African Descendants in New Orleans: A Visual History
John T. Scott and Martin Payton, Spirit House, 2002.
Photos: Mora J. Beauchamp-Byrd
John T. Scott and Martin Payton's Spirit House is a massive public art sculpture located at DeSaix Circle in the Gentilly area of New Orleans. A striking, monumental aluminum structure reaching a height of nineteen feet, Spirit House evokes both a soaring cathedral and the vernacular, everyday quality of the shotgun house. Commissioned by the Percent for Art Program of the City of New Orleans, Spirit House is a complex series of silhouetted forms in a style that is highly reminiscent of Haitian metal cut-out sculpture. These silhouetted figures represent an encyclopedic catalogue of iconographic references: a Chi Wara antelope head of the Bamana of Mali, a symbol of the sankofa bird with its head craned backwards, a symbol for the Akan of Ghana that represents a reverence for history, and the shotgun house with its Afro-Caribbean roots and historical relevance in the city of New Orleans.
Also included are silhouettes of jazz musicians, ancient Egyptian pictorial symbols, church choirs, poetic inscriptions, masquerading figures, animal forms, and an industrious series of laborers at work: carpenters, ironworkers, bricklayers and others. In an April 2002 article in the New Orleans-based Times-Picayune, Scott is quoted as stating that the work's silhouetted forms relate the narrative of the "unnamed, unknown, African American bricklayers, iron workers, fruit vendors, domestics and teachers who built this city."
John T. Scott (1940–2007) was born in New Orleans in 1940 and earned a B.A. from Xavier University in 1962. He received an M.F.A. from Michigan State University in 1965, and served as a Professor of Fine Art at Xavier for forty years. He is best known for vibrantly colored, multi-layered prints and fluid kinetic sculptures fashioned from industrial metal rods, whisper-thin wires and a complex system of weights and counter-weights. Scott's work ranges from sophisticated, eloquent kinetic sculptures influenced by the African diddley-bow to delicate line drawings of unparalleled draftsmanship. Diversity is perhaps the defining characteristic of his work. In 1992, he received a prestigious John D. McArthur Fellowship, commonly called the MacArthur "Genius" Grant.
Martin Payton is widely recognized for sculptures that have been informed by traditional West African sculpture and dance, African-derived belief systems, ancient Egyptian and Abstract Expressionist art, and the kinetic sculptures of Alexander Calder, George Rickey and John T. Scott. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, Mr. Payton received a B.F.A. from Xavier University in 1973 and an M.F.A. from Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1975. In 1990, he began teaching at the Art Department at Southern University, where he later served as Associate Professor, then Chair. In 2009, he had a 2009 solo exhibition at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art called New Orleans Masters: Martin Payton. He is also included in Sculpture for New Orleans: Poydras Corridor, an exhibition of public art organized by Sculpture for New Orleans and The Ogden Museum of Southern Art.