A Place for Creative Growth

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Dawn Starin
Every surface in the Creative Growth Art Center studio is covered with art work.

The late Judith Scott was born with Down syndrome, went deaf as a child, and never learned how to speak. For over three decades she languished in a Dickensian institution until her twin sister, Joyce, enrolled her in the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California where she eventually created extraordinary and idiosyncratic fragile sculptures. With tenacious intensity, working five days a week for eighteen years, Judith produced over 200 cocoon-like sculptures at the center.1

Now, with her recent private show at the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art, rave reviews being published in the international press, and her creations finding homes in worldwide collections, Judith Scott has truly come into her own.2

Tom di Maria, former Assistant Director of the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum and Creative Growth’s director since 2000, recognizes that “when you ask someone to participate in society, to tell you their story, to express themselves, and like Judith, they had been silenced or have not been asked to do this before, the results can be astonishing.”3

For just over 40 years the non-profit organization Creative Growth Art Center has provided developmentally, emotionally, mentally and/or physically disabled artists with a professional studio and gallery exhibition space, expert representation to an international artistic community, and a social environment amongst peers.4 Today the center is ‘home’ to over 160 adult artists engaged in a variety of inspired and imaginative artistic mediums: ceramics, collages, drawing, dressmaking, fiber arts, painting, photography, printmaking, rug making, tapestry, video animation, and woodworking.

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Dawn Starin
Judith Scott invented her own art form, spending years weaving, sewing, knotting, and twisting colorful and compelling fiber art.

Ranging in age from 22 to 89 years old, many of the artists have previously lived in isolation or been institutionalized, while others live independently or have spent their entire lives with their families. Among them, a variety of cultures, backgrounds, experiences, abilities, and disabilities are represented and many languages are spoken—though some do not speak or are unable to use language. To be eligible to participate, an individual must live in the Bay Area of California, be at least 22 years old with a disability, and have an interest in art.

Over the years, Creative Growth Art Center has grown into a studio program that is now open five full days per week from 9:30 am to 3.30 pm, staffed by five administrative staff and 23 instructors, all professional artists, and 40 volunteers and interns. Outside this weekly adult program, a Saturday morning two-month summer program is also run for disabled, artistic high school students where they receive individual attention and have the thrill of seeing their artwork exhibited and sold in the gallery.

Since its inception, Creative Growth has played a major role in increasing the public’s interest in the artistic capabilities and achievements of people with disabilities. As a testament to its success and the various artists’ immense talents, some of the artworks sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Work fostered in this unique environment has been included in international collections and prominent museums, and three of their artists have had their work acquired by the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Its international presence is further enhanced by a showroom in the 10th arrondissement of Paris.

It is easy to see why. Opening the door of the center, there is an immediate explosion of creativity, inventiveness, and joy as one walks through the gallery—thought to be the largest and the oldest exhibition space dedicated to the art of people with disabilities. The colorful, cubist clay masks, whistles, and paintings by Cedric Johnson, the sophisticated, compelling black and white drawings crammed full of rows of haunting figures by Donald Mitchell, the quirky, fun-filled paintings and ceramics by Terri Bowden, the forceful and yet totally enigmatic cocoon-like sculptures of Judith Scott, and more, so, so much more—all of it the result of astonishing creativity, talent, encouragement, and inspiration—fills the gallery. Something about these pieces of art makes it almost impossible not to stop and look and stand in awe. I can understand why so many contemporary, international artists are inspired by the talent displayed on the walls, the floors, and the plinths.

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Dawn Starin
This colorful, cubist clay mask was created by Cedric Johnson.

Walking from the gallery into the studio, the exuberance of total concentrated creativity explodes into the sun-filled room. At one table a number of artists are creating ‘avant-garde’ outfits. At another table three artists are working with ceramics. At a third table a number of artists are drawing. Individuals who would normally have no access to complete self-expression and total creativity have been given an oasis where they can learn and express themselves, and they can do this as part of a community.

The original impetus behind Creative Growth came from the artist/educator Florence Ludins-Katz and her clinical psychologist husband Elias Katz over 40 years ago, when they invited a group of adults with disabilities into their home to create artwork. Eventually they obtained a National Endowment for the Arts grant and opened the Creative Growth Art Center (formerly Creative Growth) as a part-time program with six students. What started out as a simple home-grown idea in a California Bay Area garage has now become an internationally renowned art program housed in a former car showroom in midtown Oakland.

It is clear that the artists are having fun. It is also clear, however, that artistic endeavors are taken seriously here. Artwork in almost every known medium decorates the walls and floors and hides in files, cardboard boxes, bins, cubby-holes and closets. Hundreds of items thoughtfully created and lovingly displayed or protected threaten to burst out of the room and take over the rather drab, grey Oakland Street.

