In 2005, Hurricane Katrina washed out a piece of history by the late John T. Scott, arenowned artist and educator at Xavier University. Almost 10 years later, Scott’s iconic collagraph, “Separate but Equal,” which depicts a barefoot young black girl seated on a wooden bench, has been restored and will be unveiled at the end of February.
Ron Bechet and Dr. Sarah Clunis in the Department of Art, and Daniele Gair, registrar of Xavier’s art collection, said the print is historically significant for several reasons. The image captures Scott’s perception of Ruby Bridges, who was the first black child to integrate a white New Orleans school in November 1960. Gair said the title, “Separate but Equal,” refers to the Jim Crow era when blacks and whites were educated separately under the guise that they were receiving an equal education, which was false.
The print is one of a handful of Scott’s series of collagraph she completed at Xavier in the 1970s. A collagraph is a combination of different artistic mediums to create a texturized print, using pastel and ink.Gair said the print shows “Scott’s magnificent attention to detail.”Referring to the girl’s image, Gair said the areas that are in black shadows—her head, right arm and right leg—contrast with Scott’s usage of white on her face, dress, and left arm and leg. The red background, she said, is highly symbolic usage of color.
“To me, red symbolizes blood, violence, strife, but at the same time sacrifice to make something better happen—sacrifice for me,” Gair said.
Clunis, director of African American and Diaspora Studies and assistant professor in Art History, believes the image reflects “power and solidarity.”
“It’s a powerful piece. His [Scott] choice to depict her sitting alone was a message of strength in solidarity, ” Clunis said. The “courage of a child” or the courage of Ruby Bridges, illustrates the power of solidarity she has, and how “each person can make a difference.”
The man behind the art
Scott graduated from Xavier in 1968 with an art degree. After earning his master’s degree at Michigan State, Scott returned to Xavier where he taught in the art department for 40 years, Bechet said. Bechet refers to the artist and sculptor as his mentor.
“He was a hard worker” and someone who didn’t accept excuses, Bechet explained about his mentor. “He often described ‘art’ as a four-letter word, w-o-r-k.”
Bechet said Scott was an artist, sculptor and printmaker, whose work was often inspired by what was going on around him. Many of the famous artist’s pieces are located on campus: collagraphs of Marcus Garvey and Jonah and the whale are on display in the Art Village; other prints are hanging in the administration building on the second floor; and his sculptures include the large metal piece in the Quad and a gleaming metal sphere in the Art Village garden.
When Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, Scott and his family relocated to Houston, Texas, Bechet said. Scott lost his art studio and much of his work. He died Sept.1, 2007, after a long battle with pulmonary fibrosis and two double-lung transplants, Bechet added.
The print, “Separate but Equal,” numbered 4 out of 10, had been donated to Xavier by Father Moses Anderson prior to Katrina. Gair said it was located on the sixth floor of the Library Resource Center, where it had sustained extensive water damage.
“We couldn’t leave it there, getting worse,” Gair explained. Once funds became available, the decision was made to restore the print. The restoration was completed over two weekends in January 2015, she said.
The university hired Bridget Broadley, a paper conservationist in New Orleans, to restore the print. Broadley said damage to the print was significant: there was mold, dirt, rust from metal drying racks, and extensive water discoloration.
Broadley explained the restoration process as a series of steps.
- Surface Cleaning – Cleaning the actual surface of the piece to remove any external residue and dirt.
- Removal of mold and residue– The mold and insect residue that are built up are removed.
- Washing the piece – Water removes dirt and aids in stain reduction, but it can also wash out acidic traces and other degradation products that have built up in the paper.
- Inpainting – Reapplication of watercolor, acrylic, or pastel to fill areas of surface losses such as scratches, bruises, and rusts.
- Housing- After its treatment, the piece is stored in a safe enclosure. Xavier is having the print framed to complete this step.
Broadley used the word “inspirational” to describe her experience with restoring the print at the Art Village. She felt in sync with the “masterpiece.”
“I felt as if I was at home and the piece was at home, too,” she shared. At the end of the process she felt inspired and honored to be able to restore one of Scott’s pieces with such historical ties to Xavier.
Bechet said they hope to have a final location for the print and an installation ceremony by the end of February, which is Black History Month.
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