Interview: Ian Charles Scott, the Scots artist in the Bronx

CLIMB up out of the Bronx subway station and walk along the area's main thoroughfare, the Grand Concourse, with Ian Charles Scott and you are greeted with cries of "Yo, man!" as the tall, stooping Scot is high-fived by everyone from the Ghanian belt seller on the corner to eager young Latinos and a grizzled Vietnam vet hawking badges.

"Don't stop," whispers Scott, "otherwise we'll be here all day."

In the urban jungle that is the Bronx – notorious for its brutal gangland culture and multi-ethnic ghettoes – Scott and I, with our white faces, are in the minority. But the balding, 41-year-old "Wicker man", as he describes himself (he was raised and educated in Wick), is very much at home here. So much so that he says: "I've created my own mini-society within this city, with an ethnically diverse group of people. These people are my life. It's me and them. All human life's here and we've made a world that's full of humility, free from judgment and evaluation."

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Here, in this infamously edgy atmosphere, the artist teaches "some desperate characters", ranging from streetwise Hispanic kids to African-American sixtysomethings with attitude and artistic ability. Which isn't as tough a call as you might think, since Scott used to teach art at Shotts prison, where his students were some of Scotland's most hardened criminals, including convicted murderers.

Nonetheless, Scott's Bronx world is so unique that it has brought him unexpected recognition and the honour of becoming the first Scot – indeed, the first Brit – to be nominated for the Mayor of New York City's Award for Arts and Culture. Previous winners of this prestigious medal – for which the judging process carries on into next month – include Woody Allen, composer Stephen Sondheim and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, as well as the actor James Earl Jones, playwright Tennessee Williams and the musician Winton Marsalis.

"The list of honorees is humbling – great artists such as Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg, and writers like Susan Sontag and Edward Albee," says Scott. He says he still can't believe that he's been nominated for his work as a professor of art at Hostos Community College of the City University of New York.

The college's president, Dolores Fernndez, put Scott's name forward, saying in her citation that the renowned artist has totally transformed the curriculum of the college's visual arts programme in the past half dozen years.

Meanwhile, Scott's own figurative, magical realist work is admired by rock stars such as David Bowie and Moby, as well as being collected by American investors including the billionaire Norman Dubrow, who once told Scott he'd buy his canvases as fast as he could paint them. Closer to home, retired Liberal Democrat politician Lord Maclennan collects Scott's work as well.

The Japanese also respond to his striking use of colour and strange symbolism – Japan even put one of his paintings on a phonecard in the late 1990s – while Wet Wet Wet used one of his paintings for the cover of their Julia Says single. This summer, a three-part exhibition of his work, closing at the end of this month, has been on show in Manhattan.

Fernndez says: "An artist of exceptional talent, an inspiring teacher and a loyal friend, Professor Scott shares my vision of Hostos as a college of excellence."

She explains that Hostos serves a dreadfully underprivileged community since this area of the South Bronx in deeply deprived. Yet, she points out, many of Scott's students have learned how to use painting as a means of personal expression to overcome difficulties and barriers in their personal lives and heal deep-seated psychological problems. When I visited the college with Scott I met a couple of his students who could not speak English but who had found a much more expressive language through painting.

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Several of his students have gone on to successful careers in the art world – one they grew up thinking was out of their reach. "Professor Scott has worked miracles in the South Bronx," adds Fernndez emotionally.

"It's absolutely astonishing to me, a lad from Wick, to have been nominated for the award. I feel so honoured," says Scott, who recently met New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, at a nominees' reception in Gracie Mansion, the mayor's official residence. "Bloomberg's a very nice guy," continues Scott, who says he had a long, enjoyable conversation with the mayor about his work in the Bronx. "I suggested that I might paint his official portrait and he was really interested, so talks are ongoing about that. I can't quite believe it; I keep pinching myself thinking it's all a dream."

Born in 1957, Scott's heart remains in the Highlands. His late father was an operator at Wick Radio Station. His mother, Marjorie, still lives in Wick and he visits her and old acquaintances regularly. It recharges his imagination, he says. At primary and secondary school in Caithness he won all the prizes for art – yet took Highers in physics and chemistry. "I'm a professor who hasn't even got an O grade in art," he says, with an ironic smile.

