On September 2, 2020, artist Isaac Scott attended Dayton Director Ian Berry’s Art History course “The Artist Interview” via Zoom. This interview was part of a series of interviews with artists conducted by Berry for the online exhibition Pandemic and Protest.
While documenting protests in Philadelphia, organized by Black Lives Matter and other groups in the summer of 2020 following George Floyd’s murder, you created an important archive to share information and stay connected during that fraught time. Seeing your images online was a bolt of energy and a somber acknowledgement of the intensity and urgency of that historic moment. Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Quincy, Illinois, which is at the westernmost tip of Illinois, right on the Mississippi. It’s very segregated, mostly white and conservative. My parents separated when I was twelve and I went to live in Madison, Wisconsin, which is a very liberal place and was definitely a culture shock. I feel like I actually grew up in Madison.
I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and shortly after graduating, I moved to Seattle. Mostly, I just wanted to get out of Wisconsin and get out of the cold. I did whatever I could to stay in the studio and make ceramics while I was out in Seattle. Then, I was invited to apply to grad school at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, a part of Temple University, by one of the professors there, Roberto Lugo.
Could you say a little bit more about the environment you grew up in, and how art entered your life?
There aren’t any artists on the white side or the Black side of my family. That wasn’t a life path that was available to me. When I got to Madison, I was exposed to more types of people: more open minded, friendlier, less racist. I took a pottery class in my junior year of high school, which was the beginning of my wanting to make art and be creative.
Were there artists or teachers that were influential to you?
I had a really good and important teacher in high school named Phil Lyons. In college, I actually studied philosophy, so I didn’t go to school for art at all. I made all my ceramics outside of school and figured things out on my own. I never really trusted art school and I’m still kind of skeptical of it.
You started taking photographs after COVID-19 closed everything down. What was that moment like for you as a grad student at Tyler?
It really sucked because I had a show coming up at NCECA (National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts) that was supposed to take place in Richmond, Virginia. Richmond has a street called Monument Avenue that is home to giant Confederate monuments, some of which are being taken down right now. I wanted to make a show that was in response to the racial climate and everything that’s happening. I wanted to respond to those monuments, so I curated a show that included me and other artists of color from around the country. We all wanted to make large-scale ceramic works that spoke to our own personal experiences with monuments.
I made a twelve-foot ceramic sculpture that replicates a statue that is on top of the Capitol building in Wisconsin, where I’m from. Showing it at the conference was going to be a huge statement. Then, I got the news that the conference was canceled, and a few days later, school was shut down, too. I went from preparing for a big show to not even having a studio and just being at home. I was taking my first photography class at the time, so I turned to that as my creative outlet when I was stuck at home.
What prompted you to go out and photograph around Philadelphia?
Philadelphia is a rough-looking but beautiful place. There are all these brick reds and rust reds and browns that make it an interesting landscape. I was going on long walks, taking pictures of stuff that I thought was interesting. I started posting on Instagram as a place to document and show my work.
Then, George Floyd was murdered, and protests started breaking out all over the country. The following Saturday, May 30, I went to the first protest in Philadelphia and I brought my camera. It was like nothing I had experienced before. I had been to plenty of protests, but you could tell from what was happening that day and what was happening around the country that this was not a typical protest. It was not going to stop that day. So, I kept going to protests and kept bringing my camera.
When did it become a project?
I knew it had to be documented. I knew it was important that I take pictures of what was happening. History was happening. This is history. I didn’t really think it through beyond that.