Creative Growth Art Center is a studio for artists with disabilities, supporting a multitude of world-renowned artists and bolstering burgeoning talents since its inception in 1974. Working in the Oakland-based studio for ten years as a volunteer, instructor, and now Studio Manager, I’ve found that while there is a hard-won, public image of Creative Growth as a leader in the field of arts and disabilities, to me the crux of Creative Growth lies in its social community. Many of the origin stories and tales of growth and explosive personal achievement have been celebrated in the art world and in mainstream culture at large (see the coverage of Creative Growth on CNN’s Great Big Story, in the New York Times, and in season 9 of Art21 on PBS). The social dynamics, most notably between folks who self identify as professional artists—their identities fostered in our communal studio space over decades—and folks fresh out of the public education system or new to making art professionally, is astronomically beautiful, powerful, and political.
John Martin, an artist who started in 1987 and is prolific in almost every medium represented in the studio, predominantly works in the Ceramics and Wood Working departments. He holds court like a Don with his newspaper and coffee, shooting out one-liners and engaging visitors, staff and fellow artists as they go about the studio. His confidence, irreverence, and irascible sense of humor paired with his pension for making comically large knives and tools imbued with elements of hogs and alligators has made him an icon in the studio and paternal figure to many younger artists.
Artist Ray Vickers can often be found working beside John. The two were fast friends. Coming to Creative Growth from a scholastic, result-oriented background, Ray felt creatively stifled. John, having attended Creative Growth for over 25 years at that time, became the example of what it looks like to be a self-identified artist. Early on, Ray was astonished and amused to see how John’s brash jokes ingratiated him to his peers rather than being a source of trouble or conflict. The two formed a magnetic bond and spend many lunches and breaks riffing off each other, tackling their favorite subjects of race-relations, coffee and money in ways that are superficially hilarious and deeply cutting. These dialogues are evident in both artist’s bodies of work. Ray has come into his own artistically in a short time, developing an oeuvre of comic-inspired works of psychedelia and black humor.
Every artist works on their own respective projects in a variety of media in the studio, but the true magic occurs when these individual projects and ideas interlock. The common ground for most artists here is a shared experience of an inequitable amount of hardship and tragedy during some point in their lives. When joined together in shared space and by a mutually fundamental desire to create artwork, it almost invariably fosters a heightened social awareness and sense of empathy. Having the freedom to discuss these issues openly with peers while simultaneously engaging creatively can result in both emotional and artistic catharsis. These breakthroughs can be shared and built upon immediately with friends and studiomates. An equally sensitive and empathetic staff continues to foster this environment.
Since starting here in 2007, I have learned from the artists how to say at least a few words in ASL, Spanish, Mandarin, Dari and several languages that only exist in the studio. Monica Valentine, an artist who makes vibrant, beaded sculptures among other art forms, has cultivated a slang vocabulary comprised almost entirely of complements derived from tactile words. Words like “itchy,” “scratchy” and “feelable” are tossed at unsuspecting artists, volunteers and visitors who offer Monica a kind word about her amazing sculptures or monochromatic fashion sense. As the rapport builds and excitement increases, you become “itchaloo,” “itchaly” or “triple scratchy.” The delight her affection affords is infectious.
To the uninitiated, the bonds between staff and artists are difficult to describe, but the timeworn concept of teacher and student is heartily disposed of. During countless hours spent together and because of the magnitude of socioemotional and creative issues we tackle together daily, our bond is an intense amalgam of friend, family, coworker and artistic collaborator. We listen to music together, talk about relationships, make jokes, cook and eat together, grieve together, learn together, and teach together.
For patrons of the arts, Creative Growth can be an oasis in a desert of conceptual intent, economics, and general divisiveness. We are able to operate outside of these constraints through both individual vision on the side of our artists and unfaltering support on the side of the Creative Growth staff. Studio staff spurn the title of “teacher” in this context, which implies a greater degree of knowledge or understanding. Artists here develop their own knowledge base and vision; the staff works to bolster their voice, reinforce self-esteem, and provide access to materials and techniques, all tailored to the individual artist.
Relaxing at the end of the day, waiting for the buses and rides to arrive, I love to sit with artist Tony Pedemonte and “cool our heels”. Local bus services are often late, steadily eroding everyone's patience. Many who don’t know Tony well assume he is nonverbal and uninterested in his surroundings or peers. However, at this golden hour of tiredness, satisfaction and anxiety about bus arrival, Tony is often waxing poetic about the “sloppy, shitty food” he is going to have for dinner (he is actually a great cook and general bon vivant). He gets everyone in earshot rolling and to their surprise, often waves excitedly and says goodbye to each person by name as they leave. His humor and generosity subvert the often callous, societal indignity that waiting-for-the-buses serves to remind us of each day.
All of these manifestations are in direct contrast to the sometimes lauded or fetishized idea of the solitary "outsider artist" or the naive "savant", lacking any artistic context. While not all the artists at Creative Growth engage socially, it's evident that everyone shares the ideals of support, equality, and ingenuity. After more than ten years here, I still find myself regularly spending time in a quiet spot with a good vantage point, silently watching the spectacle of our social creative process—one that is as politically relevant, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally nurturing as any artistic movement before or since, and one that I am exceedingly proud to be a part of.
Matt Dostal started at Creative Growth as a volunteer over ten years ago and never left. In his spare time he likes to pet one of his five cats, makes hand-carved wooden utensils, and is a retrogrouch bike nerd.