MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
Joel Rose of member station WHYY spoke with Scott after Hurricane Katrina and has this remembrance.
JOEL ROSE: If you've been to New Orleans, you may have seen John Scott's work installed in parks around the city. Some of his kinetic sculptures are sleek and silver. Some vibrate with color and movement. Scott said the shifting combinations of spheres, triangles and other shapes in his work were inspired by the rhythms of African-American music and dance.
JOHN T: I wanted to have a connection with a continuum, if you will, from the traditions out of which African-American people came. So I decided years ago to start looking at the musicians the way it was more about a philosophy than it was about trying to interpret music. It was more about the improvisation or creativity of the music than trying to make visual music.
ROSE: But sometimes, the connection was literal. Scott made a series of sculptures based on the shape of the diddley bow, an African stringed instrument that slaves and ex-slaves played in America.
(SOUNDBITE OF DIDDLEY BOW PLAYING)
ROSE: John Scott was born on a farm in city's Gentilly neighborhood. He grew up in the Ninth Ward. He said his artistic training started at home.
SCOTT: The people in my family always made things. My mother did incredible things with her hands. All of us drew. I mean, it was just something we did. My mother, who had a third-grade education, was the one that said, you know, you can do what you want to do in life. And it was at that point that I decided I'm going to do this thing and ended up at Xavier University studying art and have never looked back.
ROSE: Scott left New Orleans for graduate school in the 1960s, but he came back to teach at Xavier.
SCOTT: I really feel the responsibility to the cultural tradition of New Orleans and passing that tradition on. If I don't accept that responsibility, who will?
ROSE: His friend, painter Ron Bechet is head of the Fine Art Department at Xavier.
RON BECHET: John always was able to distinguish the good stuff from the bad stuff. So if you were coming in without any kind of consideration for work, he didn't want you around. But if you were about working, that's when he really helped anyone who needed that kind of help.
ROSE: Duke University Professor Richard Powell curated a retrospective of Scott's work at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 2005.
RICHARD POWELL: He is a straight-ahead modernist. But I would also claim him for a certain extreme of American art that is very interested in culture, in particular, in African-American arts and letters.
ROSE: Scott fled to Houston before the storm. He suffered from pulmonary fibrosis, probably the result of decades spent working with toxic materials. He breathed with the help of an oxygen tank. Yet despite his failing health in late 2005, he talked about wanting to go back.
SCOTT: New Orleans is the only place I've been in the world - and I've traveled a little bit - where if you listen, sidewalks will speak to you. And I haven't found that anywhere else in the world. That rich cultural tradition is there. And I'm a part of that, you know? I was born there, I've lived there, and I plan on dying there one way or the other.
ROSE: For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.
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