Melissa Sweet is the best-selling author/artist behind more than 100 books for kids, including two Caldecott Honor Books and the recent “Unbound: The Life + Art of Judith Scott.”
Judith Scott (1943-2005) was born with Down syndrome in addition to being deaf and largely nonverbal. She was institutionalized for decades starting at a very young age, but later became an internationally recognized fiber artist. Sweet co-wrote “Unbound” with Scott’s twin sister, Joyce Scott, and Brie Spangler. We caught up with Sweet at her home in Maine to ask about her connection to the late Judith Scott.
Q. You’ve described yourself as a “conduit” to the lives of people you’ve written about. How did you learn about Judith Scott?
A. A friend of mine who shares a passion for Outsider Artists told me about Judith Scott. I hadn’t seen her work in person, but I was intrigued by her materials and her cocoon–like shapes, and curious to learn how she began making art. Interpreting her work for a book was a welcome challenge since I knew it would require making some of my art akin to how she worked.
Q. The book is told in the first person by Judith Scott’s twin sister, Joyce Scott. How was that creative decision made?
A. Joyce Scott wrote “Entwined: Sisters and Secrets in the Silent World of Artist Judith Scott,” a detailed autobiography of her life with her sister. The book has many intimate moments and recollections that we felt younger readers would find honest and true.
Q. I understand that you’ve visited the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, Calif, where Scott created the elaborate fiber sculptures that brought her fame.
A. When I entered Creative Growth for the first time it felt as if my whole world had been rearranged. It was inspiring and profoundly moving. It’s a large space filled to the brim with art and materials and students working, a maker’s heaven. Is this what it looks like when people create art for the joy of making? Creative Growth’s mission says it best: Provide a safe and functional space for artists with disabilities, collaborate with local communities, and hopefully, along the way, contribute to a better world for everyone.
Q. Can you single out one particularly surprising and inspirational thing you learned about Scott?
A. When Joyce arranged for her sister to come to California to live with her family, Judith arrived at the airport gate with an armful of magazines and … a bowling ball. What was it about the bowling ball that inspired her? The heft, the color, the beauty of a perfect orb? Something about this being precious to her makes me love Judith Scott even more. I like knowing there are no answers.
Betsy Groban is a columnist for “Publishers Weekly” Children’s Bookshelf and has worked in book publishing, public broadcasting, and arts advocacy.