, I began by researching the issue and quickly realized that it was much bigger than just the debate over gun regulations or mental health. It took me a year, going around in ever-widening circles before I started to make sense of it, and commonly my subconscious gets there before my cognitive mind does.
I had a dream one night that I was back in high school, witnessing the shooting. Everything was as vivid as it was the day I experienced it. But as the dream progressed, the school faded away and I found myself standing on a battlefield at dawn. All of my classmates were dressed in Civil War uniforms, firing across the field at each other, and I was caught in the crossfire. Upon waking, I realized that this issue goes all the way to the most profound trauma in the American psyche, to the festering wound that divides our nation in half right now. I saw the parallels between our current political divide and those during the Civil War.
Richard T. Scott: After a series of sketches, I realized I needed to get closer to understand it, so I enlisted as a Union soldier in a Civil War re-enactment in Richmond. Camping with the soldiers on the field, I woke one morning to find a battle already begun. The field was immersed in blue light. The silhouettes of soldiers appeared like ghosts wading through the cannon smoke and fog. Flashes of gunfire danced across the field like fireflies, and I realized that this haunting scene was exactly the scene from my dream. That’s where the painting began, and it took me three years to fully realize it.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Whom do you paint for? Does there tend to be a particular individual or audience you hold in your mind as you compose a piece? Or would you say you paint to please no one but yourself ~ to find answers to questions that nag at you personally?
Richard T. Scott: Sometimes I am painting for myself, sometimes for some ambiguous audience we call humanity, and sometimes for the souls of great artists who watch over my shoulder as I work. I always consider how the work will communicate with other people, but I never let that dictate the decisions I make.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Assuming we knew nothing else about you nor ever would, if you had to choose three works of yours that most intimately and accurately reflect who you are and what most deeply moves and matters to you, which pieces would you choose?
Richard T. Scott: That’s a hard question! I guess I would have to say Hearts of Men, New Amsterdam and Where Liberty Dwells. I choose them because I consider them the first of my mature work. My earlier work was primarily focused on myself, mostly autobiographical, but with this body of work, I began to move past the ego to address the outside world and the issues facing humanity and specifically the nation I call home.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: You’ve painted a number of self-portraits over the years. What personal revelations or deeper insight into your own psyche has come about through this process? Do you learn more about yourself this way or through painting portraits of others?
Richard T. Scott: Perhaps the most interesting insight I’ve found is that most of us define our identities through the life narrative we tell ourselves. We are composed of our experiences, the characters we play, and whether we tell ourselves the story of how our life is tragic or triumphant impacts how we see the present moment, and through exploring these many facets of identity I’ve been able to see myself more objectively and therefore, able to become a better person. Along these lines, a very insightful friend of mine suggested that we become ourselves precisely when we drop the narrative, when we give up trying to construct our identity.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Best advice for new artists who dream of perhaps one day matching your artistic achievements?
Richard T. Scott: Haha, I would hope that the next generation will supersede my artistic achievements! Perhaps one of the most important pieces of advice I can give is to go to museums and galleries every chance you get. Meet artists, make friends with them, learn from them.
The stereotype of the lone artist toiling away in the studio, isolated from the world is a myth. Creativity doesn’t come from a vacuum. You have to be engaged in an artistic community.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What are you working on currently? What new themes do you hope to explore in the future?
Richard T. Scott: I just finished a very involved piece, Where Liberty Dwells for an exhibition in Paris, May 24th at Galerie L’Oeil du Prince. Next I’m developing a new body of work for a show in Atlanta this January at Spalding Nix Fine Art. I’d like to continue with my political themes, but with more subtlety, and integrate an experimental technique and palette into my current process. More than that, I can’t say because I think people are going to be very surprised by the result!
Working between New York and Paris, Richard T Scott is known for his post-contemporary figurative paintings and his writing on aesthetic theory. His work has exhibited at Le Grand Palais in Paris, Palazzo Cini in Venice, Museu Europeu d’Art Modern in Barcelona, the Museum of New Art in Detroit, and is part of collections worldwide such as The New Britain Museum of American Art, the Georgia Museum of Art, MEAM, MACS, former British Arts Minister Alan Howarth of Newport, Prince Morad El Hattab, and Robert C. Kennedy PhD. Richard designs coins and medals for the United States Mint under the Artistic Infusion Program. Scott was honored as an Associate Living Master by the Art Renewal Center.
“Whether it is in his portraits, his compositions, or either still in his interiors, Richard T. Scott always tries to produce, on his spectators, a certain effect of strangeness, or at least, something like a feeling of longing. That’s why, maybe, his compositions are populated for the greater part with mirrors in which appear, not simply beings just like those who face us – but of real spectres having the function to destabilize our glance while giving the fourth dimension for us to see.” – by Frédéric Charles Baitinger, Critic, Artension
To view more of Richard T. Scott’s artwork, visit his website
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