But he does have a first-class honours degree from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee, and talks with focused intensity about his "alternative community" in the Bronx, where he feels he's transplanted a little bit of radical Scotland. Here he's found untapped talents like those he discovered when teaching in Shotts prison. "There were gifted artists in there – the armed robber Tam Bagan, for instance.

"Sure, the Bronx is bleak. It's a tense place that brings out the worst in a lot of people. But I hope I'm bringing out the best in a small way. I hope that I've inspired my students as much as they've fired my imagination. I believe I've pushed down the barriers that make people feel isolated. I always begin by asking my students to paint self-portraits – I get them to laugh at themselves."

His "miniature society" makes the city of New York more comfortable for him – and for his students. "I've no time for barriers erected for reasons of race, class or creed. I needed a forum like this. It's what I always wanted to create in Scotland, where I've received many accolades from museums and galleries, but where no-one would ever have allowed me to set up anything like the community I've created here. To me, students are a blank canvas."

He copes with the Bronx, he believes, because he learnt survival skills at Shotts. "I remember once getting a prisoner to copy Tintoretto's Crucifixion. Later, I found out that was most appropriate – this guy had actually crucified somebody. I got on with all the guys in jail; I liked them a lot. Tam (Bagan] once said, 'Ah'm watchin' you; Ah'm learnin' a lot from you'. I took that as a compliment. So, yeah, I do think that doing time in a Scots prison, so to speak, has stood me in good stead. It taught me a lot about life – it's certainly helped me to live in this city since I moved here almost ten years ago."

Scott has lived in many places: Dundee, Sunderland, Dorset, London and Munich and his jobs have included gravedigging and working with the disabled. "But I think I always lived with a kind of hologram around me, which was based on American TV programmes like M*A*S*H, and a certain kind of anarchic wit. Then I got here and found the aloneness was more extreme than anything I'd suffered anywhere in Europe. The language may be the same, but I was very, very isolated and felt completely uncared for.

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"There's a strong Wicker inside me – I can't be false. I need to be true to myself, which is why I believe I found myself through teaching and lecturing. It's not my nature to sit silently painting all the time, although painting is my fuel, my power source. I also need to help people, to create a sort of disciplined free-for-all in the classroom.

"In a way, I've learnt that this city is terrific for somebody like me because I'm not a great conversationalist. I can do small talk with the likes of David Bowie at private views, but I prefer lecturing. I'm not one of those gung-ho artists with a bottle of booze in one hand and a brush in the other. Work by painters like that pollutes the mind. I'm searching for purity; I want to disappear into the landscape of my work."

That landscape always references his native Scotland, although before we enter his large, airy studios at Hostos, two spaces that reverberate with energy and creativity, Scott warns me not to expect anything "pretty-pretty". Some of the work is awful, some powerful, some troubling. "I want to shine a luminous torch into that darkness," says Scott, indicating one young man's disturbing self-portrait.

In 1992, Scott won Scotland's most coveted art prize, the Alastair Salvesen Art Award, established by the philanthropic businessman who has since commissioned Scott to paint him and his wife at their palatial Pathhead home. Scott spent his 8,000 prize money on a working trip to the States, which he'd wanted to visit since winning a worldwide Walt Disney art competition at the age of six.

The reward for his youthful endeavours was a trip to America for the family, but they couldn't go because his younger brother David had just been born. (David, incidentally, is now a filmmaker, whose acclaimed work Beyond the Highlands chronicled his attempts to come to terms with drug addiction. Scott has shown the film to his students in the Bronx, and many told him movingly how much they identified with his brother's struggles.)

"Mum and dad took Premium Bonds instead. Then we won within a couple of weeks so I got a trip to Edinburgh and we bought a new carpet, but winning the Salvesen prize left me intoxicated with the States. I'm a Highlander, therefore I'm perceived as a strange species on Scotland's arty scene anyway.

"I told Mayor Bloomberg that New York and Wick are the only places where I've ever felt I can be myself. But, hey, I'm not some goody-goody white guy coming into the Bronx being all arty and British. These folk are outsiders and I'll always be an outsider too."