A few months ago, I was surrounded by extraordinary Black women at the Upstream Gallery in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. The women were dressed in vibrant colors and patterns, be-jeweled, hatted, and adorned with flowers and more flowers. Although residing on canvases and created from oil paint, pen-and-ink drawings, art papers, lace, jewelry, and other materials, the women jumped out of their frames, eager to tell their stories.
After the other guests had finished sipping wine and greeting and congratulating, I chatted one-on-one with Madge Scott, 68, the proudly self-taught artist. She looked happy, exhausted, and resplendently bejeweled herself. And willing to pose for me and announce that more than half of the 42 exhibited works had sold.
I pull [these women] up in my photographic memory. They cook. They clean. They iron. They take care of children. They suffer. I dress them up to make them feel better. Some of them have died without seeing a beautiful day.
Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting with Madge Scott again, this time in her studio at 145 Palisade Street in Dobbs Ferry, NY, the village just north of Hastings and about 40 minutes north of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal.
“Who are these women,” I asked.
“Some of them are real,” Scott said. “Some of them are village women from the Jamaica of my childhood. I pull them up in my photographic memory. They cook. They clean. They iron. They take care of children. They suffer. I dress them up to make them feel better. Some of them have died without seeing a beautiful day.”
This is not easy work, but it’s fulfilling.
Some of Scott’s works are made on canvas, others on wood, but exactly how?
“The dresses come from my imagination,” she explained. “I use decorated papers from the art supply store, tapestry papers. I build the surface up with other papers, like tissue paper, to add layers. I make some of the jewelry with gold leaf and get some of it at thrift stores. Some jewelry is my own or was my mother’s. And some people give jewelry to me so I can use it in my work. I drill holes in the wood to insert the jewelry. I sew on the lace. This is not easy work, but it’s fulfilling. I’m doing it mostly by faith. I cannot give up!”
“Every painting has a story. The Blue Lady is every struggling Black woman,” she said. “The Rose picture is ‘Know Our Worth.’”
“Do you only paint women?” I asked.
“No, I’ve painted Bob Marley and President Obama. But I don’t paint many men. Why? Paintings of men don’t sell.”
“The lady in green with the glasses,” she pointed out, “is me. That’s my self-portrait. I painted myself as a schoolteacher, a church lady.” Is Madge Scott a church lady herself? “No, I don’t go to church very often. I’m very spiritual, and the women spend too much time in church admiring each other’s dresses and hats and letting noisy children run around. They need to discipline those children.”
Madge Scott has the right to say that because she is highly disciplined. She emigrated from Jamaica, West Indies, in 1989, at age 34. “Yes, I’m self-taught,” she said. “I began painting 23 years ago when we lived in Brooklyn, and my son went missing. I picked up an old paint set of my daughter’s and started messing around just to get my mind off how worried I was. As Scott’s official bio reads, “She didn’t dream of the outcome; she only wanted to engage her mind.” By the time she found her son—working on the computer at a friend’s house—she’d decided to continue with her new-found avocation. Her profession was nursing, but she spent much of her time drawing, eventually experimenting with paint, color, and materials. In 2002, she moved to Hastings, where neighbors encouraged her to exhibit. At her first show at a local gallery, 19 of 31 pieces sold in two days. Since then, she has exhibited in Africa—through the U.S. State Department Art in Embassies program— and in various universities, consulates, municipalities, and libraries. Her accolades include The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award and a Westchester County Board of Legislature Proclamation.
I’m having the time of my life in this room.
“I paint every day,” she said. “I paint at home. I paint everywhere. I paint right here. Yes, even in this cluttered studio. I move everything out of the way. I’m having the time of my life in this room. I post my pictures and motivational writing on Facebook almost every day. I’ve been in this building for 15 years and watched it turn from a warehouse to this. A lot of artists have left.”
She was one of the first artist tenants at 145 Palisade Street, a building with a storied history. It was built in 1853 as a brewery and rebuilt in the 1920s with high ceilings and heavy floors to support the large presses needed to print Bibles and educational materials for Methodist churches. During and after WWII, it was a manufacturing plant for electronic products for the war effort and Columbia University’s undersea sonic detection labs. After falling into disrepair, the building was carved into basic artists’ studios with minimal amenities. Today, after a longtime-coming renovation and rebranding as Hudson River Landing, it advertises itself as “the coolest creative space in Westchester County.”
Madge Scott is nothing if not cool. And she’s here to stay. An icon to the other painters, architects, printmakers, photographers, therapists, textile artists, musicians, and hair stylists who rent spaces in the building, Scott’s made herself a lounge outside her studio with pillowed easy chairs for herself and visitors. “Madge is inspiring,” said Lea Carmichael, whose studio is down the hall. “She puts her all into her work and infuses it with her bountiful spirit.”
If you’d like to visit, too, you’re in luck. Madge Scott will be in residence during the RiverArts Studio Tour, a free event on Saturday and Sunday, November 4 and 5. But don’t just stop at her studio. You’ve got to meet the other RiverArts artists at 145 Palisade Street and along the route — posted online and on printed maps—from Hastings through Sleepy Hollow.
Photos taken the by the author.