All the artwork on display (and much of it not on display) is for sale, and each time something is sold, the artist receives half the money and the center keeps half. Everyone here—even if they don’t sell anything—gets a check every quarter from a communal pool made up of the items sold for less than 25 dollars.

Having worked with Barneys, Marc Jacobs, Nordstrom, and other well-known businesses, Creative Growth is not afraid of being seen as ‘commercial.’ In fact, they see it as a way for their artists to participate in society and change people’s perceptions about what disability is and is not and how disabled people can participate in society. Di Maria feels strongly that “our artists are earning an income from their work, not in institutions, not selling Christmas cards or pencils. It rocks my world.”

Forty years ago, when Florence Ludins-Katz and Elias Katz first envisioned that selling the artists’ work should play an important part in the life of the center, they probably did not anticipate that the works would be selling in world-famous art fairs and be included in major collections and museums around the globe.

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Dawn Starin
Cedric Johnson doesn’t just make ceramic whistles, he also plays them.

While this program provides the artists with an income, it also ensures that they receive recognition, encourages increased participation in a community, decreases social isolation, and supports a sense of self-worth and self-sufficiency. The members of this community of artists inspire, learn from, and support one another on their creative paths, and in the process, they grow both as artists and as people.

But the creative, caring, and professional accomplishments don’t end with providing a professional studio environment for artistic development, gallery exhibition, and representation. This center also serves as an advocate for the disabled while providing them with educational and independent-living training, counselling, and vocational opportunities within a comfortable and safe physical and social atmosphere. The Center also offers services to teachers, caregivers, families, therapists, and other persons who work in the fields of arts and disabilities. Creative Growth has played a significant role in increasing public interest in the artistic capabilities and achievements of people with disabilities while their public education efforts include the publication of award-winning monographs on outstanding individual artists with disabilities.

According to di Maria, “It is important not to romanticize the art or the artists. Obviously, disability is a very important part of who the artist is and where their art comes from, but the art is contemporary art and the artist is a contemporary artist.”

Steven Garen, an artist, has worked at Creative Growth for three years, first as a volunteer and now as a gallery assistant. Garen feels strongly that the center is a beneficial hub for both the clients and the artists who visit and volunteer at the center. “This is a special place where people’s personalities are allowed to flourish and they are able to express themselves in a way they cannot do in public. This is a home away from home for many of them. For them it is a safe and secure haven where they are free to be who they are, free to express their inner selves.”5 For me as an artist and the other artists who work or visit here, this place is inspirational. As Garen says, “every day I am inspired and amazed by the creativity that surrounds me.”

While the program is artist-run and artist-led, it does not teach, guide, or steer people in one direction or another. It does not offer therapy or instruction and it is not a drop-in center. According to di Maria, “We are not sophisticated and we do not demand or even expect certain models of success. We believe art is an essential part of the human experience, everyone has the ability to create art, and artistic expression is an important means of self-growth. We believe in our artists and because we believe, the artistic responses we get are astonishing.” Di Maria feels that the work created here is the “purest form of spontaneous expression by people who are creating a world, or environment, with their art; a world that they genuinely expect to live in or see around them.”

As I wander around the Center, it strikes me that I am not just visiting a gallery and a studio. I am visiting a community—a community where both creativity and creative camaraderie blossom. This is a community of friends and colleagues who are not just creating works of art, they are also socializing, learning, laughing, conversing and collaborating. And, this safe, simple, secure, and encouraging environment has made it possible for this community—this tight-knit creative group of individuals—to reach out to the larger community outside these glass plated windows and be accepted.

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Dawn Starin
Legally blind Terri Bowden at work in the studio. Terri’s artworks include whimsical drawings and ceramics.

In the outside world, serious participation in a community is often denied to the disabled. Creative Growth has given the artists a community of peers within which they create, and it has also allowed them to become part of a larger community—the community of contemporary artists. By presenting their work in significant museums and galleries, and by positioning their work alongside noted academically trained artists and designers, Creative Growth has shown that the work created by the disabled is something to be valued. And over time, the Creative Growth participants often see themselves as artists, and the artwork they created and the responses they received, including the purchase of a piece of their work, act as validations of themselves as skilled and competent individuals. After all, being seen as an artist carries a certain amount of cachet both for the artist and for the society at large. This means that the artist becomes a valued member of society and then society perceives disability in a new, valuable, and enlightened way. Quite simply, Creative Growth is helping to break down centuries-old barriers and prejudices about what it means to be
disabled.

For most individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the United States, true integration into the social and economic life of the community remains a dream, not a reality. Here at the Center, dreams are painted, drawn, sculpted, sewn, sawed, woven, and carved into reality.