Have you ever noticed that no matter how much we talk about the importance of diversity, we still judge rather than embrace the differences in others? Maybe it is out of fear or a sense of superiority. I’m not sure of the answer. But when we see the disability first instead of the person, the world becomes a more colorless place for everyone.
Unbound: The Life + Art of Judith Scott (Alfred A. Knopf 2021), written by Joyce Scott with Brie Spangler and Melissa Sweet and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, shares the true story of Judith Scott. Judith was born in 1943 with Down Syndrome, and her story is told by her twin sister, Joyce Scott. Back then, institutionalization was recommended for anyone with a disability, and so Judith and Joyce’s parents sent Judith, age seven, to an institution where she stayed for 35 years. It’s heartbreaking to imagine Judith’s life in an institution or Joyce’s sadness at being separated from her twin sister.
Fortunately, this is a story of sister love and the unstoppable bond between twins. Joyce never gave up on her sister, and in 1985, she became Judith’s legal guardian and moved Judith to California to live with her family.
In 1987, Judith began going to the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California, which has been offering art programs for adults with disabilities since 1974. It took a while for Judith to find the right medium. But when a visiting artist introduced Judith to natural materials like twigs and yarn, she spent the next 18 years, five days a week, “creating fantastic, cocoon-like shapes filled with color. She wraps her head in beautiful hats, scarves, and ribbons, becoming her own work of art.” Through art (and love), Judith found her happiness and shared it with the world.
The beautiful illustrations for this picture book were created with watercolor, colored pencils, and mixed media, and Melissa Sweet (a Caldecott Honor Winner) even incorporated art by students from the Creative Growth Art Center into some of the collages. If you spend any time looking at images of Judith’s work, it’s easy to see the inspiration behind these illustrations. Judith (and Joyce’s love for her) shine through.
Without overwhelming the reader, this book also provides a lot of educational material. It includes a short explanation of Down Syndrome and lists sources and organizations for more information. The book also provides a timeline of Judith’s life, which includes the enactment of significant laws impacting the rights of people with disabilities, giving perspective to the events of Judith’s life.
Of note, the first exhibition of Judith’s work was in 1999, coinciding with the release of John M. MacGregor’s book Metamorphosis: The Fiber Art of Judith Scott. And Judith was the first artist with Down Syndrome to be featured in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Judith became an internationally recognized fiber artist, and her work has been shown and collected by museums around the world.
This picture book is especially close to my heart. My niece, Annie, was born with Down Syndrome in 1990, the year the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law. While on paper, the law provided protection of Annie’s rights, Annie’s parents, along with a team of professionals, family, and friends, still had to be constant advocates.
When enrolling Annie in a reading program, her parents were told that it was a waste of time because Annie would never learn to read. But Annie loved books and needed the key to reading for herself. Like Joyce said about Judith, they didn’t know Annie like we did. And of course, Annie learned to read, and she treasured books for the rest of her life. Annie always blossomed when given the chance.
Unbound reminds readers that everyone has something special to offer – they just need the opportunity. If we could all remember to see the person, not the disability, who knows what wonderful and amazing art could fill our world.